Critical. Subversive. Irrepressible.

A farewell message from Benjamin S. Weiss, outgoing AWOL co-Editor in Chief

Benjamin S. Weiss, Fall 2019 Editor-in-Chief

Something I’ve learned from working as a journalist for the past four years is that we love to talk about ourselves.

Journalists love to share “personal news,” gripe about difficult sources, and wax poetic about the indispensability of our careers. We especially love to casually bring up our collective existential anxiety about the future of our industry, which is shrinking by the day.

It’s important for me to clarify that I’m not preaching from an ivory tower on this issue. I like to talk about my career as much as the rest of us — just have a look at my Twitter. It’s a positive thing to have a supportive community and it humanises journalists in the eyes of an ever-skeptical world.

But, I do think it’s important that we also reflect on our responsibilities as journalists; our commitment to the people and issues whose stories we are telling. I think it’s really easy to allow sharing our own personal experiences to take precedence over the content of our reporting — and that flies in the face of everything I believe journalism stands for.

If we’re so committed to speaking truth to power and giving a voice to the voiceless, then why do we spend so much time talking about ourselves? 

All of this exposition is a long way for me to say that I haven’t been totally keen to write a “farewell” letter to AWOL. I feel uncomfortable writing about my own experience as editor in chief: the valuable skills I’ve gained, the resume points I’ve accrued, the legacy of my leadership. None of that actually matters to the people who read our work.

What does matter, though, is AWOL itself: our mission, our staff, and the voices we amplify through our reporting. I want to use this space to highlight our organisation and the work we’ve done that captures the essence of what makes journalism so important.

AWOL is not “legacy media.” We’re just over ten years old, and we’ve been affiliated with American University for roughly eight. We started our tenure on campus as a homemade ‘zine that university employees were instructed to throw away. AWOL has sought to stay as close to our guerrilla roots as long as I’ve been involved here.

We have an angle, not an agenda. We report with accuracy and balance, but we accept nothing at face value. Our writers look at what seems like a straightforward issue, find a loose thread, and tug on it to see what falls out. 

AWOL has built and continues to build a team of journalists who refuse to stand idly by in the face of injustice and do not let those with influence in our community avoid scrutiny. They are professionals in every sense of the word, and some of the finest reporters on this campus.

It hasn’t always been easy going for AWOL. We sometimes face active resistance in the course of our work. Our reporters have been kicked out of public events. Interview requests have been regularly ignored by university officials, while other media have no problem getting statements. We’ve been told by a professional news organisation that they don’t consider us to be legitimate news media after asking to be properly credited in their reporting.

But that hasn’t stopped us. We didn’t become journalists because the job was easy. In the face of what can sometimes feel like deliberate sabotage of our work we have doubled down on our values and continued to tell the stories that need to be told.

Over the last four years, AWOL has been on the forefront of social, political, and cultural issues at AU.

On campus, we’ve taken multiple deep dives into racism and our university’s history of racist incidents. We’ve covered the AU mental health debate in extreme detail. We’ve analyzed student protests and administration responses. We’ve given a voice to the university’s invaluable dining and housekeeping staff.

AWOL’s coverage isn’t just limited to the university, either. Our reporting seeks to amplify voices in D.C. at large. We’ve written about the rise of crisis pregnancy centers, covered the local government’s COVID-19 response, and (maybe most notably) documented the District’s rattiest year on record.

Frankly, even listing the reporting AWOL has done as some sort of accolade feels a little off to me. That’s because, ultimately, it’s not about us.

Our work isn’t about the name in the byline. It’s about the AU student struggling to get a counseling appointment. It’s about the former Aramark employee who isn’t sure if they have enough money to retire. It’s about the D.C. women who are unsure where to find reliable information about abortions.

We don’t just report the facts at AWOL. Our work identifies problems in our community, and provides the information necessary to elicit positive social change. We don’t tell our readers what to think, but we give them the tools they need to draw their own conclusions — and to act.

AWOL is a mouthpiece for the people and issues that the average AU student may not have ever heard about otherwise. We hope that telling these stories will inspire our campus community, which prides itself in its activism, to step up to the plate. That’s what journalism is to me. That’s the kind of reporting that I strive to do.

Regardless, none of our goals as an organisation would ever be achieved without a kick-ass team. I don’t think I can thank each of them enough for the work they’ve done for the cause. AWOL writers and editors are some of the hardest-working, most devoted people I can think of. They are wholly unafraid to step outside of their comfort zones because they understand how important their task is. I am immensely proud of every one of them.

There are still other people at AWOL who deserve just as much praise for their commitment to the mission. Our design team, our podcasters, our photographers and videographers, and our one-woman PR staff are all utterly invaluable — without them, the change we seek to make would never happen.

To the AWOL staff: you bring professionalism, enthusiasm, and an unparalleled tenacity to your work. You have given me so much optimism about the future of this publication and the future of our craft. 

But, perhaps more importantly, you have helped to bring a thoughtful, yet critical voice to campus journalism. That is so much more valuable than anything you could have ever done for me. 

In the face of adversity, you never backed down from your duty to the community. I hope you keep asking the hard questions, keep tugging on those threads. Stay firm in your commitment to something greater than yourself — elevating the voices of the voiceless.

And to you, the reader: I hope that the last four years of AWOL content has inspired you to go out into your community and fight for positive change. The world needs you, now more than ever, and I hope that our work has given you the information necessary to pursue the issues you’re passionate about with clear eyes and a full heart.

I hope the stories we told made you angry for all the right reasons.

In solidarity, always,

Benjamin S. Weiss

Editorial Editor in Chief