Can You Get a Witness?

Right makes might: Washington University's other newspaper

It's not easy being a conservative mouthpiece on a liberal college campus.

"We've had stacks of our papers thrown away, our flyers ripped down, you name it," says Emily Katz, the ever-smiling editor-in-chief of Washington University's other paper, the Washington Witness.

In spite of such setbacks, the Witness is getting heard. Wash. U., which has no journalism or communications program, is home to two student-run newspapers: 125-year-old Student Life and the 5-year-old Witness. Student Life, published three times a week, has an annual budget that dwarfs that of the every-other-week Witness. But while recent Student Life opinion writers are addressing such weighty matters as "Cell phone etiquette" and resolving that "School should lower Dean's List standards," Witness editorial scribes have sparked campus-wide debate by questioning the role of the Student Union and applauding left-right unity against the Iraq war. On the news side, the upstart Witness has beaten its bigger rival to a number of stories in the past year, including coverage of campus protests against the Patriot Act and the vandalism of a sign that had been placed by a Jews for Jesus group and then defaced with a spray-painted drawing of a penis.

Giving Student Life a run for its money: Witness editor-in-chief Emily Katz
Jennifer Silverberg
Giving Student Life a run for its money: Witness editor-in-chief Emily Katz

The Witness works with a meager budget -- $6,000 or so per year. About two-thirds of the funding comes from the Student Union, the rest from the Collegiate Network, an organization that bankrolls conservative campus publications nationwide. Student Life's operating budget of $350,000 allows that publication to flood the circulation zone. The Witness manages to print about one copy for every two undergraduates. The Witness didn't even have office space in the Student Union for its first five years (a plight that staffers say contrasts with Southpaw, a liberal and much more infrequently published journal that inherited office space from a disbanded lefty group in its first year of existence).

Jill Carnaghi, assistant vice chancellor of students and a member of the Student Life advisory board, all but dismisses the Witness. "You could blind-call a slew of folks and I'd bet you'd find that less than 10 percent of faculty and staff even know it exists," she says. "You can't get a subscription, and there's no real distribution site."

Carnaghi is wrong on those last two counts. Subscriptions to the paper cost $35, and clearly marked Witness distribution stands are located in both main campus student centers and the library. As for the paper's readership, folks are indeed taking notice. In a September 10 Student Life opinion piece, sophomore political science and economics major Ben Tramposh bemoaned the fact that the Witness was kicking the liberals' asses. "Fellow liberals of Washington University, we have a hard truth to face," wrote Tramposh, associate editor of Southpaw. "Despite the fact that we comprise a clear majority of the student body, the conservatives at this school have us beat. There is a definite problem when the liberal publication at a liberal school has to define itself by comparison to the more read and respected conservative publication."

The way longtime Wash. U. physics professor Jonathan Katz sees things, Student Life is failing to do what a major campus paper should.

"I'm not impressed with Student Life," says Katz. "The writing quality frequently isn't good. It's often very superficial. You look at it and find that they've reprinted articles from the national press or other student papers, and you say to yourself, 'They ought to be able to generate their own stories. Don't they have enough people who can write here?'"

In contrast, says Katz, the Witness brings a diversity of opinion, not all of which one can call conservative. Indeed, while the Witness is published by the WU campus group Conservative Leadership Association and dubs itself "A Conservative Journal of News and Opinion," the demographics and beliefs of its contributors skewer white-boy country-club stereotypes. Two of the paper's top editors have been black. Current editor Katz (no relation to the professor) spoke out strongly against the war in Iraq earlier this year.

"The Witness is idiosyncratic," Professor Katz says. "They call themselves conservative, but in fact a great deal of what you see is not conservative in the usual sense. Some of it is libertarian, some more liberal-libertarian than conservative-libertarian."

Which isn't to say the Witness has no critics -- or flaws. Some complain that the paper too frequently publishes diatribes on marginal issues, such as a recent, virtually incoherent rant against sex-advice geriatric Dr. Ruth. And to say that the Witness is unpolished would be an understatement. Its graphic design could be improved upon by a savvy Wydown Middle Schooler. Still, the paper has come a long way from its earliest days. A highlight from the inaugural year's archive is a piece by co-founder Matthew Cole, chronicling an evening he spent with a crowd of John Birch Society members. Cole, who is black, had gone to see a speech by John Birch Society president John McManus. Afterward, some of the attendees invited him to dine with them at Shoney's, where they treated him to a steak dinner and, incongruously, showered him with cash. "We had lots of good conversation, and by the end of the night, my belly was full of the best steak I had in a long time, and my wallet was fat with the night's good fortune," Cole wrote.

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