At first, it is hard to not feel intimidated by The Harvard Crimson.
If you go upstairs to the second floor of the little brick building on 14 Plympton St., you enter a room (“the Sanctum,” as Crimson editors call it) lined with huge leather-bound tomes containing issues dating back to the ’50s. Sequestered in the basement are the issues from The Crimson’s very beginning, 1873. It takes a while to get situate yourself in such a storied place, to adjust to being a successor of many notable alumni who once inhabited it.
The experience of a Crimson editor is also, over time, learning how to become comfortable with calling those same alumni for advice or, in our case, with requesting interviews to ask about their experiences ahead of The Crimson’s 150th anniversary.
Initially, it was hard for us to understand why everyone — from award-winning journalists running newsrooms to the sitting United States Secretary of State — was so willing to make time in their busy schedules to speak with us and reminisce about their time at the paper.
Indeed, when we walked into The Crimson for the first time, we had the sense that we were immersing ourselves into a bedrock institution, not just for Harvard, but for the world. Everyone we interviewed mentioned how The Crimson always found itself at the center of current events: the Vietnam War, Watergate, and anti-apartheid protests, just to name a few.
But bedrock institutions all have their flaws. While The Crimson reports on the world outside its walls, it has also been shaped by the systems it critiques. Our interviewees mentioned facing sexism, a lack of socioeconomic diversity, and brutal working hours — just a few of the issues that the paper continues to grapple with.
And yet, all of our interviewees reflect on their time here with gratitude and fondness. After hearing their stories, we started to get it: their careers and life trajectories were shaped immensely by their time working as reporters, opinion writers, photographers, coders, and designers for our 150-year-old independent student newspaper. And The Crimson, in turn, has been shaped immensely by them.
In truth, the legacy of The Crimson is not contained in books; it’s in the people who have sustained it. Here are just nine of them.
Shortly after our interview begins, Daniel Ellsberg ’52 casually drops that just days earlier, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and has only three to six months to live.
Ellsberg, now 92, relays this devastating news in a nonchalant tone, as if he is approaching the end of his life at peace with himself and the world. But the rest of the 90-minute conversation reveals precisely the opposite.
Ellsberg, the man responsible for the blockbuster leak of the Pentagon Papers, has bigger worries than dying.
He is deeply concerned, for example, about how the war in Ukraine will end. “Probably it will escalate to nuclear winter,” he says.
He also professes to be deeply upset about not being able to attend The Crimson’s sesquicentennial.
And, though he’s happy to be featured in this cover story, Ellsberg, a longtime vocal critic of American foreign policy, expresses dismay about appearing alongside former Crimson editor Antony J. Blinken ’84.
“A jerk-off, as far as I can tell,” Ellsberg says of the U.S. Secretary of State. (Blinken did not respond to a request for comment.)
But as for terminal cancer, Ellsberg has chosen to see the bright side of not needing to worry about his diet. He cheerfully says that his doctor has given him permission to eat whatever he wants. “I’m going to have Thai food tonight, which I haven’t had for five years,” he says. “I love it. And Indian food, Chinese food — I’ve had to go without all this pleasure from food for five years now. So I’m in very good spirits. Now I can really indulge myself.”
A former Crimson Editorial Board member, Ellsberg found fame as the whistleblower who leaked secret government documents about the Vietnam War.
Using his access as a RAND Corporation employee to obtain the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg initially leaked the Pentagon Papers to Neil Sheehan ’58, a reporter for the New York Times. However, as the Times debated with its lawyers over whether to publish the papers, months passed without the publication of a single article.
In order to distribute the Pentagon Papers more widely, Ellsberg says he “seriously considered” using The Crimson’s personal printing press. According to Ellsberg, he went as far as to visit the building and ask whether it would be possible to rent out the printing press for the night.
Ultimately, he took a different route.
“I relied on Xerox shops,” he says. “About four of them in the Harvard Square area.”
Ellsberg has no difficulty recalling detailed memories from his undergraduate years at Harvard, but keeping him on topic is a much more complicated task. A lighthearted question about whether Ellsberg prefers The Crimson or the literary magazine the Harvard Advocate (he served as president of the Advocate in 1950) turns into him sharing a story about his first wife.
“I first made love to her in the Advocate office one night,” he confesses. “Of course, she was with me at The Crimson a lot too, later,” he says, before providing more detail for his original anecdote: “It was actually, I believe, on a couch with a rug for a blanket.”
While the Harvard Advocate continues to hold special personal significance for Ellsberg, The Crimson “shaped my life much more,” he says. Ellsberg says that The Crimson “was one of my warmest associations” and that it was “a very formative factor.”
