Johns Hopkins Magazine - April 1996 Issue

Self-Taught and Stubbornly Independent

By Mike Field
Over the past 100 years, the student-run News-Letter has kept its own deadlines, pronounced its own opinions, and managed to produce a surprising number of journalists who have made their mark.

Once, long ago now, a great quietus lay upon the Hopkins campus, and stillness blanketed the land. Professors padded their way from library to laboratory on muffled feet; administrators went about their business unremarked and unmolested; and from the back of each classroom, the only sound to be heard was the furious note-taking scratch of the students' steel-nibbed pens.

Then, one day, a couple of underclassmen put forth the idea that maybe the university ought to have a student newspaper.

And there has been all hell to pay ever since.

Not that anyone in 1896 would have been surprised in the least. At Hopkins, student newspapers were considered suspect long before the first issue ever went to print. Undergraduates, many then felt, should be seen little and heard even less. In 1889 the Board of Trustees prohibited the creation of any student publication without the specific written permission of the board.

Seven years later, James Thomson of the class of 1897 and Edgeworth Smith of the class of 1898 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.

Eventually, and reluctantly, the full board acquiesced, "provided that the plan be carried out in a manner satisfactory to the President." Evidently, the trustees felt that giving students ink rollers and movable type was somewhat akin to handing them cans of petrol and a lit match.

In the long run, they may have been correct.

For whatever the Hopkins News-Letter has been over the past 100 years, it has never, in the words of one former editor, "been a house organ" content to publish events as the powers that be see them, or would have them seen. 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, Virginia, 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 Hopkins student paper; today, it is Maryland's second-largest circulation newspaper, with a similarly successful sister publication in Washington, D.C. Another staffer, former editorial chair David Schneiderman '69, is publisher of The Village Voice, while across town upstart competitor N.Y. Press is owned and published by former editor Russ Smith '78.

The paper's alumni include columnist and National Book Award winner Murray Kempton '39, sports writer Bill Tanton '53, pop critic J.D. Considine '79, and investigative journalist Richard Ben Cramer '71 to name just a few. Some, such as two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Masterpiece Theater host Russell Baker '47, have become famous; others, such as Alger Hiss '26, DHL '47, notorious.

Most former staffers 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.

They had to. No one was assigned to teach it to them. In a tradition springing perhaps from the first begrudging permission to publish, university administrations and Student Activities Commissions alike have wavered between determined disregard and outright hostility toward the student newspaper.

"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. "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.

They have done it, and continue to do so, because it's fun. Because it's exciting. And most of all, because it's theirs. With no school of journalism and no faculty mentors to guide them, News-Letter staffs over the years have been free to experiment with form, content, and approach; free to try the utterly unorthodox; free to make outrageous mistakes.

And mistakes they have made, stirring up the kind of tempest-in-a-teapot calamities that student publications seem especially prone to provoke. When asked to recall their biggest stories, almost every past editor remembers some controversy that resulted in a ritual trip to the dean's office and a stern rebuke.

"I'll never forget one issue in which we had three controversial stories, every one of which brought a threatened lawsuit and/or expulsion," recalls former editor Alan Hirsch '77. One of the stories was critical of the administration's handling of a tenure review process, the second offered an unflattering profile of a professor, and the third satirized the Student Activities Commission. "The head of The Writing Seminars said he was going to sue me personally, the SAC was going to withdraw their funds, and the university was going to throw us off campus. And that was all in one issue. We had no idea we were going to get that reaction. We thought they were good stories."

Hirsch is half of the partnership, along with Russ Smith, that founded the BaltimoreCity Squeeze, the original "unfortunate hippy name," says Smith, of the publication that became Baltimore's City Paper. The very first issues of that paper were put out in May 1977 by News-Letter staff, using News-Letter facilities, shoe-horned into the regular weekly production schedule. Over the years the City Paper has returned the favor by providing ample freelance opportunities for graduating News-Letter staffers looking to break into the business.

