This is the first in a series of excerpts from my new book, It Doesn’t End With Us: The Story of the Daily Cardinal; How A College Newspaper’s Fight for Freedom Changed Its University, Challenged Journalism, and Influenced Hundreds of Lives.
You can pre-order the bookhere.
Introduction: The Slinky, The Smell and the System
“We are the people who have appointed themselves opinion leaders on this campus and it is our job to wade through the bullshit and lay the rest down on paper.”
—Daily Cardinal editorial, 1986
At theDaily Cardinal, the 115-year-old student newspaper of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, there is a system.
At about 4 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, after the advertising staff of the student newspaper leaves for the day and the business offices are closed, the editorial staff takes over the paper’s small space. Reporters arrive, one by one, with notebooks and binders stuffed with information collected over the course of the day. They sort through press releases and fliers, notes from interviews, phone numbers. They sit down at computers and type, leaning close in to the screens. Some mutter to themselves, some just stare at their work.
The editors read the stories during the writing and after, correcting errors of fact and advising on matters of style. They coax the reporters into rewriting a paragraph, a section, an entire story. They encourage, cajole, occasionally threaten.
Across the room, around a semi-circular desk, a crew of quiet young men and women sit. They read mock-ups of pages that will make up tomorrow’s newspaper. One copy editor makes corrections, and passes it to the next, and so on down the line until it has been read by at least five people. When they are done, the page is marked with a black check and placed in a stack on the desk’s end, ready for its final printing.
This has been the system, with remarkably little variation, at theDaily Cardinal since 1892. Since English major William Wesley Young founded theCardinal as the sixth student daily paper in the nation, theCardinal has worked more or less just like this: Reporters write, editors edit, and the paper goes to press. The next night it all begins again.
“You have got to be kidding me!”
At 9 p.m. on a recent Sunday, theCardinal‘s system was under a bit of a strain.
A University of Wisconsin basketball star, who had been suspended after being accused of beating up a fellow student, was granted permission to rejoin the university’s team. It was the kind of campus story on which theCardinal thrived. Tomorrow’s readers would want to know why the student had been given his team spot back, the status of his case, the reaction of his teammates to the developments. Copy editor Andrew Worringer held up the pages he had painstakingly designed several hours ago, pages that were now, as he put it, “total crap.”
“Tell me what we’re going to do now,” he sighed, crumpling his work.
“We need to get this on the front page,” Campus Editor Emily Winter said, waving the athletic department’s fax at Worringer and making pretty-please face at him. “So can you … can you … make a new newspaper?”
Maureen Backman, who ran theCardinal‘s city desk, sat with a phone receiver pressed to her left ear while she groped with her right hand for her beeping mobile phone, somewhere in her backpack.
“Jesus,” she said, slamming down one phone and picking up the other. “My best writer has mono,” she called out to Winter, interrupting Winter’s argument with the copy desk. “Can you cover something at 10 a.m. tomorrow?”
“I have a date with my bed at that time,” Winter replied. It would be her third straight day without sleep. “But if he has mono …”
“Maybe he can go anyway,” Backman muttered while furiously text-messaging someone on the mobile.
“Has he been to the doctor?” Winter asked.
“I hope so. I really need that story.”
A rented velvet cape and vinyl crown lay in crumpled clear plastic bags on the floor. TheCardinal‘s sports staff was trying to get a group of the university’s student athletes into costumes for a joke photo shoot. They considered Superman outfits, sports columnist Courtney Smith reported, but had come to a sticking point with the young sportsmen. Leotards.
Editor-in-Chief Evan Rytlewski pulled his ski cap on over his wild curly hair and announced that he was off to a nearby McDonalds. The fast-food restaurant had shorted him a dollar and 25 cents on a soda purchase. “I’m going back there,” he declared, “and I’m getting some satisfaction.”
And there was some kind of smell in the darkroom.
“Walk into my office,” Photo Editor A.J. MacLean pleaded with his fellow student editors, “and then walk back out again, and tell me you don’t smell something strange.”