Ellsberg says he fondly remembers the spirited discussions and “intellectual atmosphere” of his Editorial Board meetings, which helped prepare him for his professional life.
He recalls a contentious meeting he had early in his career with Herman Kahn, the Cold War systems theorist who inspired Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.” They were both working at the RAND Corporation when Ellsberg spoke up and questioned Kahn, which sparked a shouting match that descended into name-calling. The meeting left Ellsberg feeling like he was back home at 14 Plympton St.
“We’re back at The Crimson on the Editorial Board,” Ellsberg recalled thinking after the meeting. “Now we can talk with the gloves off.”
Donald E. Graham ’66 says that no one in his graduating class at The Crimson ever needed to think deeply about their post-graduate plans — after all, the U.S. was waging a war in Vietnam.
“We damn well knew what our first job would be,” he tells us. “We would either get drafted or do something to avoid getting drafted. And you didn’t have to prepare for that.”
Indeed, Graham was tapped as an information specialist — a hybrid photographing and reporting role — in the First Air Cavalry Division, alongside fellow Crimson editor Herbert H. Denton Jr. ’65. “It was the only time anyone ever detected any artistic talent in either of us, the Army making us photographers,” Graham recounts to me, chuckling.
As we casually chat on Zoom — Graham holding up a phone vertically and using its selfie camera — he recalls how newspapers have always been a cornerstone in his life.
In high school, Graham was a “newspaper junkie,” serving as the editor of his school newspaper (“as many of your colleagues probably are,” he says). His father, the owner and publisher of the Washington Post at the time, was “absolutely my hero,” Graham says, and “his example made me love newspapers all the more.”
But Graham’s father warned young Don not to join The Crimson immediately upon entering Harvard. He only ended up waiting a month, he tells me, joining in September. And he was hooked.
As a Crimson editor, Graham “wrote about anything and everything,” including a review of the General Education program, which resulted in “some of the most boring stories ever published in The Crimson,” he says. “I don’t think that review of the General Education program ever came to a damn thing,” Graham rants. “But my God, we covered the hell out of it!”
As a freshman in the fall of 1962, Graham says “it was a time of optimism about the country — belief in the country, confidence in its future.” But when Graham graduated four years later, he felt like he was “living in a different country.” After the United States had committed boots on the ground in Vietnam in 1965, “the political climate at Harvard was about Vietnam, period.” Graham recalls that “there was no other subject for discussion.”
By the time Graham was elected president of the 92nd Guard, Vietnam had also made its way to The Crimson. He recalls that the “hero of all of us” at 14 Plympton St. was former Crimson editor David Halberstam ’55, the principal New York Times reporter in Vietnam. According to Graham, he “wrote stories that proved to be absolutely true about how the war wasn’t going anywhere,” to the ire of the Kennedy administration.
That was a point of pride for The Crimson. In the 1960s, the running joke at 14 Plympton was that “the score was 23 to two in favor of The Crimson,” a rallying cry that writers referred to “whenever someone at Harvard excelled or disgraced himself,” Graham says. Halberstam remembered the joke, and from Vietnam, “Halberstam sent a postcard to a classmate, who sent it on to The Crimson, in which he said: ‘The score at the end of 1964 is the New York Times, 23; the US government, 2.”
Ultimately, Graham joined the Washington Post in January 1971, the year of the Pentagon Papers and the year before the Watergate scandal. “My first few years at the Post were pretty exciting,” Graham says.
Before college, Graham had not expected that he would ever end up back at his family’s business.
But, things changed after tragedy struck his family.
“The saddest day of my life was when my dad took his own life in the summer after my first year at Harvard,” Graham says.
As a result, Graham’s mother took over as publisher of the Post — in doing so, she also became the first woman at the helm of any major American newspaper. Nonetheless, she was “eager for any of her children to come help her,” Graham says, and armed with experience from The Crimson, Graham fit the bill.
In 1979, Graham took over for his mother as the publisher of the Post, a position he held until 2000, when he was elected chairman of the newspaper. His successor as publisher was Boisfeuillet Jones Jr. ’68, who served as president of The Crimson two years after Graham.
Above all, though, Graham views this changing of the guard as a testament to the enduring power of connections that began at 14 Plympton St.: “People who were Crimson people turned up over the years, just as you are in my life right now.”
“I have a million other 60-year-old stories to bore you with, but that’ll have to do for now,” Graham chuckles.
