According to Ben Kutner ’14, Brown students love to talk — and he’s no exception. The founding Editor-in-Chief of Brown Politics Memo had plenty to say during a thoroughly enjoyable fireside Blue Room chat with Pub Crawl about nonpartisanship, accessibility, everyman expertise, “high-falutin’” jargon, and hypothetical fistfights. The Memo is an undergraduate-run online-only newspaper that launched in March 2012. It both covers factual news and publishes original opinions on Rhode Island, United States, and international issues. News junkies, consider yourselves satisfied. Expect an abundance of content as the election campaigning and debating rage on!
Where to get it: Online (Subscribe! to the email list!)
When to get it: ‘Round the clock
Ben’s passion and vision clearly showed in our conversation. The junior music and IR concentrator has always been fascinated with politics as the most natural, purest form of science: essentially, people interacting with other people. Reading the news, he could never not be interested because, he explained, he is already involved on a fundamental level by naturally forming some kind of opinion in response to the article. Unlike in esoteric music criticism, which can produce obscure reviews requiring specific knowledge, anyone can engage in politics, which directly affects everyday life in an understandable manner. Ben wanted to bring this kind of relatable civic participation and legibly present the information to foster it to campus.
So last semester he spoke with his friend Olivia Conetta ‘14, Managing Editor of BPM (and Copy Chief at the Herald), about starting the publication, and since then it’s attracted a staff of about 20 contributors. The Memo features a balance of half news, half opinions, in a style as unpretentious as possible. Its editorial stance is strictly nonpartisan for legitimacy in its objective coverage, but it also provides a forum for individual authors to voice their viewpoints without preference or filtering. Ben and Olivia chose an online platform because of the need to quickly react to the fast pace of politics. They also saw the opportunity for social media integration, including live tweeting about BPM content, news, and #FunFriday tidbits, whereby the conversation can continue after reading posts.
They also found that writers’ perspectives are naturally more or less equally distributed on the political spectrum, despite Brown’s liberal reputation, which Ben describes as not only representationally biased but also insulting to the school because of its black-and-white oversimplification of students’ political thought and positions. Indeed, BPM’s goal is to enhance political discussion among busy students —as “everyone is an expert to a certain extent” — forcing them outside of their comfort zones and catering to Brown’s diversity of interests that extends to the world beyond the Van Wickle Gates. Ben noted that there is a time and place for pure news and pure theory and that there is a healthy range of who writes what.
Ben anticipated any questions about the Brown Political Review, another on-campus nonpartisan political pub that started shortly after BPM went live. BPR reached out to BPM for possible collaboration, but The Memo decided to stay separate, because it wanted to remain independent from the University (BPR is supported and funded by the Political Theory Project). Ben also preempted concerns about redundancy: He thinks the idea that there should be only one political publication on campus is ridiculous, especially given professional media’s plethora of news and opinions sources.
The pub’s wide audience, which includes the local Rhode Island population, allows for feedback from an array of students, professors, state inhabitants, and other media outlets, which Ben finds validating. BPM brings generations together as older readers respond to younger writers’ posts; Ben hopes that in a way, this will become a cyclical effect as Memo writers go on to become political experts in the future and keep ties with the online newspaper.
BPM’s accessibility is not just for readers but also for writers. No journalism experience (or political science concentration) is necessary, as all training is provided. Brunonians’ work is highly valued at The Memo, precisely because the college students’ outlooks are not the same as that of the New York Times; Ben believes we have important things to say but are less biased about them because we don’t have as much of an agenda to push. As such, Brown Political Memo posts are not organized by whatever credentials authors might have: A right-wing opinions piece by a sophomore will be published alongside a guest post by a left-leaning Rhode Island politician. Because there is no scheduled weekly meeting and editors work closely with writers, involvement with the BPM has a relatively low time commitment but high reward.
Ben also conveyed the publication’s light atmosphere. Though the staff members take themselves extremely seriously when it comes to news, they never cross the line of intimidation. Their different views on politics lead not to arguments but to interesting discourse; editors’ meetings are never boring! To put Ben on the spot and take him at his word that politics is fun and not always completely serious, I asked him a few questions and gave him some anthromorphizing thought experiments to ponder.
Favorite political jargon term: “Gerrymander” because even though the concept is evil, its sound is silly and would make a 5-year-old laugh
Made-up political jargon term: “Shoe-scuffing” — a word capturing that awkward, stepping-on-toes moment in a debate when the candidates realize they agree with each other and have to get around the fact that they are on the same page, because of course it’s absurd they could ever have similar stances
Historical figure to write for BPM: Post-Watergate Nixon, just to see him squirm; Teddy Roosevelt, but he’d have to be yelled at to tame his opining in news pieces, like an annoying first-year [kidding, Class of ‘16]
Newspaper that would win in a fistfight: In Politico v. Huffington Post, HuffPost, the seemingly younger, scrappier fighter with a more opinionated freshness, would go down first, because its big banner would be an easy target for a cheap head-shot. In Wall Street Journal v. New York Times, the NYT would win, because, let’s face it: The Gray Lady is “an 800-pound gorilla.”