Archive for September 30th, 2015

Caffeine, camaraderie, catharsis, and 125 years of editorial freedom

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015
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On the threshold of the future, 1970s.

Last weekend was my first trip back to Ann Arbor since I took home a diploma several decades ago. It also marked my first trip back to the Michigan Daily offices at 420 Maynard.

Arthur Miller 1955

One of us.

The distinctive Student Publication Building has the same smell it did all those years ago, minus the rubber cement. We edited the old-fashioned way: the rip-and-glue method on pages of low-cost newsprint. The dumb waiter had vanished, too, except in the memories of those who remember the linotype days. As the 1.40 a.m. daily deadline neared, the dumb waiter saved steps as we sent copy to the typesetters on the floor below in the basement. Periodically, we would scamper downstairs to watch the progress of the night’s paper: seasoned professionals (the legendary Lucius Doyle and Merlyn Lavey foremost among them) tapped away on the big clackety linotype machines, as lead pigs were melted into pools of silver to make the slugs that were assembled on turtles, and eventually locked into place for printing. Pigs, slugs, turtles… lots of nature words for a place that was as far from the outdoor world as could be imagined – especially the underground kingdom on the floor below us. It was one of the last of the hot-type newspapers, and it was a privilege to work on it.

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One of us, too. (Photo: Brian Corr)

Three Dailyites from our set went on to get Pulitzers (so far), including the Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson. The Daily was considered “the New York Times of student newspapers” – though I was never sure of the provenance of that tag. Certainly its independence made it unique among the nation’s university newspapers. That tradition continues: It has no supervision from the faculty or the administration. It receives no funding from the university to run a full-circulation daily (five days a week now, six days a week back in my day). Decades ago, the student-run outfit even paid for its own building – the familiar 1930s-style brick landmark that offered nickel cokes in thick green glass bottles. (For old times’ sake, I bought a can of coke for fifty cents in the machine downstairs. Not the same.) Its revenues peaked at $1.4m in 2000 to about $500,000 last year. “The University of Michigan places a high value on the Michigan Daily’s editorial freedom,” one of the university’s attorneys wrote – the letter was projected on a screen at the gala dinner.

420maynard

We paid for it.

One of us, columnist Laura Berman, described the occasion this way in The Detroit News:

As newspapers shrink and, alas, sometimes die, the Michigan Daily, a 125-year-old student-run paper, is getting attention for sheer survival.

Without support or direct interference from its parent institution, the University of Michigan, the student daily has outlasted big and smaller city dailies, including the Ann Arbor News (now part of MLive.com). At a university lacking a journalism department, 20-year-old editors miraculously “train” their younger cohorts, winning national recognition year after year.

Today, the Daily opens its 83-year-old building’s doors to nearly 400 alumni from across the country, including Pulitzer Prize winning journalists, academics, doctors and lawyers. From Rebecca Blumenstein, the Wall Street Journal’s deputy editor-in-chief, to Tony Schwartz, the author and business consultant who wrote Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal to Sports Illustrated columnist Michael Rosenberg and Detroit Free Press editorial page editor Stephen Henderson, it’s a varied group of pilgrims.

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Sara Rimer of the New York Times celebrates her return.

Caffeine, ambition, camaraderie, and journalistic passion — but very little pay — have fueled the Daily for generations. …

At the gala dinner in the Michigan League, someone described the newsroom atmosphere as “stressful, exhausting, cathartic … addictive.” That about sums it up. We were a competitive and hard-working lot, and the newsroom atmosphere was intense.

After a whirlwind visit after so many years, it’s hard to describe all the emotions that were churned up in less than 72 hours. Let’s start with horror: the old-style morgue, with its scores of bound volumes, is being digitized. Thirty-nine of the 320 volumes are already electronically processed. I spent a short while in the morgue over the weekend, thumbing through the oversize volumes. Speaking for myself, you couldn’t bury some of my early stories deep enough. Time has not treated many of these pieces well, and I would not like to see them in my Collected. But the fact that I think that way at all probably owes something to the Daily.

According to the university’s LSA Today:

What do playwright Arthur Miller, two-time presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, and neurosurgeon/medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta have in common? They all wrote for the Michigan Daily, which celebrates its 125th anniversary this month. [Not to mention Tom Hayden. – ED.]

Covering campus, sports, local news, and culture, the Daily has been the object of both picketing and praise over its 125 years. And even as eminent newspapers have gone digital or crumbled, the Daily, which is financially independent of U-M, continues to thrive. In addition to its vigorous online presence, the Daily still publishes on paper. During the school year, it does so five days per week.

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Swag bag & shirt.

“When we check Twitter or even Yik Yak, a story from the Daily is often the center of conversation,” says Jennifer Calfas, LSA senior and the Michigan Daily’s editor in chief. “Sometimes you forget how amazing it is that this work impacts so many people, but then small moments remind you.”

After all, how many university rags ever got their own segment on Jon Stewart‘s Daily Show. (Don’t believe me? Watch it here.)

My stony little heart got so sentimental I finally broke down and bought my first university t-shirt to add to the Michigan Daily mug and “M” cookie (from the fabulous local deli Zingerman’s) in my swag bag. I couldn’t bring myself to get something as naff as “Go Blue!” So I settled for “Naprzód Niebiescy,” which a Polish scholar assured me was an even stronger phrase – something along the lines of “Advance forward, blue!”

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Bill Turque of the Washington Post and Lani Jordan, formerly of UPI, thumb through old volumes in the morgue.

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Pulitzer-prizewinning Ann Marie Lipinski of the Chicago Tribune and award-winning author Jim Tobin watching the last hot-type Daily come off the presses in the late 1970s. “That college newsroom was everything,” she said. (Photo: Steve Kagan)

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Humble Moi with photojournalist Pauline Lubens of the San Jose Mercury News, poet Marnie Heyn, and David Pap.