For more than 100 years, student journalists have been churning out all the news that's fit to print (and some that's not) about life at Northwestern University.
In 1937, as civil war was ripping Spain apart, most students on Northwestern's campus were too busy to take much notice. Not, however, the editors of the Daily Northwestern. "The ninth annual Waa-Mu show is launched, and the fashionable co-eds are about to begin to parade in Northwestern's lavish style show," wrote the late Julian Behrstock (WCAS37), chief editorial writer, "while in Spain a whole people is engaged in a struggle to the death for the most elementary human rights."
These "best of times, worst of times" reminiscences are typical characterizations of the Daily Northwestern, a campus institution that goes back more than a century. Throughout its history, the Daily has been a running study in creative tension -- among the staff members, with the student body as a whole, with the paper's faculty advisers and sometimes with the administration.
Yet something must be going right. The Daily was named the state's best college paper by the Illinois College Press Association last February, and the year before the paper received a Gold Crown award from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association, effectively making Northwestern's publication one of the nation's top college dailies. Since the paper went electronic in 1997, average weekly log-ons to the Daily Web site have jumped from 4,000 to nearly 7,000 in 1999. Accolades have "hit" the site as well, culminating last May when the College Press Network named it one of the top five college newspaper sites in the nation.
Compared with the past, national and international stories have been
The revamping of the University Sexual Assault Hearing and Appeals System and a controversy surrounding the Hispanic studies program's decision not to give tenure to an openly homosexual professor were also "really important, fundamental issues that students at NU should have been interested in," says Palmquist. And he gave the stories extensive coverage.
For all the potential for serious, First Amendmentstyle conflicts with the Northwestern administration, opposition from officials -- with some exceptions, such as Ernst's experience -- has been limited mostly to strenuous objections over stories. And it has never included sustained censorial crackdowns. To a great degree, that record is attributable to the decision in earlier times to make the Daily wholly independent of the University. In 1923 the Students Publishing Co. of Northwestern University, a not-for-profit organization, was incorporated, and the company set up a Board of Publications to oversee its operations. This was -- and is -- the official extent of both University and corporate involvement in the Daily Northwestern's production.
"As the board chair, I watch over the budget and salaries, but as far as editorial policy goes, I don't ever interfere unless an editor comes and asks for my advice," explains Medill associate professor Mary Dedinsky (J69, GJ70), who assumed the position last year.
The closest thing the Daily currently has to supervision by higher-ups within the corporation is the general manager, a role Stacia Campbell has played for the past 15 years. According to Campbell, however, her part in editorial supervision is negligible, and she emphasizes there is no affiliation between the newspaper (including her) and Medill. "For better or worse, the brunt of responsibility for the paper falls on its student staff," she says.
Yet despite the administration's basic hands-off position, its unofficial attitude toward the paper has most certainly changed over the years. Ernst vividly recalls waiting with his editors to interview University President J. Roscoe Miller as he exited from the back of the administration building. "I remember his advice to us as he walked by: 'Don't damage the University, boys,'" Ernst relates.
That image contrasts vividly with the recollections of Bob Greene (J69), now the well-known columnist for the Chicago Tribune, who wrote his first-ever columns for the Daily in 1968 and 1969.
"I remember sitting in [Miller's] office and asking him virtually anything," Greene says. "I don't think he was comfortable with it, but whether or not he liked it, he was always courteous to us and did his best to answer questions."
Reporting the news at Northwestern goes back to January 1871, when the sole campus paper was the monthly Tripod. Eight years later, feeling pressure from a year-old competitor called the Vidette, the Tripod became a semi-monthly publication; by Jan. 28, 1881, the two competitors had merged and put out the first edition of the Northwestern.
In January 1888 the burgeoning Northwestern became a weekly. Named the Daily Northwestern in 1903, the paper was publishing five days a week by 1910. Financial constraints have at various times forced the board to cut production to three or four times weekly, but currently the paper is in solid financial condition.
"People called us all the time for advice," says Medill professor George Harmon, who served for 17 years as chair of the Students Publishing Co. "The Daily is recognized by people in this business as a well-run organization."
From the beginning sports have received a lot of ink despite Northwestern's prevailing record of less than stellar results, particularly in football. Both the news and the sports pages of the Daily's back issues are filled with large, late-week headlines buoying everyone's hopes for the upcoming game -- only to be followed by headlines early the following week proclaiming the previous Saturday's bad news.
