An investigation into Columbia Daily Spectator reveals no staff constitution or written HR policy
When the 143rd Managing Board of the Columbia Daily Spectator was announced in a post on their website on Dec. 8, one position was noticeably absent from the new board: sports editor. That is because there is not currently a sports editor at Spectator, nor is there much of a sports section staff.
The majority of the sports staff resigned following an unusually contentious process to select a new board which transpired in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Winter Break. The process, known as “turkeyshoots” within Spectator, is a rigorous, weeks-long gauntlet of interviews, written proposals, and shadowing of current members. It culminates in deliberation and selection by the outgoing managing board members who are not up for new positions.
This year, the turkeyshoots process was mired in concerns of misconduct against a staffer, and by concerns that the 142nd Corporate Board mishandled investigating those allegations. The Blue and White was unable to independently confirm the exact nature of allegations of misconduct by any members of Spectator, other than to confirm that potential misconduct was brought to the attention of members of the 142nd Corporate Board during their tenure.
The fallout from the entire process for Spectator, though, has been palpable.
On Dec. 3, then-Editor-in-Chief Jessica Spitz, CC ’19, sent an email to the entire Spectator staff, which outlined a policy for reporting misconduct to the board. In her email, which has been obtained by The Blue and White, Spitz says, “Spec has a clear procedure for handling allegations of misconduct by people on our staff, and CB [corporate board] has adhered to this procedure in the past year.”
She then goes on to explain the “clear procedure,” saying, “Any reports of misconduct can be made directly to a member of CB (editor-in-chief, managing editor, and publisher). While Spectator is not an adjudicating body, CB takes any allegation seriously and, if we are notified of misconduct, our policy is to immediately speak to all parties involved and determine the best way forward on a case-by-case basis.”
Spitz says that staffers can also report misconduct to the staff director, or directly to Spectator’s Board of Trustees. The email does not outline the policy any further, including what the “case-by-case basis” might look like in practice.
Additionally, she says in the email that the 142nd Board has received inquiries into reporting allegations of misconduct against alumni who are no longer on staff.
“While the process for addressing these allegations is different if the person is no longer at Spec, we strongly encourage anyone who wants to come forward with these concerns, as alumni do tend to have an ongoing involvement with the organization,” Spitz says.
She does not explain how the two processes differ for reporting and investigating misconduct allegations against current staffers versus former staffers.
When asked about any investigations that occurred during her tenure as editor-in-chief, she said, “We have adhered 100 percent to the policy and I’m very confident that we adhered to it correctly.”
The problem, though, is that many members of the staff have said they were completely unaware of this policy until Spitz’s email was sent. Upper-level staffers on managing board may have known to report any concerns to the corporate board members, but entry level staffers did not.
One staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to still being a member of the staff, when asked if they were aware of the reporting process prior to receiving Spitz’s email said, “Not in the slightest.” Asked if the information sent out in the email was included in staff orientation, this staffer said, “No. Training was limited to writing pretty much.”
The sentiment that Spitz’s email was the first time hearing about the existence of such policies was shared by other current and former staffers contacted by The Blue and White. Another current staffer said, “I think my larger concern, and the concern of many other members of leadership, was that there was no policy.”
A former staffer confirmed that they were not aware of even any sort of stopgap policy in place for reporting concerns of misconduct to the board, prior to the Dec. 3 email.
When asked if the policy had been disseminated to staff prior to Dec. 3, Spitz said, “Not in a written form.”
When asked to clarify how the staff was previously made aware of the policy if it was not communicated in a “written form,” Spitz said, “While the corporate board’s procedure was explained to anyone who asked, we decided to email the entire staff in December to clarify our procedure. The corporate board also met with each section of Spectator’s staff separately in small groups to answer any questions about the procedure.”
Following the email, on Dec. 7, members of Spectator’s staff presented the turkeyshoots board with a letter signed by 19 staffers, all of whom were in positions that were deputy level and above. Some of the signatories were actively running for positions at the time. In the letter, they demanded that all candidates running for upper-level management be given fair and equal consideration for the positions for which they were running. This demand stemmed from concerns of favoritism and bias at the corporate board level.
The letter, obtained by The Blue and White, states that the signatories planned to draft a constitution, which Spectator does not currently have. The letter says, “We believe that we need to hold ourselves accountable, especially in an institution that has prioritized operations over staff in the past years and thus failed as both a student publication and as an institution.”
It continues, quoting the Spectator mission statement, saying, “We believe that ‘our best and most effective work comes through telling in-depth, well reported stories that hold those in power accountable for the decisions they make [emphasis from original letter].’ Without accountability and a system to keep us in check, power will turn into tools of abuse.”
After the delivery of this letter, each candidate for corporate board was given an interview and the turkeyshoots board turned to deliberations. The 143rd Managing Board was decided upon, and then announced on Dec. 8, according to the date on the post, Dec. 9 according to the post’s URL.