The New York Times knew Gay W. Seidman ’78 would be president of The Crimson before she did. News of The Crimson’s first female president snuck its way from Cambridge to the printing presses of the New York Times hours before Seidman found out herself.
Though Seidman says she rarely went to bed before 4 a.m. in college, she decided to turn in early on the night of final decisions — only to be rudely awakened by a call from former Crimson editor J. Anthony Lewis ’48, who was in New York that morning.
“As he was flying back, he picked up a copy of the Times off the press,” says Seidman. “While he was on the plane, he’s reading it and there’s an article that says I’m the president. He screamed so loudly that the stewardess came over to ask if he was okay.”
Seidman became involved with The Crimson at a pivotal moment in its history. Harvard College had just gone co-ed, and in her words, the world was “so male-dominated.” Seidman decided to comp The Crimson after her roommate joined. Her first article was on a proposal to build a new parking garage in Harvard Square — “not something I would ever be interested in,” Seidman says.
“After that first story, I wasn’t sure I was gonna go back,” she says. “And Jeff Leonard, who was then the managing editor, called me and told me I had to come back because he really liked the story. And I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll try a couple more times.’” Seidman laughs. “I was hooked but didn’t know it.”
When she first joined The Crimson, Seidman says shooting for president was something she never would’ve considered. But as she got more involved, Seidman felt welcomed by The Crimson’s leadership.
“There were a number of older juniors and seniors who were being so kind to me,” says Seidman. “They were saying, ‘It’s time there’s a woman.’” Seidman was also encouraged by Lewis, who she says used his own experience as a journalist to “really adopt” her.
But during Seidman’s term as president, some people still questioned her authority. According to Seidman, when the Harvard Lampoon printed fake issues of The Crimson that year, their headline was “Gay Seidman Talks about Fashion” (“So ridiculous, given my lack of fashion taste,” she comments). She also remembers The Crimson’s alumni board approaching her about reinstating the organization’s discontinued alumni dinners — a request Seidman says she knew was gendered. Seidman jokes that picking the alumni dinner’s menu was her greatest challenge as president. “I’m a pescatarian,” she quips, “I had no idea what I was putting on the plate!”
Seidman says expectations were higher for her, as The Crimson’s first female president: “I didn’t want to do anything wrong, because if I did something wrong…” Seidman trails off. “I think I was aware that I had to follow norms.”
Seidman’s flagship initiative during her term was expanding The Crimson’s coverage of campus anti-apartheid movements. Seidman and her twin sister, Neva Seidman Makgetla ’78, spent much of their childhood in Africa, which drew them to early anti-apartheid efforts. When Mekgelta came to Harvard, she became a leader in Harvard’s anti-apartheid divestment movement. Though Seidman also wanted to participate in this movement, she worried that advocating for divestment would compromise her journalistic integrity as president of The Crimson.
“I had to pretty much stay away from it while I was president, although we did cover every demonstration,” Seidman recalls. The Crimson reported on United States anti-apartheid activism earlier than most outlets, and its journalism helped catapult calls for divestment to the national stage.
Though Seidman thought about becoming a journalist after college, after dictating The Crimson’s coverage as president, she “couldn’t imagine” going back to beat reporting. Instead, Seidman used graduation as a chance to finally do the activism she always wanted to do.
After leaving Harvard, Seidman moved to the small African nation of Eswatini to work for a branch of the United Nations, then spent the next few years traveling across southern Africa as an activist and freelance writer.
Seidman says the “extraordinary” racism she witnessed while in Africa was eye-opening. While living in the newly-independent nation of Zimbabwe, Seidman was commissioned to rewrite Zimbabwe’s colonial-era history textbooks. The old textbooks insisted that the Great Zimbabwe Ruins “couldn’t have been built by Africans, it must have been Phoenicians or something,” scoffs Seidman. “Their version of history was just ludicrous.”
When Seidman returned to the U.S., she ran for and won election to the Harvard Board of Overseers on a pro-divestment platform, contributing to the growing public pressure that eventually pushed Harvard to divest from apartheid South Africa. Seidman’s experiences working on the board and writing textbooks in Zimbabwe ignited her interest in academia. Seidman then got a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and now works as a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
At the end of our interview, Seidman reflects on the unique agency The Crimson gave her.
“Enjoy the freedom that you have to choose what you write about,” she says, “because it is a gift.”
Susan D. Chira ’80 thought that she would never edit again after finishing her term as president of The Crimson and starting as a reporter at the New York Times.
