The Odyssey cheapens writing, cheats students

Audrey Larcher

“An Open Letter to Easy Mac,” “Why You Should Embrace Being Young and Twenty,” “Dogspotting Changed My Life.” Silly, underdeveloped headlines aren’t the norm for the New Yorker, Texas Monthly or even Buzzfeed, yet they publish regularly at the Odyssey Online, the web-based publication that caters to college-aged fraternity and sorority members.

As ridiculous as these articles may read, they accumulate thousands of shares, populating many millennials’ social media feeds. The sheer frequency with which its pieces go viral inherently forces us to acknowledge the Odyssey as a shaping force in the media. But not all impact is good impact. Given the political arena’s recent spotlight on fake news, the Odyssey’s low editorial standards raise serious concerns about how millennials consume journalism.

With circulation of the 2014 article “Why Girls Love the Dad Bod,” the Odyssey quickly earned a reputation as a flimsy social media platform for students to write, basically, whatever they wanted. The publication never marketed itself as a hard news establishment, but alongside cute cat video compilations, writers published opinion pieces on politics and defining American social issues.

The only common denominator between all these articles was an apparent lack of edits, revisions or any form of quality control. The Odyssey’s multi-tier editing process is designed to run articles past Odyssey editors at each respective university who then forward the piece to a statewide editor and finally to the main newsroom of 60 content strategists.

Looking at one piece entitled “I Support Hazing” (the argument of which is cause for concern on its own), grammar and spelling errors permeate the writing, including the absence of any and all apostrophes. If multiple different editors did review the article, they either don’t know grammar themselves or aren’t held to high enough standards to care.

Without any editorial structure or criteria to vet articles, the Odyssey is little more than just an extension of social media, wherein anyone can say anything as long as they’re in Greek life. Take for example “A Thank You Letter to My Ex,” recently published under a UT student’s name. The article is nothing more than a personal lament detailing the writer’s specific relationship conflicts, doing nothing to relate the experience to a larger audience.

Furthermore, editors did not stop to think about possible libel before publishing. The writer’s name and linked social media profiles are easily available, and finding her ex would not be a difficult process. This reality, combined with editors’ inconsideration for facts, could have led to the publication of falsities and a subsequent lawsuit.

Even though the Odyssey is designed to function like other social media, it is nonetheless a publication and millennials treat it as such — the Odyssey’s platform elevates these opinions and makes them easily accessible with a whole network of readers. Publishing ideas accelerates their spread.

The Odyssey probably doesn’t care, though. The business model feeds on clicks, and social media shares generate 93 percent of its traffic. This publication aims to produce the most shareable content, regardless of whether or not the content is thought out or well-developed.

And it works. Or, it did, before article inflation led to recent internal collapse. The Odyssey made sizeable profits, none of which student staff writers saw, lest they earned the most clicks within their university’s network and win a whole $20. Students knew this when they decide to write for the publication, and many of them saw the opportunity as a means of gaining experience and sharing their ideas.

However, if the publication isn’t providing students with solid editing or constructive writing advice, the Odyssey doesn’t seem to give these students anything different than what social media already provides most millennials. The Odyssey relies on 15,000 young adults’ weekly and completely free contributions to make its money.

If we care about restoring trust in the media as an industry of fact and integrity, we must stop engaging with the Odyssey Online and similar clickbait.

Larcher is a Plan II and economics sophomore from Austin. Follow her on Twitter @AudreyLarcher.