TheDaily Cardinal is housed in a windowless basement room with poor ventilation and even poorer décor. The dirt is caked so thick on the floor from the slushy treads of students’ boots that staffers’ footfalls crunch. The desks are an arsonist’s dream come true: paper scraps and stacks and bundles everywhere. While the computers at which the editors work are all in good repair, there is not a single chair in the place that is not broken.
There are Skittles on the floor. There is Silly Putty on the walls. There is a Slinky in the ceiling.
“I torqued the Slinky,” Rytlewski admitted, returning victorious from his McDonalds errand, the top of his hat dusted with snow. “There didn’t seem to be anything I could do to ‘un-torque’ it, so we figured we’d use it for decoration.”
The two dozen twentysomethings who run theCardinal — including Worringer, Rytlewski, Backman and Winter — are there every night without fail, without pay, without supervision of any kind save that of one another. They are the smartest kids on campus: the ones who can recite the university presidents and their years in office backwards through the decades, who can argue over the rules of the Senate filibuster, and joke about Jane Austen.
They are the most eccentric kids on campus, too: MacLean walks around with a hockey stick in the hand not holding his camera, and Sports Editor Josh Salm takes out frustrations by throwing a green tennis ball at the ceiling.
“I get the weirdest e-mail,” Rytlewski said, motioning to Worringer. “Listen to this: ‘I’m a student at UW-Madison. Attached is a poem I’ve written about women, with whom I’ve had lots of experience but little luck. Please consider publishing it in your newspaper.”
“Is it any good?” Worringer asked.
Rytlewski rolled his eyes. “The subject of the e-mail was ‘Fuck women.'”
Backman, overhearing them, yawned. “You should hear the Shakespearean soliloquy somebody left on my voice mail the other day. It was 13 minutes long.”
“What was it about?” Worringer asked.
“Concealed carry laws,” Backman replied. “What else?”
Every night they sit and talk word counts, whether stories should jump off the front page, if a photo is too big or a graphic is too small, in the pattering news jargon that turns “brief” into a verb and uses profanity as punctuation. They talk about what other local papers are doing, what they had for lunch, what they overheard at parties, and how they might turn all of it into stories. They talk and talk and talk, excited about the most mundane events: a speech, a burglary, a group of children flying kites.
Hearing that lineup for the next day’s paper, Arts Editor Joe Uchill frowned. “What’s going on with the cheese truck? Do we not like the cheese truck accident? Smell of burning cheese all over the highway?”
“I like life-affirming stories,” Uchill said. “Like that priest arrested over the weekend for growing pot in the rectory. Stuff like that.”
Of all the stories it has covered in its 115 years, it is theCardinal‘s own story that is perhaps the most life-affirming. TheDaily Cardinalsurvived two staff strikes, a hostile takeover attempt, a printing press shutdown, a CIA probe, six offices, six dozen leaders, bombs, bullets, tear gas and death threats. Between coverage of the Spanish American War and the second war in Iraq, between the rise of the counterculture movement and the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is easier to count the nights when nobody had to be bandaged or bailed out of jail than it is to count the nights when somebody did.
Through all those tumultuous times, theCardinal never operated under faculty control. Its student editors were its only leaders; its student readers its only owners. No university advisor taught its staff how to write stories. Its staffers taught each other. No university professor corrected students’ mistakes. They corrected their own. No deep university pockets paid for the paper. It earned its own money through advertising, and — when times were tight — rescued itself from financial ruin.
Such independence and freedom is rare among college newspapers. Most of the more than 2,000 student newspapers in America submit to some form of review or oversight by their “parent” institutions, public and private. The Minnesota Daily receives $500,000 in student fees from the University of Minnesota. The Daily Californian leases its own name from the University of California-Berkeley. For most of its 100-plus years of existence, the Daily Emerald was run by the University of Oregon’s Publications Board, which oversaw every aspect of production. At Ball State Univesity in Indiana, the journalism department operates the Daily News as a lab exercise for its students.
TheCardinal‘s freedom was hard-fought and hard-won. Politicians, shocked by theCardinal‘s stance on student sex, denounced the paper on the floor of the state Senate. Radio hosts assailed the newspaper over the airwaves, accusing theCardinal of harboring communists. Most damaging, advertisers mounted boycotts over editorials about everything from curtailing athletics to supporting university bombers.