“It was heavy,” Chira says of leading The Crimson. “I was still learning about exercising authority, and there were just a lot of stresses about it, so I didn’t go into the Times at all thinking, ‘Oh man, I can’t wait to run something again.’”
“I went to the Times thinking I wanted to be a reporter and writer,” she adds.
But after 15 years of reporting, including several years as a correspondent and bureau chief in Tokyo, Chira rose through the ranks of the Times, from deputy foreign editor in 1997 to deputy executive editor by 2014. Now, she serves as the editor-in-chief of the Marshall Project, a journalism nonprofit that focuses on covering criminal justice news.
Chira says that two impulses made her return to editing and journalism leadership. “I began to feel like I was learning things and I could help other people learn things,” she says. “But also, that I wanted to have kids.”
Chira decided to explore editing because, unlike reporting, it involves less constant and spontaneous travel. “I was a little bit worried about being on the road all the time and being able to bring up kids,” she says.
But once she became an editor, Chira said she found the job’s mentorship aspect to be very rewarding.
“I liked helping people,” Chira says. “Helping people grow as reporters and writers, talking about ideas and brainstorming about how to make stories better, thinking about coverage broadly.”
One of the biggest influences on Chira’s career as an editor overseeing the Times’ international coverage came from her time at Harvard — but not 14 Plympton St.
“Because I was an East Asian Studies major, I had a real conviction that the way Americans covered other cultures could be a hell of a lot better: more sensitive, less ethnocentric, less American-centric,” Chira says.
“I had a lot of ideas about how we could be more respectful and open in exploring how we portrayed other cultures and other people,” she adds. “So I had an opportunity to put some of those ideas into place.”
As the second woman to serve as president in Crimson history, Chira says her time leading The Crimson helped prepare her for a career in leadership within a male-dominated profession.
“Part of The Crimson was learning how to be comfortable being a woman who was supervising men, who were still used to ruling the roost,” Chira says. “Those things came into play in Harvard, and they came into play later in my life, too.”
In addition to facing sexism internally at The Crimson, Chira was also forced to contend with external sexism during her tenure as president.
In 1978, under Chira’s presidency, The Crimson decided a Playboy Magazine advertisement soliciting Harvard students to pose for their “Women of the Ivy League” special issue shouldn’t make it into their daily paper. In turn, Playboy blamed the choice on The Crimson’s female leadership, aiming to generate media attention for the magazine’s upcoming issue through the controversy.
“It was more delicious because a woman was running it,” Chira says. “Might they have mocked The Harvard Crimson for not taking the ad? Hard to say, but the fact that I was a woman made it just perfect in terms of a story.”
But overall, Chira says, most of her colleagues in The Crimson were supportive of the paper’s journalistic mission during her tenure.
“Most people were really collaborative, and cooperative, and excited, and sharing the sense of ‘let’s figure out what’s going on at Harvard, let’s cut through excuses and find out things that people don’t want us to know,’ which is what powers journalism in a really exciting way,” Chira says.
She adds, “There were uncomfortable and nasty moments, but generally, it was a good, exciting, exhausting experience.”
We have just 15 minutes to interview the Secretary of State – the spokesperson tells us it’s a hard stop at 10 a.m. The line goes silent, and we mull over which four questions we’ll prioritize.
Suddenly, a booming voice announces that we’ve been connected with Antony J. Blinken ’84.
Blinken, 61, is at the helm of American foreign policy after more than 30 years working in various policy circles in Washington, D.C. But, as he explains to me, his connection to international affairs is “deeply personal,” as someone who spent many of his formative years outside of the United States. From the age of nine until he began at Harvard, Blinken lived with his mother in Paris, where he says he became a bit of a “junior diplomat.”
Throughout his youth, conflicts like the Vietnam War and the Cold War were at the fore of international attention, spurring “conversations, discussions, and arguments with friends at school,” according to Blinken. As a result, being forced to defend American policy “really stuck with me,” he says.
At the same time, investigative “heroes of the time” like Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had a “formative impact” on Blinken. Inspired by them to pursue journalism, he founded the yearbook at his high school. “It hadn’t existed before, to our knowledge, anywhere in France,” Blinken tells me.
Upon returning to the States in 1980, Blinken says he was “immediately attracted” to The Crimson, where he could blend his two passions in journalism and foreign policy — ultimately, Blinken would spend three years penning columns about international affairs.
In our interview, Blinken was quick to characterize his guard of the Editorial Board as idealistic, in no small part viewing themselves as “a continuation of the reformers of the 1960s.” But the same divisive issues that had shaped Blinken’s childhood had faded into the background.
