“The French,” The Nut Policy, and What It Meant For The Dig

by Abe Asher

About a year ago last April, I drove us off a cliff.

Many of you know what I am talking about. In a single issue of The Dig, we ran two stories: one ranking the best and worst things about “The French” and another piece about OES’ change in campus nut policy.

And while I didn’t write either of those articles, I more than contributed to both of them. I encouraged and helped Johnny craft his piece on French culture — it was, unhappily enough, a team effort in the newsroom that day — and I gave Graham the quote (or quotes) that really got him in trouble.

The Dig went out that Thursday, April 16th, after activity. My story, and the lede that week, was about Justin Kerr’s departure from OES — and on Thursday, that’s where everyone’s attention seemed to be.

It was Friday morning — the day of Culture Shock, incidentally — that things started to unravel.

Jordan Elliott, a big fan of the Dig as long as we aren’t libeling him, is much less so a fan of email — to the extent that his email signature is, “Too much email? Save our inboxes” with a link to a program promoting “10 Rules to Reduce the Email Spiral.”

In an effort to curb his own email usage, Jordan really only uses the medium between the hours of six and seven in the morning. And all of this is only to say, if you’re going to have a bad day because you’ve pissed off the Head of the Upper School, it’s going to start early.

Friday, it started early. 7:00 AM early. His qualm was with Graham’s story about the nut policy, and it was fair.

The piece was a disaster — an item of actual news screwed up, mostly by me and others at my urging, with sarcastic and misleading commentary. What’s more, it confused parents as to what was actually going on with the nut policy. By the end of the day, under pressure, we took it down.

And that was bad enough. Particularly for Graham, who, as a freshman, was blindsided. But when I got to school on the following Monday morning, there was a much bigger scandal brewing. The French article.

We decided not to pull Johnny’s story even when we realized that it was causing problems — it was guilty of being tone-deaf, but not of being of malicious or factually incorrect — but we still didn’t fully know what was coming.

A few things happened when a few people went nuclear on the piece. One was that everybody read it. “Things We Like and Don’t Like About the French, Ranked” became our fifth most-read story of 2015, beating pieces on AP calculus, Scott Hardister leaving the school, the CFO resigning, and a number of other worthy pieces.

We also got in trouble. I took some heat, Johnny took some heat, and Patrick definitely took some heat — and gave as good as he got — but mostly, it was Kara, our faculty advisor, who absorbed a lot of ugly incoming fire.

But even after a series of fairly humiliating meetings, and even after we all got a letter that Monday night signed by the entire Language Department accusing us of rudeness and reinforcing cultural stereotypes, she stood by us and refused to pull the story.

It’s important to understand, if you’re interested in what we do here, that nobody loves The Dig more than Kara. Her belief in this — whatever this is — is unquestionably the biggest reason that we’re standing today as a legitimate news source in the school.

Without her steadfast support and guidance, we’d be nowhere. That was as clear to me then as it is to me now.

Nevertheless, when I walked into school the next day last April, I felt about as comfortable as Kendall Duffie did playing me in the mixed doubles tournament on Wednesday.

Luckily, Spanish III teacher Dana Mosher Lewis didn’t register any response whatsoever to my presence in her first-period class — perhaps because nothing I could do could be more disappointing than my performance in Spanish that year.

And although the waters began to calm ever-so-slightly, we knew that we had to respond publicly as we continued to deal with loose ends.

In Gathering that Wednesday, Kara and Patrick issued duel apologies in both English and French.

Then, at lunch, David Shafer — author of Whisky Tango Foxtrot and a slightly unbelievable person in his own right — interrupted a meeting with a group of twenty-odd interested students and faculty to ream me out for fifteen minutes about just exactly what the hell we were doing putting our necks on the line for a piece called “Ten Things We Like and Don’t Like About the French” and why don’t we actually do journalism please and thank you.

Finally, on April 30th, our editorial ran. In that piece, I, along with Patrick, issued a somewhat patronizing, non-apology apology for the French article.

I wrote, “On the second piece [the French piece], we stepped into dangerous territory by scrutinizing another culture, just a day before Culture Shock. Some of the language in that piece was incendiary. We apologize to anyone who was offended.”

I continued, “Of course, the vast majority of you were not offended by either piece. You saw them for what they were. It was just a few people who became upset. But there was enough outrage, with enough fury — from people in our community who matter to us — that this situation needed an editorial response.”

Debby Schauffler called me on it in a comment on that story, and was absolutely right: We didn’t really apologize. For a number of reasons, we probably should have.

But it was a turning point.

My next story was, perhaps, our first “big” one. It was on MO Owens’ departure from the school, and it set the tone and template for the coverage we did of all that happened around this school this year.

After the incidents of last April, subconsciously as much as consciously, I think we decided that it was time to grow up. So while we absolutely still have a soft spot for satire and ridiculousness, we lost our desire to throw elbows for no reason. It became more important to take this seriously and matter.

It’s worked for us. In my first piece as an editor, in September 2014, I wrote that I wanted The Dig to be the place you came whenever something happened.

And that’s exactly what’s happening. I know because in the hours after Jordan announced he was leaving, our traffic spiked — even though we didn’t release our story until the next morning.

I know that by how many of you have asked me if we’re covering the debate kerfuffle this week (we are, from multiple angles.)

I know because editing The Dig used to be a job I could do with my co-editor or editors on activity time alone. Now, it takes upwards of three extra hours each week.

I know that because one faculty member recently told me at breakfast that he had a dream that something happened in the school and a Dig reporter was there to cover it, and I know it because earlier this year, a parent saw a piece on the drug problems we had in January — what? drugs? on a high school campus? NO! — and canceled the child’s visit.

And if that doesn’t say we’ve made it in some small way, I don’t know what does. Not only is The Dig the place you go when something happens, it’s also — if the number of special contributors in this week’s edition is any indication — the place you go when you have something to say.

The paper, from top to bottom, has grown tremendously. I think this week’s issue happens to be the best of my career. But that’s not to say that our work is done.

We still use the simplest and least engaging of WordPress formats. We have no social media presence. Half of our writers have never met an interview they wanted to do. So the next three editors — who will be announced next week — will take over a publication with a lot of potential.

Janine Kritschgau and her team before me wanted to create something edgy and provocative, and they did — and the next batch of editors and writers will have the chance to mold the paper in their vision, whatever it might be.

I just wanted to do the news. And do it well. And I think, for the most part, that’s exactly what we’ve done.