In adversity and prosperity, theCardinal‘s staff fended off these attacks. Their reliance on each other was the only assurance that the opportunities they enjoyed would be provided to students after them. Time and again, when faced with theCardinal‘s “inevitable” demise, staffers looked at the newspaper in front of them and said, “This doesn’t end with us.”
This battle, this century-plus of fighting with checkbook and notebook, ensured that the only limitations anyCardinal staff member ever faced was the limitation of his or her own ability. That kind of environment made theCardinal a journalistic powerhouse, a fertile training ground and a place where young people learned — most for the first time in their lives — just how much strength they truly possessed.
That challenging milieu existed from the day of theCardinal‘s founding, which was itself an act in defiance of reasoned skepticism. Tempted in 1888 by the promise of a “Course in English Literature and Journalism” in the university’s catalogue, student William Wesley Young left his hometown of upstate Monroe and decided to study newspapering at the University of Wisconsin.
After arriving at Wisconsin, he regretted his decision. His first college choice, Cornell, had a daily student newspaper at which Young might have trained for his newsman’s ambition. Wisconsin had no such paper. Nor did the university have a journalism department. Young was forced to cobble together courses from a dozen disciplines and design his own curriculum. Young felt this lack diminished his school’s reputation, especially when compared to the schools of the East like Harvard and Yale. He determined to change that.
But when he asked the opinions of students and professors he trusted, “Does the University of Wisconsin need a daily student newspaper?” they all answered, “No.”
Those early skeptics would be shocked at the state of journalism on the Wisconsin campus today. Two daily student newspapers — the only two daily and directly competing papers in the nation — now make the university one of the most exciting places to practice newspaper reporting in the country. TheDaily Cardinal— the organization those early university leaders deemed unnecessary — shaped the founding of the University of Wisconsin’s School of Journalism itself, after aCardinal founding editor returned to campus to teach the first journalism classes there.
Throughout the past century, theDaily Cardinal greatly influenced the university it covered. From chronicling security in student elections in the 1930s to decrying McCarthyism in the 1950s, from university corruption in the 1960s to diversity efforts in the 2000s, theCardinal‘s reporters broke stories that influenced the course of history at this institution.
Legendary football coach Harry Stuhldreher was thought to be untouchable in 1948. The former Notre Dame quarterback led a team of national-award-winning players and was worshipped by fans. Beneath the public adulation, discontent with Stuhldreher lurked.Cardinal reporter Bob Teague, who once played for Stuhldreher, published articles about the football team from the players’ point of view, andCardinal editor Mort Levine followed up with editorials calling for Stuhldreher’s removal. After two months of unrelenting coverage criticizing the coach’s competence, Stuhldreher resigned in disgrace.
WhenCardinal reporter Jim Rowen wrote, in 1969, about secret research at the university which directly impacted the course of the Vietnam War, his revelations echoed across the country, inflaming an anti-war movement already engulfing college campuses. His stories were accounts of greedy university regents using public money for personal gain, funnelling thousands of dollars in business into their banks and secretly backing military research. Profit Motive 101’s tales of abuse of power became the shame of the campus. The year after Rowen’s stories were published, a group of radical young men — some of them members of theCardinal staff — bombed the building where the Army research took place, killing a university researcher.
No university authority reviewed or authorized the publication of these types of stories. Many university officials would have liked to prevent them.Cardinal staffers, judging for themselves what kind of news coverage the campus warranted, pushed those topics to the fore.
TheCardinal‘s shadow stretches far beyond its university. Many of the nation’s foremost journalists — the men and women whose reporting and commentary shape our most vital public discourse — received their training in the same windowless basement rooms in whichCardinal editors labor today.
CNN’s Jeff Greenfield got his start at theDaily Cardinal, becoming the only editor in chief in the paper’s history elected to two consecutive terms. Legendary NBC broadcaster Edwin Newman was the paper’s foremost news reporter. Nine Pulitzer Prize winners met their first deadlines at theCardinal, including former Associated Press photographer Neal Ulevich, Washington Post foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid, and Los Angeles Times writer Abigail Goldman. New York Times editorial board member Karl Meyer, authors Jerrold and Leona Schechter, Milwaukee Journal editor Richard Leonard, all recall theirCardinal years as their first and best experiences in journalism. Dwight Pelkin, sports columnist for the Sheboygan [Wis.] Press for more than 40 years, put it best when he said of the love for journalism theCardinal inspired: “We briefly made sorties into other work like public relations or advertising, but something always told us to forget it. It wasn’t us.”
