Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 22, 1996

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

     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

     "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

     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

     "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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