The Crash Heard Around the World

Illustration by Madeline Engelfried

Illustration by Madeline Engelfried

It’s safe to say that the giant snowball story is old news by now. But for those of you who have been living under a rock—or, more likely, under a pile of books—something happened during the Snowpoclaypse that has smashed its way into Reed’s history: two students accidentally rolled a nearly thousand pound snowball into the Reed College Apartments and caused a whopping $2000 to $3000 worth of damage on the 8th of February. 

Chris Lydgate ’90, editor of Reed Magazine, broke the news on Reed Magazine’s blog, SallyPortal. Lydgate found out about the snowball when he was on a run and his coworker asked him if he had heard about the “giant snowball.” The story provided amusement as it spread through campus via word-of-mouth, but Lydgate thinks the story didn’t take off on campus because there was a false rumor that the Doyle Owl was inside the snowball. “If the premise is that the Doyle Owl is there and it isn’t, it’s a non-story to the student. But, if the premise is that there’s a giant snowball, and it turns out to be true, to my reporter’s ear it sounds like a real story.” 

After his blog post, the story spread through the Associated Press (AP), a news cooperative that pushes out stories to its thousands of member news outlets. Steven DuBois, an AP reporter, got in touch with Lydgate the day after he published the post. DuBois’ story spread through the media. As various off-campus news sources picked up the story, Reed began to buzz with talk of the snowball and the ensuing press coverage. In just one week, 512 domestic and 116 international news outlets reported on the story. Most of the 600 and counting reports of the snowball can be traced back to the AP. Yet, campus remained puzzled: How did such a seemingly trivial story become a headline all over the world? 

One of the news sources to cover the snowball incident was BuzzFeed, a site that claims it “provides the most shareable breaking news.” However, it was of little surprise — given Buzzfeed’s reputation as a master source of derivative rip-offs — they didn’t have much to say about why it was newsworthy. Rachel Zarell, who wrote the story, told The Grail in an email that the snowball was “definitely a funny, quirky story — [her] favorite kind to write about :)” 

Lydgate has a more complete theory of why the snowball was newsworthy. He teaches a Paideia class, “Reporter’s Bootcamp,” which explores his “Theory of News” that he uses to explain the spread of the story. “Significance is only one of the many factors that go into news,” Lydgate explains, “This story scores very very high on some key elements of news. It’s got what I call singularity…it’s a man bites dog kind of story.” That singularity and the tension of the math majors losing control of the snowball, “because the reader thinks, ‘they’re math majors, they’re smart people, they should know what they’re doing,’” only makes the story more interesting. He thinks the photographic evidence also contributed to the spread of the story. 

Shane Dixon Kavanaugh, a reporter for the Oregonian who found out about the story from the Twitter feed of his friend Adrian Chen ’09, explained why he thought it was a good story. His theory agrees with Lydgate’s about singularity, the tension of the math majors and explains more of the appeal. Kavanaugh wrote about the snowball because it was a unique event, “a great college story,” and fit into the Reed reputation. He thought the story fit well into the college-kids-up-to-no-good category, which makes adults smile with nostalgia and students laugh with affinity. A giant snowball hitting a dorm is the kind of incident that reminds people of their college years. People are drawn to the nostalgia and to the “shenanigans and skullduggery.” He thinks Reed’s reputation for super smart, but quirky, students only furthered the spread of the story. It plays into the stereotype. “You couldn’t have asked for a more perfect campus for a 900-lb snowball to hit a dorm.” 

The news spread to NPR’s Morning Edition, CBS, London’s Daily Mail, a Japanese TV show, and more across the nation and the world. Clearly, the story had a snowball effect — rolling itself into something bigger than it seemed to the Reed campus.