"I just lived and breathed the News-Letter when I was there," says Smith, who with Hirsch sold the City Paper to the Scranton Times in 1987. "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 BaltimoreSun 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, as more recent graduates know, the old Wyman Estate gatehouse at the corner of Charles St. and Art Museum Drive, a pretty neo-Italianate mansion-in-miniature with tower, arched windows, and its own little wooden drawbridge. The greenstone building has served as the News-Letter headquarters since the Engineering School vacated the premises in 1965. Prior to that, the paper kept offices first in the Merrick Barn and later in the basement of Levering Hall.

Tales from the gatehouse are legion. Russ Smith earned lasting fame there for being the editor who commanded from above, choosing as his office the building's tower, which can only be reached by ladder. "When I came to the paper in 1974 it was largely unused," he recalls. "So I took it for my office. I even lived there--illegally of course--one summer, sleeping in the loft and taking cold water showers in the bathroom in the basement. It was great. No rent." Smith decorated the walls with clippings and photos from his time as editor. There they have remained to this day, now yellow and curled with age.

"There was something about that building sitting away, down at the foot of the campus, that gave us this special unique independent status," says David Schneiderman. "We were just a bunch of kids on our own and the paper was such an informal atmosphere. It was a wonderful place to hang out."

As you might expect, a bunch of bright kids with a mission just "hanging out" were bound to get a little flamboyant from time to time. The best News-Letter legends usually begin late at night or in the very darkest hours of early morn, involving print-or-perish decisions made in the advanced stages of sleep deprivation. For no matter how carefully schedules were arranged, it seems, life at the News-Letter always came down to the Thursday night crunch.

"I remember sitting around one night with a deadline at hand and no news," Schneiderman says. "Even though it was 1967 the anti-war movement hadn't come to Hopkins, which was always about five years behind the times. So we sent a reporter to Barton Hall--which at that time was off limits to the campus, presumably because of defense related research they were doing--and had him spray paint an anti-war slogan on the wall. We got a picture of the graffiti, which we tagged and ran as a guerrilla action directed against the war. Yes, we made the news as well as reported it."

Finding enough news to fit has often proved challenging. Throughout the 1940s and into the '50s the paper solved the problem in part by featuring pictures of pretty young women--named "official hostesses" of one Hopkins 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 do as we could," says Offit. "Cotillion queens were a great way to fill the columns."

Money, too, has always been an issue, as the News-Letter has long been almost entirely financially self-sufficient. The university supplies a 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 '96. Currently, the paper prints and distributes 7,000 issues to students on and off the Homewood campus. Each issue typically runs 24 pages in two sections and, beginning this past year, features full-color photography on the front page.

As in years past, the bulk of the money needed to produce the paper will come from advertising sales; the SAC 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.

Now fully computerized, the News-Letter for years was produced under conditions that can only charitably be called primitive. Such equipment as there was--antiquated and generally inadequate--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. What's more, the gatehouse, built on marshy ground, had a pronounced 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," says Bishop.

Such conditions, coupled with lack of sleep, do not always conspire to promote the most responsible and newsworthy journalistic thinking. There was the time in the late '70s, for instance, when News-Letter staffers ran what they thought was a clever send-up of the famous cover of the rock 'n' roll album Who's Next by The Who. The album features members of the band urinating against a huge stone monolith dropped in a desolate rocky wasteland.

The newspaper responded in kind with a picture of two News-Letter staffers completing the same act--against the wall inscribed Johns Hopkins University at the entrance to Goodnow Drive.

Many, needless to say, remained unamused. "It was real jejune stuff," recalls then-features-editor Ercolano, who declines to take credit for the shot. "I don't remember a huge uproar, more like people were thinking 'those stupid kids at the News-Letter.' Today we wouldn't have been so fortunate. Dumb things like that now get articles written about them in the national press."

A more serious breach occurred a couple of years earlier, again involving the paper's photographic images. This time it was the work of a rookie driver, whose job it was to take the finished newspaper flats to Westminster, Maryland, where the News-Letter was printed at the Carroll County Times.

