An Empty Room

Updated with corrections.

The room was empty.

I kept telling people that all night, when they were looking at me like I’d lost my mind. People look at you like you’ve lost your mind when you’re wandering around either grinning like an idiot, bursting into tears, or hugging random basically-strangers because they showed up at a party.

But the room was empty.

It was the hottest summer any of us can remember to this day, 1995, andour student newspaper had stopped the presses back in February. In that time the people I’d come to regard as not just friends but family were fractious, fighting: Whose fault it was, who didn’t see it coming, who could have/should have done more to stop it. Who was doing more to fix it, and who best had earned the right to bitch about those who’d buggered off for bigger and better things.

As people generally do, when their company goes belly-up, only we were too dumb to know it was time for us to quit.

We were $137,700 in debt and we had $42.71 in our checkbook. And the room — a windowless basement in the ugliest building on a beautiful campus — was empty.

The Cardinal office always rang with sound: phones, keyboards, arguments, laughter. The Cardinal office was always full. The paper was founded in 1892 and has trained thousands of journalists, thousands of leaders in business and law, thousands of people who for the first time in their lives saw the changes they were capable of making in the world. Our alumni had won Pulitzers, Emmys, Peabodys, Nobels. They wrote for the New York Times, photographed for Life magazine, were elected to state legislatures and altered the face of medicine. They fought in wars from the Spanish-American to the Gulf. They married, had children, and some of those children came back to work for the place that made their parents fall in love.

They advocated for women’s suffrage and equal treatment of minorities long before the rest of the mainstream press accepted those causes as worthy. They walked out on strike in protest of anti-Semitism and assailed a football program for racism. They exposed a corrupt governance board and revealed how taxpayer dollars were intertwined with war and death.

They did it all in a room, with typewriters and linotypes and C-text computers, cigarettes and beer and more coffee than was good for them, cheap pizza and pretzels and white bread with cream cheese. They did it all beside one another, fighting every day to put out a paper and get to class and in many cases to their second jobs as well, over the objections of family and faculty who simply didn’t understand why somebody would spend all that time doing something that a) if it paid at all, paid a pittance and b) actively hurt their grades and social life.

Trying to explain your passion to someone else isn’t easy. Take the thing you love most in the world and make me understand why you love it, and then make me love it, too. Knit it into my muscles and bones, until it thrums like a pulse under my skin and whispers to me in the dark. Explaining why, on the hottest days of the hottest summer anyone could remember, we were inside under the flourescent lights raising money penny by penny to bring back a student newspaper, well, it was like explaining the things of the church, or the appeal of high-stakes gambling, or the feeling of a crowd rising at the crack of a baseball bat. Everybody has something like this, and this was ours.

And it was gone. The room was empty.

Every day, no matter how loudly we blasted the Nirvana or George Carlin routines or whatever musical score was wearing out the boombox, no matter how much we few tried to talk while we worked, the silence was always there, and in it was judgment and indictment and hollow animal fear.

And we ignored it as hard as we could but all of us, at one time or another, felt the weight of all that history and heard the echoes of that noise and thought, “What if this fails?”

I’ve been in and out of this blog for the past couple of weeks because I’ve been planning a party. A big three-day celebration ofthe paper’s 120th anniversary, held last weekend in Madison, with journalism panels and a photography exhibit and a big crazy dance benefit to end the week. I’ve had a committee of people and an army of volunteers and it was all going very well, 250 people showed up, enjoying the programs and whatnot, and then the paper’s current staff held an open house in the same room where Doc and Mr. A and I and a few important others used to sit on those hot summer nights making calls and punching numbers into spreadsheets and trying to figure out how on God’s green earth we could ever pull this off.

And the room was full.

A bunch of staffers from the mid-1950s were arguing about copy-editing mistakes that had been dust for half a century. A bunch of staffers from the 1980s were re-creating a staff photo taken during their student days and joking about photoshopping in friends who weren’t there. A bunch of staffers from the mid-2000s were throwing a football around. And a bunch of staffers from that year were mauling the snacks and showing off their “layout wall of fame” and looking around in wonder at all the people who loved this place just like they did.

