IF JOURNALISM IS A “CONTACT” SPORT—who you know counts as much as what you know—one of the best places to get in the game is the Daily Texan, the University of Texas at Austin’s student-run newspaper. In 1954, for example, Liz Carpenter (class of ‘42), a veteran reporter who would go on to become Lady Bird Johnson’s press secretary, called President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s press office on behalf of U.S. Senate intern Bill Moyers (‘56) and accompanied him to his first Washington, D.C., press conference. Later, after Moyers lost a job at New York’s Newsday, he connected with another Texan alumnus. Moyers and Harper’s editor Willie Morris (‘56) weren’t close friends when they were at UT together, but as a former Texan editor in a position to help a former Texan writer, Morris wound up assigning him a high-profile cover story (a piece later spun off into Moyers’ first book, Listening to America ). In addition to great jobs, there are also great photo opportunities available to Texan exes. Take the time that political strategist Paul Begala (‘83) broke the ice with Walter Cronkite (who didn’t graduate from UT) at a White House dinner. “I said, ‘I used to work at the Texan too,’” recalls Begala. “Now I have a picture of Walter and me doing the ‘Hook ‘em, Horns’ sign.” Cronkite, in turn, insists nothing would derail a book signing faster than a young Texan alum asking for advice. “I’d grab him to my bosom,” he says. “I’d have to delay the rest of the signing to talk about what he did at the Texan, where he’s from, and what he’s doing now. It’s of great interest to me. The Texan comes as close to being my alma mater as anything could be.”
Later this month, the chance to press the flesh with Cronkite will be a big draw at a series of receptions and lectures in Austin in honor of the Texan’s hundredth birthday. And he won’t be the only celebrity in attendance. Along with Carpenter and Moyers, dozens of Texan alumni plan to be on hand, including syndicated gossip columnist Liz Smith (‘48), Texas Observer founding editor Ronnie Dugger (‘50), Time Jerusalem bureau chief Lisa Beyer (‘83), Dow Jones international president Karen Elliott House (‘70), and Mexican newspaper tycoon Alejandro Junco (‘69). Any college paper in America would love to claim the allegiance of just one or two of those prestigious journalists. But the Texan also boasts seventeen Pulitzer winners—the most won by graduates of any student paper—plus director Robert Rodriguez (never graduated), Woman’s Day editor-in-chief Jane Chesnutt (‘73), and political spinner Mark McKinnon (didn’t graduate), one of the brains behind George W. Bush’s presidential campaign. By its own accounting, the Texan reaches the most people, prints the most pages, and earns the most revenue of any campus paper. And while “Journalism and Democracy: Will The Marriage Last?” is one of the weekend’s official themes, the roster of guests raises a simpler question: What’s in the water?
Even professional writers and editors who worked on the Texan have varying theories on exactly when, how, and why it became such a proven training ground. The most obvious answer is that there has always been strength in numbers. Not only does the Texan employ more students per semester (between 75 and 85) than just about any other college paper in the country, but it also has the largest population (nearly 50,000) to draw from. Unlike most of its counterparts elsewhere, the Texan is independent of the university’s journalism department, which has the effect of allowing all students equal access to its pages. “It’s the ultimate meritocracy,” McKinnon says. “Anyone who showed an ounce of energy, intelligence, or enthusiasm was immediately welcomed.” That includes freshmen, who, per the Texan’s open-door policy, aren’t excluded. At other well-regarded J schools, students must wait until their junior year for their first byline. More often than not, Texan graduates have several years of reporting and editing experience under their belts, yielding twice the number of published stories of the average college journalist.
And as each class of Texan reporters and editors leaves for the workforce and lands high-profile jobs, the university finds itself in something of a continuous upward spiral. What Notre Dame is to college football recruiting, UT has become to college journalism; clearly, many of the best and brightest J school candidates enroll there because they know they can try out for the Texan and then, once hired, follow in the footsteps of Cronkite, Moyers, et al. “When you look at the names of the people we’ve turned out,” Carpenter says, “it’s a pretty illustrious bunch.”
Clues to understanding how so many accomplished journalists emerged from the Texan can be found in a new book by two of its former editors, Tara Copp (‘97) and Robert Rogers (‘96). The Daily Texan: The First 100 Years (Eakin Press) meticulously documents the Texan’s coverage of everything from Prohibition to integration, but as the authors explain, the remarkable thing is how little its day-to-day mission—covering campus news—has changed. Until 1975, when the J school and the Texan moved to separate buildings, much of the paper’s content and many young students’ first bylines originated in the school’s “news lab,” a typewriter-filled room where the best class assignments doubled as Texan stories. “Ms. [Afton] Wynn ran the journalism lab when I was there,” says Moyers of the lecturer whom Cronkite, Carpenter, Smith, and Texas radio personality Cactus Pryor (didn’t graduate) all credit with teaching them basic skills. “She used to say, ‘You can be late or sloppy, but you can’t call yourself a reporter if you are.’ In manner, she was an editor; in heart, she was a guardian angel.”
That same crop of Texan alumni also cite the inspiration of DeWitt Reddick, a venerable journalism professor who edited “40 Acres,” Smith’s front-page column of jokes, news, and yes, gossip. “I don’t remember ever being censored or anything,” Smith says. “I had one joke