“Dorms were co-ed. The Vietnam War was over. The ROTC, at that point in time, had been banished to MIT. Watergate was history,” he recounts. Within the Editorial Board, “there was kind of this struggling to find our own identity: What were the galvanizing, animating issues of our time?”
According to Blinken, the issues that would define his generation at The Crimson would once again be those in the international area: the divestment campaign against South Africa, U.S. intervention in Central America, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Tiananmen Square massacre. Incidentally, these were the same conflicts that Blinken personally covered.
After graduating from Harvard, Blinken headed to the New Republic, a liberal political magazine, where he worked as a “reporter-researcher,” a role in which recent graduates “might be getting coffee for the publisher one day and actually writing the cover story the next,” he says.
But, surrounded by some of the best writers of his day, including many Crimson alumni, Blinken says that he succumbed to imposter syndrome. “Part of the challenge of being in a place like the New Republic, or for that matter, The Crimson, is you’re really working with the best of the best, and that puts your own talents and skills in perspective,” Blinken tells us.
With low confidence in his ability to make it into the writing world, Blinken says he “thought going back to school was a good idea.” Ultimately, he would enroll in law school — “a default for people who weren’t quite sure what they wanted to do,” he says — a decision that surprised many of his friends at the time who had marked him as bound for journalistic success.
Even Blinken admits that he didn’t think he had “a profound calling to the law.” Nonetheless, he felt compelled to enter the legal profession after graduating from Columbia Law in 1988. Blinken says that after practicing law for a few years, he “found that it wasn’t for me.”
Blinken’s trajectory ended up going full circle — right back to reporting, outside of the U.S. “I wound up going back to Europe, and I did a lot of freelance writing for a number of different publications to kind of test that out,” he explains.
At this point, it’s past 10 a.m. We’ve reached our “hard stop.”
But Blinken presses on, recounting the production nights in the print shop beneath the floor of The Crimson newsroom. “Some of the happiest hours of my life will be in the shop downstairs,” he admits.
He makes sure to tell us that he “learned more about working with other people, about human relations, in a way, from those endless hours at The Crimson than maybe anyplace else.”
Blinken, at this point, is definitively late to his next meeting, but he continues: “I learned more about writing, about thinking, about explaining than anywhere.”
“And I’m just eternally grateful for it,” Blinken says as he signs off.
Joseph F. Kahn ’87, the executive editor of the New York Times, speaks in a cautious, monotone voice during our interview with only one exception: when asked about the difficult decisions he has made throughout his career.
Suddenly, he is passionately defending the Times’ decision to publish an investigation that led China to block internet access to the Times’ website in 2012. The investigation revealed that the family of Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, accumulated billions of dollars in wealth after his ascent to the ruling elite.
Kahn says that a reporter should never withhold the results of investigative reporting out of fear of backlash. “You shouldn’t be a journalist if that’s your thinking,” he says.
But, Kahn concedes, for a news organization, the decision is not always that easy when the publication of one article could result in retaliation against a whole team of reporters.
“That was kind of the case for us in China,” Kahn says. “We had probably a dozen journalists writing about China at that point, but we had one really sensitive and important piece of investigative reporting and the publication of it — many people feared — was going to restrict access or even result in the expulsion of a bunch of other journalists who had nothing to do with that work.”
As he animatedly relays his thoughts on journalistic ethics, it is funny to think how, in Kahn’s college years, he wasn’t sure that journalism would end up being his lifelong career.
“I hope to try my hand at journalism — print journalism — for some time. I won’t be happy until I do, I think,” Kahn said in a 1986 video interview with C-SPAN during his tenure as president of The Crimson. “I’m not sure that’s what I want to do for a career, but I do want to try it.”
In our interview, Kahn says that serving as president of The Crimson was “very good training” for his current role as executive editor of the Times.
“The culture of leadership at The Crimson is a shared responsibility — you have a president, you have a managing editor — but ultimately, you need to figure out a way to develop a consensus about big issues.
It’s not a dictatorship,” Kahn says. “The New York Times, or any good newsroom, also operates with some similar concerns in mind.”
“Although it was a very different era, a very different time in my life, that experience was very relevant to managing any large news organization,” he adds.
Kahn says that reporting for The Crimson also helped prepare him for a career contending with people in power who try to silence the press and sideline journalists.
While covering former Harvard University President Derek C. Bok, Kahn says that Bok ordered his top deputies to stop speaking to The Crimson after growing frustrated with Kahn’s reporting.
“Initially, I was very taken aback by it,” Kahn says.