The announcement did not include the sports editor position. The candidate running for sports editor resigned from Spectator prior to the conclusion of turkeyshoots. Of the 19 people who signed the aforementioned letter, four were from the sports staff, and all four have since resigned from Spectator. Other sports staffers who did not sign the letter have also since resigned, leaving a staff of less than five people, and no editor, in the sports section heading into the peak of basketball season.
The other 15 people who signed the letter were largely members of Spectator’s Business and Innovations Department, which handles revenue and technology. They have not resigned as of press time.
Where this leaves the sports section remains to be seen. When asked about plans for the continuation of the section after the recent mass departure, new Editor-in-Chief Katherine Gerberich, BC ’20, said, “We’re dedicated to making sports successful and we’re going to be working with the staff to rebuild the section and put out some great content. We thought for a while about how we want to cover sports and we believe we’re in the best position to do new and exciting things.”
She declined to comment on whether or not they plan to hire another sports editor, but did say that the section will be managed by herself and the Managing Editor, Rahil Kamath, CC ’20.
Gerberich, when asked for any additional comment, added, “Some members of our sports staff left at the end of the semester and staffers often leave between semesters. Some come back, some don’t. We recognize that this is a big commitment and it isn’t always the best fit for everyone as they try to balance their academic and social lives with journalism here at Spec.”
She declined to speak to any reasons why the sports staffers resigned, but she does note that Spectator experiences a high turnover rate at the ends of semesters.
A former staffer, though, on the condition of anonymity, said, “This is definitively not within the normal turnover rate. This is absolutely an exceptional circumstance. They’ll spin it as a small handful, but in reality it’s every present and former editorial member of the [sports] section. That’s not just people leaving due to time commitment.”
The biggest concern pointed to by both current and former staffers to come out of this situation is that Spectator does not currently have any sort of constitution in place.
A former staffer said, “There is no HR policy. Everything is handled by students. They are not trained. They [the corporate board] keep saying they’re not an adjudicating board, but they take up the responsibility of investigating. They had never outlined the detailed [investigation] process … In terms of transparency, that was the first time anybody had ever seen any confirmation of what the process is.”
A different former staffer attributed the discontent among the staff to a lack of clear policies and communication, saying, “It’s the ambiguity and a complete lack of understanding and communication between upper management [the corporate board and managing board] and lower management [the deputy board] and staff that kind of fucked us, as you can tell.”
Spitz, when asked on Dec. 16 if Spectator currently has a constitution of any kind in place, said, “No, we do not.”
She added, “Spectator is not an adjudicating body and we’re independent from Columbia. All of our staffers are undergraduates who have access to the GBM [gender-based misconduct] office at their school.”
While Spectator maintains they are not an adjudicating body, the policy outlined in Spitz’s email seems to place some onus of evaluating misconduct claims on the board, on a case-by-case basis. And Spectator’s status as an independent non-profit organization, rather than a student group, may place even more responsibility on the staff for handling workplace misconduct, or at the very least maintaining a safe work environment. Spectator, as a place of off-campus employment for Federal Work-Study, receives federal funding in the form of Work-Study allotments to pay members of their staff who qualify.
When asked to comment on whether or not Spectator is currently working to put together a constitution, Spitz declined to comment on “any policy that has not been finalized.”
One student familiar with the process said that then-Staff Director Hannah Barbosa Cesnik, CC ‘19, was working over the summer of 2018 to put together an HR policy for Spectator. Such a policy does not seem to ever have been finalized and implemented. Spitz, when asked to comment on the existence of a policy made by the staff director said, “Like I said before, I’m not going to comment on any policy that has not been finalized.”
This seemed to imply that such a policy existed and just had not been finalized, so when asked if saying that the policy had not been finalized meant as much, Spitz said, “Well, I’m not necessarily acknowledging that. I’m just saying that in general, I’m not going to comment on any policy that exists or doesn’t exist that hasn’t been finalized.”
Barbosa Cesnik did not respond to a request for comment.
Because Spectator would not confirm if they are currently working on a written constitution or any sort of HR policy, staffers are left to wonder about the specifics of how their employer might investigate allegations of misconduct fairly and uniformly. They are also left to wonder about some of the specifics of succession, following this year’s particularly contentious turkeyshoots. Multiple current and former staffers who spoke to The Blue and White credit Spectator with overwhelmingly influencing their lives for the better, and out of love for the institution, they hope to see some change under the 143rd Managing Board.
“I would not be interested in journalism at all if it wasn’t for Spec,” says one of these staffers. “It’s an overwhelmingly good institution from my perspective, because most of the people there are good people. I have had wonderful experiences. But the problem is, it’s just when it comes down to who has the power, who holds the keys, it’s always going to be the people that are pre-selected and there’s nothing that indicates that that will ever be different.”
Ufon Umanah, CC ‘20, contributed reporting.