The 'News-Letter' at 100 The Hopkins Way: Self-taught and highly motivated, many News-Letter staffers have gone on to successful journalism careers. Mike Field ---------------- Staff Writer The News-Letter, Hopkins' undergraduate student newspaper which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, has an impressive record of turning out nationally renowned journalists. Yet, over the years, there has been little in the way of official support to keep the paper publishing. Even back in 1889 there were some who thought the university would be better off with no student newspaper whatsoever. In that year the board of trustees prohibited the creation of any student publication without the board's specific written permission. Seven years later, James Thomson, of the class of 1897, and Edgeworth Smith ('98), petitioned a wary Academic Council to allow them to publish four trial issues of a fortnightly periodical they planned to call the Johns Hopkins News-Letter. Its aim, at a pricey 15 cents an issue, would be to report on current events at the university and provide a forum for students wishing to publish material of a literary bent. Permission eventually came, and now, a century later, the weekly student broadsheet is as much a part of campus life as suntanning on the beach and late nights in the Hutzler Reading Room. Studiously irreverent and stubbornly independent, the paper has witnessed Vietnam, two world wars, the Great Depression and innumerable campus controversies. Through it all, the News-Letter has kept its own deadlines, pronounced its own opinions and managed to produce a surprising number of writers, editors and reporters of some repute. This tradition of turning out nationally recognized journalists commenced with founding editor Thomson, who within three years of graduation was editor of the Norfolk, Va., Dispatch, and later went on to a long and successful career as publisher of the New Orleans Item. News-Letter editors and staff created Baltimore's alternative newsweekly tabloid City Paper, modeled closely on the News-Letter. It has become Maryland's second largest circulation newspaper, with a successful sister publication in D.C. The paper's alumni also include former editorial chair David Schneiderman ('69), now publisher of The Village Voice, while across town upstart competitor N.Y. Press is owned and published by former editor Russ Smith ('78). Columnist and National Book Award winner Murray Kempton ('39) wrote for the paper, as did local sports writer Bill Tanton ('53), pop music critic J.D. Considine ('79) and investigative journalist Richard Ben Cramer ('71). Some are famous, such as two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Masterpiece Theater host Russell Baker ('47), others, such as Alger Hiss ('26), notorious. Most recall their days (and long, long nights) on the News-Letter staff with bemused fondness and a sense that it was there--in the true Hopkins fashion--that they taught themselves the business of journalism. "You have to keep in mind that the News-Letter had a ferociously journalistic tradition. People took the paper very, very seriously," says author and curator of the George Polk Award in Journalism Sidney Offit ('50), who served as the paper's managing editor beginning in his sophomore year. "I went to Hopkins at age 17 and found myself working with the likes of Russell Baker and Hal Sonnenfeldt. It was like graduate school in journalism, although I nearly flunked out of my regular classes." Offit is not the only former staffer to recall sacrificing grade point average to getting that story. One constant that seems to have endured changes in style, tone, format and publication schedule has been the nearly obsessive dedication of the handful of students who manage to put the paper out each week. "I just lived and breathed the News-Letter when I was there," says City Paper co-founder Russ Smith. "We were really trying to explore journalism. I didn't take classes too seriously. For me, the News-Letter was my education. I sort of went into it not knowing too much, but it became the most interesting thing I had ever found." That sense of dedication and excitement was shared by many. "During the week we'd build up and gather things, and it was like getting ready for a party," recalls former features editor Patrick Ercolano ('80), who has been an editorial writer and copy editor at the Baltimore Sun since 1982. "Thursday night was production night and we'd be down there until the wee hours of the morning with loud radios and all the energy of youth exploding all over. There was a great deal of energy contained in that little house." The "little house" is the News-Letter office and former gatehouse to the Wyman estate, located at the corner of Charles Street and Art Museum Drive. For many years the domain of the School of Engineering, the building became headquarters to the student newspaper in 1965. Behind its pretty neo-Italianate exterior, issues are planned, stories written and, sometimes, desperate measures taken to fill the space. Finding enough news to fit has often proved challenging. Throughout the 1940s and into the '50s (when Hopkins was still an all-male school), the paper solved the problem in part by featuring pictures of pretty girls--named as "official hostesses" of one social event or another--as above-the-fold headers in almost every issue. "Getting people who would continuously turn in stories was just about impossible, so we had to make due as we could," says Offit. "Cotillion queens were a great way to fill the columns." Money too, has always been an issue. The News-Letter has long been almost entirely financially self-sufficient. The university supplies a free building with utilities, and the students provide the labor. Even so, it will cost about $125,000 to produce 26 issues and three special supplements of the News-Letter this year, according to current editor Max Barteau. Today the paper distributes 7,000 issues weekly, to students throughout the university. Each issue typically runs 24 pages in two sections and, beginning this past year, features full-color photography. As in years past, the bulk of the money needed to produce the paper will come from advertising sales; the Student Activities Commission often makes grants to purchase equipment, but rarely of more than $5,000. "People often don't realize the truth of the matter is that we're running a business here," says Barteau candidly. Now fully computerized, the News-Letter for years was produced under conditions that can only charitably be called primitive. The antiquated and generally inadequate equipment broke down frequently, usually at the most inopportune moment. "I remember the headliner was literally held together with paper clips and rubber bands," says former photo editor Jennifer Bishop ('79), now a freelance photojournalist. And the gatehouse, built on low marshy ground, had a tendency to flood. "We'd have to call [production manager] Dante Landucci ('76) in the middle of the night to come bail us out because we'd be down in the basement standing on chairs doing paste up while the flood waters rose around us," Bishop says. Working on the paper may have been unpredictable, but it was never dull. That, perhaps, is why a small weekly paper, poorly endowed and frequently ignored, at a school known for its sciences that offers no formal training in journalism, has managed to produce so many professionals who have made their mark. "Our feeling at the time was quite clear," remembers City Paper's other co-founder, Alan Hirsch ('77). "We thought journalism school is pretty worthless. This isn't physics. If you know how to write and you've got your facts straight, then you just do it. My prejudice is toward the self-taught. I think it's an advantage. It's like the standard clich‚ about Hopkins: they don't make anything easy, but it's all there for you if you have the determination to just do it." "Hopkins has always attracted idiosyncratic people as students," agrees David Schneiderman. "You go there for your own personal reasons. Journalism, by the same token, is not a profession for people who walk in lock step. If you look at our two most famous graduates in this field, I would say it's Murray Kempton, who has had a very idiosyncratic career, and Russell Baker, who is the first humor columnist the Times ever had. These are not conventional journalists who have had the edges rounded off. The kind who come out of Hopkins are likely to be journalists with the edges still on."
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