In the corner, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Abigail Goldman was trying to find work of hers from her student days to show her current students at UCLA. She teaches journalism and wanted to show them that she had started out exactly where they had, and struggled with some of the same techniques, made the same mistakes. “There it is,” she said, exasperated, pointing at an article in a bound newspaper volume. “Pet peeve number five, right there.”

The artists and editorial cartoonists were comparing heights in the office. Each year before one student editor left and another came in, they signed the wall separating the photo and graphics departments and penciled in their marks above their heads like little kids in their rooms. Despite the fact that all it would have taken was one wet sponge to erase all the marks, no one had ever done so. No one ever thought of it.

Editor in Chief Robert Lewis, who helmed the paper in 1942 before leaving for war, pointed out the front page from Pearl Harbor day on the wall, its WE ARE AT WAR headline visible from across the room. “That was not trite,” he said softly to staffers who were in grade school on 9/11. “We knew war had been coming, and now it was here.”

I believe this the way I believe in gravity: The world gets better when its storytellers are good and true, and you can teach people a million different ways to tell a story but you can’t teach them how to want to do it. You can only give them places where they can gather to do that, places where they can learn from one another, push and change and love one another, try for greater and greater connection. Our journalism is critical to us as a country, and for all the time I spend haranguing the punditry and studying the politics and assailing the economics, I know there’s nothing more important to the future of journalism than making strong, fearless, unforgiving journalists and that room has always been a place where fearlessness was nurtured and forgiveness seldom given.

About halfway through the afternoon Saturday, I had to go outside and take a few deep breaths, because when I was at the paper getting to 104 was a forlorn hope that had no chance of coming true and every year just like everywhere there are struggles and the reason we have unlikely victories in the face of impossible odds is that the odds are impossible and the victories unlikely and as much as I say all the time to never give up, I was afraid all the time of not making it that far.

Here was 120, and there is gray in my hair, and the staffers don’t know who I am, and that is perfect, that is so ordinary, that is so right. Next year’s staff won’t have been born when the shutdown happened, which is when I’ve officially become that guy in the corner yelling YOU DON’T KNOW MAN I WAS THERE, which is also right and perfect. There are still arguments going on at the paper every day, arguments journalism is having too, about new media and how best to use it, about people’s reading habits and news consumption then and now, which is just as it should be.

The most important thing is that that room is full.

And always will be.


11 thoughts on “An Empty Room

  1. Excuse my French, but this is fucking brilliant. If a case can be made for why we worked 12-hour shifts until 3 a.m., losing sleep and money, shirking schoolwork and neglecting other friendships, all to put out a (physically flimsy, but otherwise hefty) eight pages, five days a week, this is it. Thank you, Allison.

  2. Guess this explains why I was grinning like an idiot.. Even in the first picture (before any drinks) with Tam and Maureen and Colton I’m grinning like a fool.
    I’m grinning like a fool at my desk now. Luckily nobody can see me.
    Love ya.

  3. I wish I would have looked for that area in the DC office where the artists pencilled in their heights…I suspect, at 6 ft 4 inches, Jim might have been the tallest.

  4. Sharon, they were talking about the last time the paper had a tall graphics editor! The last couple of them have been shorter than all the other editors!
    Mine were about average height, but we had this photo team that was like a comic duo of a very tall fellow and a very tiny girl.

  5. On the nose!
    I’ve said it and will keep saying it, the local college newspaper, composed of students who give up their valuable time and work hard on a shoestring budget for “whatever it is / I don’t see any immediate reward / quid pro quo / etc.” put out a weekly paper that puts the local “professional” TV and newspaper to shame.

  6. And as you alluded to, the campus papers are also more likely to take up a controversial position and/or position against the majority and thus serve as agents of change.

  7. Wonderful piece. And, just because I love Allison and the power of good stories, I want to remind all reading this to buy her book. It tells the great stories of the paper with her brilliant style. I felt like I was there!
    If she doesn’t sell at least 200 book this week I’m going to give you humans SUCH a nerve pinch!
    Spocko, Athenae’s number 2 fan ( Mr. A is number one, and Kenosha Kid is number 3, but I’m number 2. Wait, that sounds wrong, you know what I mean.)

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