These journalists learned lessons at theCardinal — to question those in power, to publish without fear, and to never take no for an answer. Those lessons inform our national discourse today throughCardinal graduates’ work. Their achievements validate the way theCardinal trains its young people in the journalism craft.
TheDaily Cardinal also changed its staff members’ lives in ways that had nothing to do with journalism. AmongCardinal alumni exists a bond like that of old soldiers and childhood sweethearts, a bond forged over too many cups of coffee on too many sleepless nights. At a 1999 alumni reunion, the editors of the rocky years of World War II sat so long talking over their old copyediting mistakes and deadline disasters that event staff turned out the lights on them.
The power of theirCardinal experience influences those who left newspapers and never looked back. Dr. Jack Geiger, a a founding member and Past President of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the U.S. affiliate of Internation Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1985, credits the newspaper with teaching him to ask the unasked question and examine the underlying cause of a problem, whether societal or physical. Prof. Douglas Gomery, an author and film scholar, says his days at theCardinal were those when he “became an adult.”
More than three dozen marriages started as romances at theCardinal. Staffers decided after months of working side-by-side that they wanted to remain that way for the rest of their lives. The madness of the newspaper’s late nights and early mornings forges friendships that last a lifetime.
All this because the newspaper comes out, or does not come out, dependent only on students like those who sit, every night, around theCardinal‘s green copy desk. The same desk — green-topped and wobbly-legged — appears in photographs of theCardinal office as early as 1921.
Then it held typewriters and stacks of yellow copy paper. Today it holds up a massive computer monitor, tomorrow’s paper flickering before Worringer as he worked to shoehorn the story about the basketball player onto a crowded front page.
His copy staff chattered around him, about Milwaukee strip clubs, bad movies, and why white singers should not cover reggae songs. MacLean whacked a hackey sack past a new copy editor’s head; the young man shouted and ducked.
“Yeah!” MacLean cheered as the little knitted ball rolled out into the hallway. When he followed it out, intending to hit it back in, Salm slammed the door behind him and locked it.
Over and over, the slap of MacLean’s Koho stick made the door shake. Nobody even looked up.
“This idiot thinks the Bill of Rights is ranked in order of importance,” Worringer called out, reading a story about a potential recall of Wisconsin’s governor.
“What if it actually is?” Uchill asked.
Worringer thought a moment. “Then the quartering of soldiers shouldn’t be in the top ten.”
“I don’t know,” Uchill countered. “I think it’s a real problem that more people need to know about.”
No salary holds these students inside the drafty newsroom on a cold winter’s night. No contract compels their work. No boss regulates their hours. They stay for the experience and the excitement. They stay for each other, for their sense of obligation to the paper their predecessors bequeathed them. They stay because no one forces them to, because for the first time in many of their lives, here, staying is their decision alone.
They stay and work because it doesn’t end with them.
Backman neatly sidestepped her reporter Alex Balistreri, looping the phone cord over his head so she could keep talking while he used her desk, a regular dance step performed in these cramped quarters.
For Backman, the quiet Sunday night before the onslaught of the week was the best time to reflect on the question: What makes this place, these people, so special?
As a college student, there is so much you could be doing. Why this?
She swept her arm out, encompassing the new copy editor eagerly jumping into a discussion about proper work attire for strippers, the loaf of bread and peanut butter on a desk for cheap eats later, the student critic going over his story with Uchill, the reporters telling jokes about Jesus and a vodka martini.
“I got a phone message announcing that sororities are supporting the lifestyle of Scanner Dan,” Winter said, referring to an iconic local panhandler who carried a police scanner everywhere. “Anybody else want to hear it?”
“This,” Backman said of all of it, past and present and tomorrow’s pasted-up future on the computer screen in front of her. “I love this.”