For me, spending the last two months of senior year at home, as classes and final papers have continued remotely, has meant returning to the routines of high school and winter breaks, when old rituals resurface and life assumes a comforting familiarity.
One of these is reading the Raleigh News & Observer every morning. My family has subscribed to the print edition for as long as I can remember — and even in a pandemic, the paper continues to come to our doorstep, well before the house is awake. No breakfast feels complete without it. Whether today’s news is interesting, or whether I even finish a full article (I rarely do), is less important than the fact the paper is there, that my eyes have something to scan over as I sip my first mug of coffee.
Over the years I’ve watched the size of the paper dwindle in real time. I’m old enough to remember when the recap of a Duke basketball game that started at 9 p.m. would make it to print by morning, accompanied by commentary. I would consume the coverage of each game from start to finish, even when I already knew the final result, as I usually did. Now, it’s rare that an evening event makes it to print, no matter the time. The N&O remains a beloved local institution and a valuable source of reporting, but the shrinking of its daily print edition has been something of a bellwether, to me, for the media industry at large.
No one, journalists least of all, will deny that journalism has been in uncertain territory for some time, especially when it comes to local and independent media. The idea that “print is dying” — or worse, already dead — is by now conventional wisdom. The challenge for everyone, The Chronicle included, is simply how to go on without it. When I began as a Recess staff writer in my first year at Duke, we printed three times a week, already down from five. Now, that number is down to two, and it will likely go down further.
At the same time, though, there’s little to suggest that online media is any more stable. In just the last month, culture and politics outlet The Outline shut down, the company that owns Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter laid off dozens on its editorial staff, and media giant ViacomCBS began rounds of massive layoffs in an effort to cut costs. Not that it was much better before the global pandemic, either, when each month seemed to bring news of another beloved outlet shutting down, being acquired, or laying off its staff: among the recent casualties are Deadspin, The Village Voice and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. The reasons for this state of precarity are many, ranging from an advertising-based revenue model, to an industry increasingly reliant on a labor force of underpaid, underprotected freelancers, and to the growing, deleterious influence of hedge funds and private equity in media ownership. But the message, in all cases, is the same, and it is transmitted loud and clear: It’s a difficult time to work in media.
Why, then, would a student at Duke — a place where your eventual value as a productive member of the job market is supposed to be the driving force of your educational and extracurricular choices — choose to spend four years dedicating himself to a field whose prospects are seemingly so dim?
When I think back on my experience in Recess, however, first as a staff writer and then as various forms of editor, what immediately comes to my mind is not whether I’ve sufficiently marketed myself. Instead, I think of how writing and editing for The Chronicle — in so many ways the foundation of my college experience — has changed the way I think about everything else I do, whether it’s directly related to journalism or not.
I joined Recess, I will admit, mostly because it seemed like the best way to do what I saw people doing at The A.V. Club or Pitchfork. The nuts and bolts of reporting seemed useful, sure, but what I really wanted to write were album reviews, retrospectives, top-10 lists, roundtable commentary on niche pop culture. We do some of this, too (and I think we’re pretty good at it) — but as I leave Recess, this kind of coverage isn’t what I find most valuable in my experience. Pop culture will always be around for us to endlessly debate, analyze and compare. That won’t change after I graduate.
What I will miss, on the other hand, is being in one of the few spaces at this university that is turned outward, toward the community, that functions on the periphery between Duke and Durham. The “Duke bubble” is a concept that is the subject of much hand-wringing among students and concerned administrators (not least in the op-ed pages of this paper), but it points to a real problem that is often actively abetted by administration and the history of an elite university that is the largest landowner in the city.
My time at Duke has been defined by these “peripheral” spaces, where the insulation that surrounds undergraduates is temporarily broken and students share an even ground with Durham residents, local institutions, artists, workers, and grad students. Apart from the office in 301 Flowers, I spent most of my four years either at WXDU, the campus radio station where students work alongside community volunteers, or at Duke Coffeehouse, where locals and students alike are invited to share in challenging and experimental music and arts programming. Such spaces are increasingly rare on campus, where it is remarkably easy, and even encouraged, to live and study for four years without truly setting foot outside of Duke of your own accord. But those small windows into the community — which are often self-sustaining, driven by mutual, bottom-up enthusiasm and passion among their members, not by administrative directive or by the desire to pad a resume — deserve to be protected.
It was Recess that first pushed me in that direction, teaching me what art means to Durham, not just what the “arts” mean to Duke. (They usually mean a career.) The conversations and interviews I’ve conducted over four years and dozens of articles, I like to think, have made me a better member of the community. And, in turn, being a better member of the community — whether through booking concerts at Coffeehouse or through running a radio show at WXDU or simply through talking to others — has only made me a better writer, a more sensitive editor, of arts and culture.
In truth, as I look forward to what comes after graduation, I don’t fully know if a full-time career in journalism is in my future. I know that I will — that I have to — continue to write, in some form or another. But I was never doing it for a career to begin with. And, if anything, Recess has shown me just how much there is to be done beyond writing. At this point, I’m more interested in continuing to be part of a community like the one we have here, however that looks and wherever that may be.
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It may be an uncertain time for journalism right now, but on the other hand, it’s an uncertain time for just about everything. We may have sent our last issue of Recess to print earlier than expected, but at the end of this, it will return, only in someone else’s hands. The N&O is still arriving on our porch, The Chronicle goes on reporting, and I’m still writing a senior column. Print may be dying, but it isn’t dead. Yet.
Will Atkinson is a Trinity senior and the outgoing Recess managing editor. In addition to Jake, Bre, Likhitha, and all the mastheads he’s worked with, he would especially like to thank Nina Wilder, his co-editor, co-podcaster, and best friend for the last four years, who asked him to thank “thom yorke for getting him thru college with his mind-meltingly amazing music, and insult the beatels [sic] one last time. You guys suck and your haircuts are ugly.”