Parting thoughts from a former Publisher
I’ve been at The Tartan for five years, during which I've been a Staffwriter, Online Editor, and Publisher. I'm the last remaining staff member who remembers the organization before the pandemic. I thought long and hard about what I wanted my last piece, my swan song, to be about. Should I write all the things I wish I'd known when I first came into Carnegie Mellon? Or should I write about my journey at The Tartan? It’s difficult to condense five years of memories, thoughts and emotions for this piece.
I went to an all-staff meeting with my friend on day one of freshman year, despite having no prior intention to do so. I wasn’t sure that my thoughts were all that special, much less something anybody would want to read. What I saw that day was a group of young people, many non-STEM majors, sincerely dedicated to their craft and enthusiastic about highlighting issues on campus that probably wouldn’t have otherwise entered public conversation. I enjoyed the camaraderie, but more the sense of working for a large purpose. My friend didn't join, but I did.
The first pieces I wrote were not my best. I was green, my writing amateurish, unformed and hopeless without editorial intervention — or so it seems in retrospect. If there is one thing that anyone needs to know about the Tartan staff, it’s that even in a school full of chronic over-workers, the editors here are some of the hardest working people you will ever meet. I still remember the Forum editor Madeline Kim going over my hastily submitted draft and trying to get it to follow The Tartan’s style and working on the layout, the copy editor Wilson Ekern poring over printouts, the Editor-in-Chief Valene Mezmin handing out awards to staff writers for each week’s issues. Production Sundays were 12-15 hour long marathons, and it was a rare Sunday when an Editor-in-Chief left the office before midnight. That is still somewhat the case to this day.
I loved being in The Tartan — I knew the happenings on campus, the administrative hoopla, the weird (for the lack of a better word) political matters in student government, among other assorted gossip. Even more, I enjoyed writing about it. Practice may not have made my writing perfect, but it did make it eminently readable (to my standards at least.) The messages of encouragement I received every Monday when a new issue carrying my piece came out were the most incredible salve to my sense of self-worth that was being bruised in my CS/ECE classes. Not everybody agreed, however. One of my first news pieces was about students’ reactions to a formerly-prominent administrator's departure from a Trump-era governmental department and subsequent return to their position in CMU. It received much blowback from the subject of the piece who angrily called up my then-Editor and in so many words characterized my work as garbage. Perhaps it’s a sign of how young and naïve I was that it came as a rude shock and I didn't — couldn’t — write anything meaningful for the rest of the semester. I still stand by my reporting, and am very grateful to my Editor Adam Tunnard who did his best in shielding me from the brunt of the subject’s disapproval. Sometimes I want to go back and give my sophomore year-self a hug. I don’t know if that would have helped and prevented the subsequent burnout that followed.
By the time the pandemic hit, I was the Online Editor, handling all the social media handles by myself, writing captions, creating graphics, scheduling posts. We went remote in March 2020, opened a new Substack newsletter, and moved all of our publishing online — that meant it all depended on me to publish our work to social media. Our follower count increased rapidly and engagement was at an all-time high. We also decided to publish through the summer. Working for The Tartan during the pandemic was a strange and isolating experience — everything was on Zoom and I felt detached from the campus community. In the few weeks of the spring 2020 semester before we went online, I had cajoled a bunch of staff members into making a TikTok video. Going back to see the video now, I feel a tinge of regret for all the lost time we could have spent together. In the meanwhile, the burnout had turned into a flameout — I only wrote one piece in all of 2020.
When we returned to print publishing in Fall 2021, I was the new Publisher. I still hadn’t written a piece in a year, and I certainly did not know how to solicit advertisers. It was completely new territory — learning to make a budget for the organization, sticking to that budget, earning revenue. Almost all of the editorial team had graduated by then leaving me, then Editor-in-Chief Frank Hu, and the former Publisher Sujay Utkarsh as the only ones who knew what The Tartan in print was like. The loss of institutional knowledge was a looming prospect, as Frank and I were both Seniors and Sujay was a Master’s student by then. Thankfully, the influx of new students, including the now Editor-in-Chief Cole Skuse, who were enthusiastic about student journalism, saved the organization. The scrappy determination with which The Tartan newsroom is run is truly a thing to behold.
Every year, the Tartan recruits young, bright-eyed students, at least half of whom end up leaving due to burnout. Until last year, the editors at The Tartan worked upwards of 12 hours a week for no pay. Any staff writer submitting a piece works for about 3-6 hours at a minimum — for no pay. Our budget, as allocated by the JFC, ended up with a reduced honorarium amount than the one we asked for. So since last year, we began padding the insultingly small amount awarded to us with the leftover revenue we earn from advertisements to give a small monetary award to our editors. Journalism is a thankless job even on a student level — I suppose if it was not, its true purpose would be defeated. But the realization that editors and creatives are underpaid on all levels of a public duty as crucial as journalism is disillusioning. My sincere hope is that future Publishers will find better ways to monetarily compensate the staff for their work.
Throughout this time, I struggled with burnout, writing far fewer pieces than I would have liked to. I wrote some pieces that I am proud of now, and was able to deal with pushback much more effectively than I could as a hapless sophomore. But I was still attending fewer productions and struggling in classes. The isolation during the pandemic and multiple subsequent illnesses made the burnout worse. My grades on SIO now show all kinds of letters. I wish I had known how to pace myself and seek help when I needed it. I wish I had known how and where to seek help from. I wish CaPS had been able to help me all the times I had called them in 2020 (they apparently couldn’t because I was out-of-state). Starting therapy, support from friends and family, and learning to create a semblance of work-life balance helped with healing from the burnout. Despite the regrets, I am not ashamed of this period of my life; I learned the important lesson of advocating for myself. If there is one piece of advice I will give — as much as I assiduously avoided doing so throughout this piece — it's that you have to learn to advocate for yourself. You cannot rely on a figure of authority to bat for you or come to your aid. You have to learn to ask and push for your needs from the institution.
Far too many times I have seen young, bright and ambitious students struggle with their mental health or other challenges, who do not know how to access resources that can and should help them. Far too many times, overburdened academic advisors do not provide the support that students need. Ultimately, there is no student at Carnegie Mellon who is not intelligent, who does not have the capacity for innovation or causing social change, who does not have the potential to change the world we live in for the better.
While I hold a cherished place in my heart for my time at The Tartan, I am also aware of how the pace and structure of its operations contribute to the systemic issue that is Carnegie Mellon's over-work culture. It’s a tragedy that so many who walk into our office with enthusiasm end up having to leave the organization at some point in the semester due to exhaustion. Across the campus community, there is much work to be done to address the issue of paying better wages to workers. I leave the Tartan, and Carnegie Mellon, with a mix of bittersweet emotions — a complex interplay of regret, nostalgia, longing, and hope. The dominant emotion being hope — for myself and the future that lies ahead for me, and for all the brilliant, wonderful people I am leaving behind here. I will have left the institution, but the steps to progress will not stop.