One evening, the driver arrived at the printer's only to discover that all of the issue's photographs had been left behind. With a deadline to meet and no obvious way to easily retrieve the forgotten photos, the driver resourcefully borrowed pictures from the Carroll County Times files, carefully whiting out the eyes of each picture for fear of legal repercussions for using photos without releases.

Unfortunately, the Times photo archives seemed to consist largely of newly married brides and of participants in a recent Ku Klux Klan rally. The next morning the infamous "klansman" issue of the News-Letter was all over campus, with bridesmaids illustrating sports stories and a grand dragon of the Klan on the cover, all with their eyes carefully removed. The surreality of the images must have raised more than a few eyebrows, and the next week the News-Letter offered its readers a lengthy explanation along with an apology.

Of course, this episode was hardly the first time an inappropriate image found its way into the paper. There was the occasion in the early 1950s, for instance, when the redoubtable registrar, Irene Davis, was magically transformed into cheesecake.

"It was late Thursday night and I remember Bill Trombley '52, who was editor, looking at the paper in disgust and saying, 'This is the most boring issue I've ever seen. There's not one story here I want to read,'" says then-associate editor Bill Tanton, who retired recently after 40 years as a sports columnist and editor with the Baltimore Evening Sun. "The lead story was something about registration at the university was at an all time high, with a picture of Irene Davis as illustration. Well, we were young and goofy, so we swapped her photo with a bombshell picture of Marilyn Monroe."

The resulting story did not much please Davis, recalls Tanton, but it did attract some attention on campus. "It was the '50s and Dwight Eisenhower was president, and if you wanted any controversy you were going to have to create it yourself."

Not all the paper's controversies have been manufactured ones, however. Surveying the 20 years of issues between 1929 and 1949 (nearly every News-Letter between 1897 and 1983 is on microfilm in the Eisenhower Library), one observes a decided progression as the nation's troubles worsen and the paper becomes incrementally more politicized.

A jaunty front-page opinion piece from the Nov. 5, 1929, issue talks about Hopkins students looking to invest in the stock market after the recent (and, it is assumed, short-lived) crash. "And so it is that there are in our midst certain worthies who are breathlessly perusing the latest authentic reports on market conditions, keeping in mind the cheerful fact that there is a reward of twenty-five billion for those able to beat the wolves of Wall Street at their own game," concluded the paper airily, offering perhaps the last example of the use of the words "cheerful" and "stock market" in the same article for many years to come.

By the end of the '30s, with the nation's economic troubles still pronounced and war looming on the horizon, the News-Letter, like many other student newspapers across the country, had become fervidly isolationist, urging students to support a strike aimed at keeping the U.S. neutral and out of the war. Then, in 1940, Albert Blumberg, a former Hopkins professor and chairman of the Maryland branch of the Communist party, came to deliver a speech, "The Communist Approach," at Latrobe Hall. He was to be followed the following week by Wilhelm Kunze, leader of the German American Bund, with his response, "The Fascist Approach."

At the last minute, Blumberg and his audience were locked out of Latrobe Hall, apparently by order of Dean Edward Beery. Undaunted, Blumberg and an estimated crowd of 500 marched to the amphitheater of Wyman Park, where the nattily dressed former professor held forth for about five minutes before being arrested and forcibly hauled off by Baltimore City police officers for speaking in the park without a permit. During the arrest, one officer threatened violence; at the police station, Blumberg declined to press charges when given the opportunity; News-Letter staffers were there to record it all.

"We oughta bounce a brick off your head," the paper recorded the officer as saying, and "I'd like to give you eight eyes instead of four."

It was a great story, indicative of the times and the ferment of ideas that gripped the nation; the paper even had a photo of Blumberg addressing an attentive group of students in coats and ties. Unfortunately, the administration wanted the story killed, and suggested strongly to editor John Higham '41 that his continued enrollment at the university would be endangered if the story ran.