With athletics, too, attitudes toward what is acceptable questioning have changed. When sports editor Jack Sundine (J42) wrote in 1941 that the Northwestern team was the only one in the nation to have fumble practice and that all its touchdowns were accidental, that was too much even for his peers on the paper, so the other student staff leaders fired him.
By the late 1960s, sports coverage in the Daily had gotten tougher, but if anything that environment made it harder for Gene Sunshine (WCAS71). As the full-time beat reporter for football during the late 1960s, he found it extremely difficult to go back to his typewriter to describe the carnage on the gridiron.
"It was challenging," says Sunshine, now Northwestern University's senior vice president for business and finance. "You'd get to know the players, and you'd feel sort of an attachment to them. They treated me nicely, so it was particularly hard after the game to find things to talk about."
In his senior year, when Sunshine was sports editor, the team went 6-1 in conference play, second in the Big Ten, under coach Alex Agase. Reporting that news was easy. Everyone had plenty to say.
For women, just getting a toehold to cover sports was a major accomplishment. Sue Lucas Carson (J62) grew up in Omaha, which was football-crazy over the nearby University of Nebraska Cornhuskers. "I really understood the game and could keep up a play-by-play," she says with pride.
Seeking an exit from her post as night editor, Carson became one of the first women to make the jump to sportswriting. "I tried to cover a couple of practices, but Alex Agase told me I couldn't cover them dressed in shorts. He must have thought that it would distract the players," she remembers. "Women weren't allowed in the press box either." She also recalls at least one journalism scholarship that was for males only. "In those days, you just expected it. It was the way of the world."
In the way of today's world, of course, everything has gotten more complicated. For one thing, students and Evanston residents are frequently turning to alternative sources for their news. On the campus front, niche publications, such as the feminist Jezebel's Juice, For Members Only Blackboard and the Asian Americantargeted Bof, have gained a following by speaking to issues the granddaddy of campus papers is thought to have overlooked.
"I don't know that anyone really sees us [the Daily] as a creative or subversive outlet," says 1999-2000 campus editor Emily Bittner about the Daily's competition. "Certainly one of the most creative of our desks is NYou, the magazine. There's room for a lot more creativity at the Daily, but you have to have writers who want to take risks with their writing."
And editors who will allow it -- a role current editor in chief Palmquist has enthusiastically filled. "I want to push a lot harder," he says. "I think the Daily's been way too safe in the past couple of years. I don't want to see columns about the best places to date in Evanston."
Last year Palmquist enlisted Amanda Holman (SESP00) and others to write columns on the paper's Forum page that generated lots of controversy -- in her case, especially about race. "[Holman] was great for this campus," Palmquist says. "For me, that was the first time in a long time the Forum page had been important. People might have been disagreeing, but at least they were talking about it.
"We're doing this to effect change," he adds. "I think there's a lot that should be changed at Northwestern, a lot that should be commented on that's not. I'd at least like to get that out in front of people."
To McCormick junior Eshé Pickett, more people on campus do in fact seem to be talking about what's in the newspaper. "This past year, the Daily has had a much greater impact on the student body," she says.
University archivist Patrick M. Quinn offers some historical perspective, noting that the Daily's history of "making a difference" has been a spotty one.
Michael Conway, the Daily's 1968-69 editor in chief, responds that that is not the entire purpose for having a student publication. "We wanted to have a very 'professional' newspaper," he says. Conway also mentions several stories published during his era, especially one exposing the University's financial holdings in the napalm-producing Dow Chemical Co., that gave Northwestern administrators fits.
"One of the things we were proudest of was that, for all the tumult going on around us [with the Vietnam protests], we knew we had to try to be professional reporters," adds Greene. "Otherwise, we were useless. We were supposed to be there to make sense out of it all."
In May 1970, Northwestern, like most of the larger campuses, was rocked by unrest following the U.S. incursion into Cambodia and the student deaths at Kent State University in Ohio and Jackson State University in Mississippi. "The Daily kept publishing even though the University was effectively closed down," Sunshine recalls.
