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.
Caffeine, ambition, camaraderie, and journalistic passion — but very little pay — have fueled the Daily for generations. That combination results in pride and nostalgia, among other emotions.
“I was never a member of the Daily staff but what’s striking to me is that there’s no adult supervision,” says John U. Bacon, author of “Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football,” and a member of the board of student publications at UM, which oversees the financial business of the newspaper and yearbook.
While its revenues have declined (from $1.4 million in 2000 to less than $500,000 in 2014), the intensity of its student work force — and alumni devotion — has not. When Stephanie Steinberg, the paper’s 2011 editor-in-chief, decided to create a book honoring the paper’s long history, 40 writers readily contributed, including Tom Hayden, UM’s most famous 1960s radical, Blumenstein, and Jay Cassidy, a Hollywood film editor who offered never-published photographs of Robert F. Kennedy speaking in Detroit three weeks before his assassination. (I was a Daily editor in the 1970s and contributed an essay for the book.)
“In the Name of Editorial Freedom: 125 Years at the Michigan Daily” was published last week by the University of Michigan Press, just in time for the Daily celebration. A percentage of proceeds are being donated to the newspaper.
“Editing the book, I definitely walked away with a greater sense of the purpose of the Michigan Daily, and how important that independent voice really is,” says Steinberg, now a Washington, D.C., magazine editor.
All is not totally rosy in the real world of student journalism, though. Mark Bealafeld, the Daily’s full-time general manager, says the newspaper’s finances are relatively stable — but hardly secure. UM’s yearbook — also part of the student publications entity — is the moneymaker, selling not only yearbooks but tassels, gowns, and “anything you can think of” to generate revenue. he said.
To raise money for the newspaper’s future, the board of student publications offered naming rights to everything from the newsroom ($250,000) to the elevator ($6,000). The Daily staff published a special section, trying to raise advertising revenue.
Sara Fitzgerald, a 1972 Daily editor-in-chief and retired Washington Post editor, honored a feminist lawyer, Jean King, who sued the university for sex discrimination: She arranged to name the women’s restroom in King’s honor. Another alumnus, no doubt seeking sex equality, matched the $2,500 contribution by naming the men’s room.
But the most impressive tribute surely comes from John W. Madigan, who has two business degrees from UM but never stepped into the Michigan Daily’s building until last week. Accompanied by his grandson, a high school junior touring the campus with him, Madigan said he knew “from Googling” that the Daily was about to celebrate its 125th anniversary.
“I always valued student newspapers and student journalism,” says Madigan, a former CEO of the Tribune Co., publisher of the Chicago Tribune. “I was always amazed at how capable those young journalists were, what a grasp they had of editorial judgment, deadlines, business. I saw them hit the deck running.”
Impressed by what he saw, and what he already knew, Madigan paid for the $250,000 naming rights to the newsroom during his impromptu visit.
Jennifer Calfas, the current editor, and about 40 current staff members will be at the celebration Friday and throughout the weekend.
“There’s a common bond among all of us,” says Steinberg. “We have this shared experience of working toward a 2 a.m. deadline, the sense of urgency: You have to get the words on the page or there will be a hole in the newspaper.”
It’s a challenge the Michigan Daily staff, fresh and eager and idealistic every September, expects to continue to meet.