The paper was due out the next day. In emergency session the editorial staff formulated its response: editor Higham resigned at 3:45 in the afternoon, before the paper was set in type; the new editor, unknown to the administration, made the decision to give the story front page treatment, complete with photo, the text of the speech, a stern editorial on the value of free speech, and a classic three-line head: "Dr. Blumberg, Communist, locked out of Latrobe, speaks to 500 students in Wyman Park, arrested, dismissed; Kunze, Bund leader, will not speak."

Any newspaper would have been proud of that issue. "The depth of talent at the News-Letter was amazing," says Offit fondly of those days. Though a post-war student himself, he came to know many of the students from the early 1940s who came back as returning veterans on the G.I. bill. "There was an explosion of ideas and an explosion of awareness. It was just a tremendously exciting time to be at the paper."

It's that same excitement--the thrill of putting out a paper for better or worse and knowing there will be another and another one after that--that comes up again and again in the recollections of News-Letter staffers. For readers and contributors alike, the content of each issue was important. What was in the paper meant something, and of course, not everyone agreed.

"There was constant battling," recalls former executive editor J.D. Considine '79. "The SAC constantly wanted to slash our budget, in large part because they felt that we didn't pay enough attention to them. We didn't. There was a whole city out there that was much more interesting. They were pompous morons."

Nor did everyone always share the paper's peculiar sense of humor. "One time we ran a piece about Goucher College, which we explained had been discovered by Disco DaGucci," Considine recalls. "Another time we put together an orientation issue with one page with nothing but Hopkins jokes. You know, how many Hopkins professors does it take to screw in a light bulb? Six to hold the colloquium and a graduate student to screw it in. That sort of stuff. Nobody seemed to think it was very funny."

Nor, historically, has the paper been above a little interdivisional sniping, especially at the expense of those outside the News-Letter fold. "I was a history major and back then there was always this intense rivalry between the Arts and Sciences students and the engineers," says former co-editor in chief Frank Somerville '56. "It was a sort of mean rivalry, but of course, no engineers worked on the paper. I remember running a photo of cows in their barn with a cutline about engineers who had lost their slide rules."

Humor and parody have been a staple at the paper for many years now. One famous example, co-authored by Russell Baker, was a clever parody of the BaltimoreSun titled, aptly enough, the Eclipse. To this day, the News-Letter runs an annual April Fools issue (now just one section folded over the regular paper), and a consistently popular feature in recent years has been a trivia quiz on the paper's back page that is noted for its offbeat sense of humor.

But while parody may play, satire--particularly political satire--has had a much rougher reception at the university. "I remember in the fall of 1966 we did a cover story that was a satiric look at the Time magazine Man-of-the-Year selection," says David Schneiderman. The final nominees in the News-Letter story were Richard Speck, who was convicted of killing eight student nurses in Chicago; Charles Whitman, who shot and killed 12 students from a University of Texas tower; two or three other infamous killers; and Lyndon Johnson, whom the paper called a former Texas ploughboy who killed Vietnamese for profit and pleasure.

"Milton Eisenhower was just outraged and he suspended the two editors," Schneiderman says. "Then of course there were all sorts of student protests on the editors' behalf. TheSun did a story, and they quoted Eisenhower justifying his actions by saying the News-Letter was just a "house organ" and therefore subject to his approval, which I found particularly chilling."

In the end, things calmed down. "The students received a two-day suspension, over the weekend, and a commission was appointed by the president consisting of some News-Letter staffers, some student council members and some faculty," says Schneiderman. "I was even on the commission. We met once and did nothing and the whole thing blew over. It was typical Hopkins."

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 little 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 Hirsch. "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."

And so the next generation is there, working on the paper today: writing up to deadline, looking for that story, keeping the edges sharp, and occasionally making just about everyone mad.

It's been a hell of a century. Just imagine what the next hundred years will bring.

Mike Field is a writer with the Johns Hopkins Gazette.

Send EMail to Johns Hopkins Magazine

Send EMail to Mike Field

Return to table of contents.