After getting advice from Crimson alumni, Kahn says the newspaper decided to end every article that would have normally required comment from Bok or the University with a blurb that read: “Because of the decree from President Bok, the administration has refused to answer questions from The Harvard Crimson.”
“Within a week, they had rescinded his decree and then started speaking to us again,” Kahn says.
Kahn adds that the experience taught him that transparency can be a powerful antidote when those in authority attempt to ignore journalists.
“We just immediately shared with our readers, and that ended up having the impact of restoring things to normal,” he says.
When we talk to Jennifer 8. Lee ’98-’99 for the first time, it’s late in the evening in India — a trip 23 years in the making.
After graduating from Harvard, Lee was selected as a Harvard-Yenching Fellow and received a master’s degree at Peking University. “This is when China opened up — this is before China was in the WTO,” she explains. Harvard provided Lee with money for two round-trip flights, including one to return home for the holidays. “Why would you want to go home for the holidays? Like, the whole point is to travel,” Lee says.
Instead, she decided to fly a friend out to China: Adam S. Hickey ’99, the assistant managing editor for the 125th guard and a law student at the time. Lee says that Hickey was initially a bit uncomfortable with the arrangement, but they came to a compromise. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry. When you can afford it, you can take me on a trip to India, but it will be purchasing power parity-adjusted,’” she recalls.
Lee eventually got her trip. “I think it’s a testament to the kinds of friendships that we build at The Crimson because it’s a pretty big bet, right? But I’m like, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be friends in 23 years,’” Lee says, chuckling.
A long time has passed since she served as The Crimson’s inaugural chair of the Online Board — now the Technology Board — but Lee says her approach to work has changed little. At 57, Lee works across a variety of initiatives in technology, film, and journalism. She has served as vice chair of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, organizer of the MisinfoCon conference, and CEO of a digital publishing house.
“I like being pretty good at different things,” she explains. “The Crimson was one of the first institutions where you could really try your hand at different types of skill sets.” Indeed, at The Crimson, Lee also worked on the Photography Board — now the Multimedia Board — and was elected vice president of the 125th Guard. But it’s her work on The Crimson’s website that Lee remembers the most fondly.
Lee entered Harvard right before the dot-com boom really took off. As she repeatedly tells us during a Zoom call, things were different back then — “pre-Google, pre-Wifi, pre-cellphones-being-popular” — and that meant that there was a lot of unclaimed digital turf.
In her years in college, The Crimson “had a custom version of Internet Explorer that was branded for Harvard,” Lee says. “Instead of an E, it had an H, sort of rotated.”
In those days, “the internet was a big deal for the first time,” Lee says. And in the spring of 1997, The Crimson chose to capitalize on the growth of the internet. The president of The Crimson at the time, Joshua J. Schanker ’98, hired Andrew Prihodko ’98, an undergrad at the time, to build The Crimson’s first website using the Perl programming language. “I don’t know why, but back then we all used Perl — it was really janky,” Lee says, laughing.
But there was another hitch to the website, besides the underequipped coding language. “Someone had registered ‘harvardcrimson.com’ — someone not in our orbit,” Lee says. So, The Crimson had to settle with “thecrimson.com,” which is “kind of lame,” Lee muses. “I still kind of wonder who has ‘harvardcrimson.com’ and wonder if we could get it.”
In the fall of that year, The Crimson launched the Online Board to manage the arduous daily ritual of “copying text and then uploading it” in addition to keeping up the website. Previously, during a gap year, Lee had worked at the New York Times and managed its website, learning Perl along the way. “That was also very janky and also very manual,” she tells us. But, armed with that experience, Lee knew how to run a newspaper’s website.
At that time, Lee recalls that very few people were digitally literate. One of The Crimson’s first digital projects was uploading its course review database, the Coffee Guide. Today, the College uses the Q Guide for course evaluations, which Lee explains “got ramped up in a big way precisely because the professors hated the Coffee Guide,” she explains.
Students, professors, and administrators alike browsed with confidence, thinking they were anonymous. But “we could see in our logs what people were searching for and where they were searching,” says Lee. “You could see professors looking for their own names inside the Coffee Guide.”
To Lee, her time at The Crimson is emblematic of the type of work that she has done for the last two decades, of observing social and technical changes and rolling with them. “There are these sort of ‘phase transitions,’ where no one knows anything,” she says, listing the internet boom, the rise of social media, and AI as examples.
“We’re just making it up, and it’s a fucking land grab right now,” Lee says. “So those are fun!” she says, laughing.
