What’s an Exponent, Anyway?

If I have learned anything about writing, it’s that Webster’s has no place in it. Today, I’m breaking that rule. Bear with me.

When I became the Exponent’s editor, a dear friend and mentor — herself skeptical of the newspaper — gave me a peculiar challenge: “How will you make the Exponent more than an empty word?”

Admittedly, I didn’t know what the word is supposed to mean, let alone know how to fill it with new meaning. So, I went to Webster’s. An “exponent,” it said, indicates one that a) expounds or interprets or b) champions, practices or exemplifies.

Surprisingly, Webster’s definition offers a good start. Recognizing that communication involves more than the publication of bare information, an “exponent” acts something like both an interpreter and an advocate.

Such a role, of course, comes with a degree of ethical ambiguity. Readers want news sources they can trust, and to many any perceived “subjectivity” in reporting can threaten that. As the group assuming the power to represent the community, the newspaper’s responsibility to do so fairly and thoroughly is enormous. But writing about human beings, in real-time, is far from a “scientific” enterprise.

If this were our sole axis of concern, Webster’s “exponent” could suffice. The newspaper, though, wears a coat of many-colored inks. Not only do we, at times, play the role of interpreter or advocate, but we also seek to act as watchdogs, secretaries, transcribers, gatekeepers, scorekeepers, critics, commentators, leaders and artists, to name a few.

Rather than trying to perform the hopeless task of pinning down one role as the paper’s primary identity, I’m interested in the implications of “playing a role” in the first place.

Whether they like it or not, journalists are always part of the story, and a newspaper is always a part of its community. What distinguishes the Exponent’s identity, I think, is that we are not afraid to participate in the community we cover. All 72 staff members are students, and we are invested in our university. This uniquely positions us to partake in the constant creation of our campus’ culture.

All good newspapers offer ways to channel community voices, but engaging with our community members requires us to go beyond providing “letters to the editor,” and serving as a catalyst for practical change requires more than a soapbox.

Two years ago, after an ill-advised editorial decision angered MSU’s greek community, several Exponent editors attended an Interfraternity Council meeting, and the paper published on it. Through this column, our editors expound their decisions and techniques. At our editorial board meetings, one of our own news reporters interrogates the group’s informational grounding. And on Thursdays, our staff members hand out papers directly to students.

These examples aside, the real work of participation occurs more informally, through commitment to reporting practices that stay in touch with the pulse of our classmates, neighbors and administrators. It involves an ethic of vigorous research and consistent contact with those about whom we write — always with a critical and self-critical eye. Reporting that builds trust is resonant, relevant and insightful.

Newspapers need not be passive entities. Cultivating a more participatory attitude can move us beyond hackneyed questions and allow us to be more creative and collaborative in our approach to community journalism. For a newspaper that is partially student-funded and fully student-run, I think it’s a direction worth pursuing.