Harvard Crimson’s price tag on history too steep

Jonathan Katz

Here’s a joke: What’s the difference between the Harvard Crimson and every other college paper in the country?

Answer: $500,000 and a bunch of disabled Cambodians.

You don’t get it. Let me explain.

In 1999, a disgruntled staffer erased the Crimson’s online archives. It was a disaster for the student newspaper, leaving their reporters to do research by thumbing through bound volumes. After what I can only presume were several — if not dozens — of paper cuts, the paper’s staff made a decision: They would restore the archives.

But somebody had an even better idea. Why stop at the mid-1990s? Why not put every single issue they’d ever printed online?

Current Crimson President C. Matthew MacInnis put it this way: “If we’re going to do back 10 years, why don’t we do back 128 years?”

Most college papers could answer that. They would say: “Because, C. Matthew, putting 128 years of issues online costs half a million dollars. And the only way we’d even be able to afford that price is if we hired Indian monks and disabled, non-English-speaking Cambodian workers to enter data for 40 cents an hour, according to the Boston Globe. And that brings up a lot of ethical dilemmas we’d have to deal with, and it seems like an awful lot of trouble just to electronically index 128 years of society pages and homecoming wrap-ups.”

But not the Harvard Crimson. They pressed on, made a few phone calls and before you can say “there’s ivy in my pants,” they had $500,000 sitting on their desk and a host of companies promising all kinds of cheap foreign laborers just waiting for somebody to come along with 40 cents a day and save them from themselves.

When the Crimson accepted an offer, the news exploded. The Boston Globe and the Washington Post ran stories blowing up the pros and cons of the whole “hiring disabled Cambodians to enter the start time of Teddy Roosevelt’s freshman-year trig exam” thing. Letters and columns darted across the eastern seaboard, debating globalization and wage differentials and whether this sort of labor practice contradicts the Crimson’s support for a living wage in Cambridge, Mass. (Which it does.)

But in all the gravitas of the debate, one thing was forgotten: The Crimson is a college paper. The Crimson wasn’t forced by market pressures or government edict to archive every paper since 1873. They thought it would be fun. Five-hundred thousand dollars and a southeast Asian country worth of fun.

Meantime, ad revenues plummet across the nation and student papers hold on for their very lives. Some papers are closing down completely.

“It’s an interesting sort of situation,” MacInnis said. “We’re battening down the hatches for a rough year too.” He then cited a reduction in the number of parties the Crimson will hold next year. (In fairness, his staff works on a volunteer basis, so this is effectively a major pay cut.)

There’s nothing wrong with putting revenues back into the paper that earned them. Photo equipment, printers and fire extinguisher are necessary ingredients to ensure the future of the independent, mildly-informed voice of youth.

But 128-year archives are not. If they were free and appeared without their owners having to dole out just-above-sustenance wages to workers on a list provided by the oh-so-trustworthy and sane Cambodian government, we could talk.

The Crimson is lucky to be in a position to even think about globalizing production. Most papers are lucky if they can get their own schools’ freshmen to copy edit two nights a week. There are a lot of papers out there that would love a fraction of that half a mil just to be viable for another year.

Here’s hoping the debate over the Crimson’s project won’t forget that punchline.