Imtiyaz H. Delawala ’03 is the last person you’d ever expect to find breaking and entering. And yet, late one night in college, that’s exactly what the former Crimson president was doing.
His old classmates tell us Delawala has been the image of professionalism since he was 19. “We would always make fun of him for how he was always perfectly clean-shaven, and his hair was always perfectly trimmed,” says David C. Newman ’03, one of Delawala’s executive editors. “He didn’t own jeans. He only wore khaki pants.”
But Delawala broke character as part of an escalating prank war between The Crimson and The Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine. That night, Delawala led a raid into the Lampoon’s 44 Bow St. castle to take back stolen Crimson memorabilia.
“I’m one of the few Crimson presidents, I believe, who has actually entered that hallowed building, and I was able to leave it with many, many items,” Delawala chuckles. “I will give them credit for having an interesting little playhouse.”
Delawala’s passion for journalism — which he now works in professionally — began at The Crimson, where he started as a junior beat reporter covering the Cambridge City Council. He quickly rose through the ranks of the organization, standing out as “a very quiet but very well-respected leader,” according to Garrett M. Graff ’03, another executive editor in Delawala’s guard.
When Delawala decided to shoot for president in his junior year of college, he recalls internal pressures pushing him in opposite directions during the selection process — experiencing a “big push internally” to run, but finding that advocating for representation was often “a point of contention.” After a heated election, Delawala was welcomed as the first person of color on record elected president of The Crimson’s 129th guard. “It was definitely celebrated and it was something that was noted as an important milestone,” he says.
Delawala’s presidency — which began just months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks — came at an important time for The Crimson, but also for the nation as a whole. “I think it was meaningful that a Muslim-American was elected president of The Crimson at that time,” Newman reflects. “Because The Crimson president is a campus leader, and definitely a leader in journalism.”
As president of The Crimson, Delawala stood out for his quiet passion and constant composure. “He did a great job dealing with the big personalities and territorial nature of The Crimson,” Newman says. Delawala was always the first to arrive at 14 Plympton St. each morning, and he spent many late nights editing and looking after his pet turtle — who spent Delawala’s term living in a tank in his office.
During his term, Delawala worked to reach out to campus affinity groups and expand diversity in The Crimson’s staff and coverage. “Being a person of color as the president of The Crimson allowed me to approach outside student groups in a different way than anyone prior to me could,” he says. “And speak with candor about our efforts on diversity and inclusion.”
Delawala was also one of the first Crimson presidents to be a member of The Crimson’s financial aid program, which provides compensation for time spent dedicated to Crimson work for students who receive significant financial aid from the College. He tells us his presidency wouldn’t have been possible without it. “It allowed me to fully embrace my time at the Crimson without having that worry in the back of my head of ‘Oh, I should be spending 10, or 15, or 20 hours working,’” he says.
Delawala wanted to give other students this same opportunity, and his flagship initiative as president was expanding The Crimson’s financial aid program. Over the last two decades, enrollment in The Crimson’s financial aid program has skyrocketed: growing from only 10-15 students when Delawala first became president to over 200 students today. Both Graff and Newman trace this growth back to the initiatives Delawala started while president.
After leaving The Crimson, Delawala knew that he wanted to work as a journalist for ABC News. While waiting for a position at ABC to open up, Delawala moved to Israel to copy edit for the Israeli publication Haaretz — something he thinks back on as a journalism “study abroad.” Delawala moved back to the U.S. half a year later to work for ABC, where he now serves as a senior producer.
“He’s doing great at age 42,” says Newman. “He doesn’t look a day over 35, which is exactly how old he’s looked since he was 19.” Even two decades after graduation, Delawala and his friends from The Crimson still keep in touch. “What’s great about The Crimson is that it really does build lifelong friendships and relationships,” Delawala says. He tells us how he and his former editing staff have a group mailing list they use to send each other life updates. “It’s kind of our very tiny version of Newstalk,” says Delawala, referring to The Crimson’s internal mailing list.
We got a glimpse into this myself after a quick email requesting photos from Delawala and Newman turned into a 10-message-long chain of them sharing photos and memories from their time on The Crimson.
“I should also note that no turtles were harmed in the production of The Crimson,” Newman writes after our interview. “After our June 2003 graduation, Imti’s turtle traveled to North Carolina and was released in a pond.”
Ravi Agrawal ’05-’06 doesn’t like to be categorized. When Agrawal was asked “which side of the fence” he was on during The Crimson Editorial Board’s initiation, he burst out laughing.