Quinn credits some editors, particularly Lois Kroeber Wille (J53, GJ54, H90), whose later career in Chicago journalism led to two Pulitzer Prizes, with taking courageous stands during the McCarthy era, but he nonetheless feels the Daily's golden age -- at least on the editorial page -- came around the late 1930s and early 1940s. "It was the only time I think the paper was actually more to the left than the student body," he notes.
Among those pushing it in that direction was the late Stanley Frankel (WCAS40), a Daily columnist who later became a publisher at McCall's magazine and winner of a Peabody Award in broadcasting for a series featuring former UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson. Frankel, like most of the campus, tended to view the war in Europe and Asia with alarm, but Quinn explains that Frankel's and the Daily's opposition to overseas involvement was rooted in idealistic pacifism, not the reactionary, inward-turning isolationism so common in the Midwest at the time.
Sundine, the dumped sports editor (who was subsequently recruited to write editorials), recalls taking President Roosevelt to task in 1941 for sending warships to the coast of Argentina at a time when the United States was officially neutral. Questioning FDR's patriotism, he received an unexpected surprise. "That night, I got a visit from two members of the FBI, and they gave me a verbal cease-and-desist," he says. "I was impressed. I was just a kid, so I was kind of frightened, at least initially.
"I told them I would 'kowtow,' a term they didn't appreciate. The next day, I wrote an editorial about a large hole filled with rainwater in back of the gym. I asked the FBI if they should investigate for subversive activity. They called back and said, 'OK, we're even; enough is enough.'"
By the time Sundine and Frankel found themselves in the South Pacific, they and the paper had long since changed course on the need to stop fascism. On Dec. 8, 1941, the Daily ran an editorial cartoon of a young man with an "N" on his chest. He was rolling up his sleeve as a shadowy Uncle Sam standing behind him did the same. The tagline under the illustration: "We're ready, uncle!"
As for relations with advertisers, including faculty interference in that realm, they too have had their ups and downs. Virginia Lamb Doetsch (S41), who went on to an award-winning career in the tough arena of New York advertising, reviewed many Loop theatrical productions and felt free to say what she pleased despite the fact that many theaters took out ads in the paper. Yet she concedes she may not have been the harshest of critics: "I was in love with the theater. I suppose I tended to see everything through rose-colored glasses."
Ten years later, drama critic Michael Porte (J, GJ53, G60) tells quite a different tale. "It wasn't freedom of the press by any means," he says. "If I wrote a negative review, the faculty adviser would either not print it or would have parts of it cut out so it wouldn't offend advertisers."
The same went for on-campus productions, notes Porte, now a professor of communications at the University of Cincinnati. "When I gave the Waa-Mu show a negative review, they not only cut out the offending comments, they also cut out my byline," he says. "The Waa-Mu show was a sacred cow then, and no one had the nerve to say anything negative about it. But I'm sorry, it just wasn't a very good show that year."
Thrown into the advertising mix is the fact that Evanstonians at large make up a big portion of the readership. Instead of having to wait until the city-based weekly newspapers come out, locals often say they appreciate having next-day coverage of the Evanston City Council, especially regarding longstanding Northwestern issues such as campus development and the University's exemption from property taxes.
Unicorn Cafe owner and manager Peter Thomas has experienced the scope of the Daily's reach first-hand: "The Daily definitely has an impact on the Evanston community. There was an article about some professors who have their morning coffee at the café, something that was mentioned in a book by [history professor] Garry Wills. We got a bunch of letters and calls from that story."
In addition to the day-to-day demands the Daily's editorial staff has always had, there is now heat from new media competitors -- broadcast, cable, Internet and others. "Staffing has become more difficult in the last few years," reports Stacia Campbell. "Students have so many more opportunities. The better job market means students are getting the internships they want during the summertime." And during the school year, she points to the decision to merge the magazine-style supplements as evidence that recruiting is getting harder.
Most staffers tend to be Medill students, but no thought is being given to going the route of many prestigious programs, such as the University of Missouri School of Journalism. There, only journalism students work on the school's paper, which is distributed campus-wide, and they must do so for academic credit.
"The disadvantage with that is that they're conscripts rather than volunteers," Harmon says. "Here, our staffers do it for the story, not for the grade."
Robert Freed is associate editor of Northwestern magazine. Marisa Kula (J00), a former intern with Northwestern, is a research assistant at Spin magazine in New York City.