“I just didn’t understand the question,” says Agrawal. “And then I understood that they were trying to say pick left or right.” Agrawal grins, explaining that the question referred to his political leaning.
“Now, of course, as a journalist, I refuse to think in left and right terms,” Agrawal says. “If I had to undergo the whole thing now I would have just told them to go and take a hike.”
Agrawal has always known he wanted to be a journalist, he says.
“I mean, obviously, when I was five, or six, or seven or eight I wanted to be an astronaut,” he says matter-of-factly, “but as soon as I was older, in my late teens, and I had a sense of what my skills were, what I was actually interested in, what was actually feasible for me — that’s when I began to think of being a journalist.”
Agrawal was drawn to journalism by its ability to engage with the “immense complexities” of social and political life. Growing up, he recalls the 1991 assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi; for days, Agrawal says, all of India was “glued to the news.”
But Agrawal was most captivated by how the assassination was being covered by the BBC, he says.
“It occurred to me that journalism was reporting the news, but it was much more than just reporting the news. It was dealing with topics with immense gravity and doing so very sensitively,” he says.
When he moved to the United States and came to Harvard in 2001, Agrawal knew that he wanted to engage with these topics himself — though he could not expect having to confront them so soon. Just days after Agrawal’s arrival to campus, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks shocked the nation and the world.
“My journalistic consciousness grew in the shadow of 9/11 and the war in Iraq,” says Agrawal. As a beat reporter for The Crimson, Agrawal always sought to relate his coverage of campus issues to international political trends.
Later on, Agrawal was able to write on international conflicts directly when he shifted from news reporting to writing op-eds.
“The Crimson is, at its heart, a campus newspaper. And I loved it for what it was, but it also taught me that it was covering the campus for the world,” he says.
Outside of The Crimson, Agrawal used broadcast reporting to engage his peers in international affairs more directly. He started a political talk show in college, which he says was “loosely affiliated” with the Institute of Politics, where he interviewed students about their opinions on international issues.
Agrawal says that recording the first episode — a news anchor interview presented in MTV style that focused on students’ opinions on the war in Iraq — was a highlight of his time at Harvard. “It was a very vibrant, forceful debate,” says Agrawal.
After graduation, Agrawal dove full-on into the world of international journalism. He began working at CNN International, a job he describes as a “24/7 crash course in what’s going on around the world.” After 11 years at CNN, Agrawal began working for the international news magazine Foreign Policy, where he now serves as editor-in-chief.
Though he now boasts a 17-year career in journalism, Agrawal traces much of his “professional” reporting knowledge back to The Crimson. “The Crimson is at par with a lot of professional outlets I’ve worked at,” Agrawal says. He sits for a second, then reconsiders. “Let me rephrase that. The Crimson is a professional outlet.”
Agrawal tells us how, the night of his Crimson initiation, he walked out of 14 Plympton St. “elated.”
“I thought it was the coolest thing ever to be on the Editorial Board of The Crimson.”
The three of us are all at markedly different stages of our time at The Crimson. One of us has only a single semester left of college; another is just finishing her first semester as a Crimson editor; and the third is smack in the middle — exactly halfway through his time on The Crimson and at college.
In our time at The Crimson, this institution has felt larger than us: How do we find our place in a newspaper that views itself as embedded into the fabric of American journalism? How can we, as reporters, live up to the legacy of our alumni? How do we use our platform for good?
But talking with these former Crimson editors reminds us that our anxieties have been shared by generations before us.
Even our initial hesitance to request interviews from such prominent figures is something that Agrawal relates to. “Harvard’s a very intimidating place, and I learned that it can seem like there are a lot of doors, a lot of closed doors,” he says. “But you’ll only know if they’re closed if you knock them down.”
Kahn reminds us that our journalism matters, from the bombshell investigations to the small scoops. Reflecting on his years covering the Harvard Medical School and former University President Bok, Kahn says that it was an “intoxicating experience as a young person of creating journalism that has an impact, and that people read and talk about.”
And what will we take with us when we leave this building? Though The Crimson is an institution, it is, at its heart, a community. As Graham tells us, “You’ll get the same answer to every old person to whom you ask that question: my favorite memory is the people who were my colleagues.”
All of us — some sooner, some later — will have to say goodbye to this little brick building on 14 Plympton. But the stories will endure. Not just the stories we write, but the stories we have lived, and the stories yet to come.
Correction: April 28, 2023
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the The Crimson was founded in 1878. In fact, it was founded in 1873.
— Magazine writer Adelaide E. Parker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @adelaide_prkr
— Magazine writer Andy Z. Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @byAZWang.