Schmooze Paper

For one hundred years, wannabe journalists have cut their teeth at the Daily Texan, where the networking is top-notch. You can even learn how to write.

September 1999By Comments

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 that Mr. Reddick pointed out had been a double entendre and dirty, but I just hadn’t gotten it. I said, ‘I didn’t think of that,’ and he said, ‘You have to be more careful.’”

And more skeptical. “We learned to ask questions, something today’s generation seems not to know how to do,” Carpenter says. “We learned that it takes curiosity and confidence to be an efficient journalist,” House says. “The Texan taught us to believe that our curiosities are other people’s curiosities. It was like, ‘Here’s this whole campus and an entire newspaper to fill. What do we put in it?’ Gaining the confidence to make other people read the answers to the things we were curious about was invaluable. In real life people don’t tell you what to do every day. You have to figure it out. If you don’t have confidence in your curiosity, you just sit there.”

Some Texan exes had an additional charge—to defend the paper against the university administration. More than a few former editors can still quote the late UT regent Frank Erwin: “We don’t fund anything we can’t control.” In fact, the bulk of Copp and Rogers’ book concentrates on the ongoing battle between the regents, the editors of the Texan, and Texas Student Publications (TSP), the Texan’s governing board.

For example, the Texan had to contend with decisions by the regents barring editorials on state or national politics, leading to one famous incident in 1956 in which Morris huddled with the student attorney general and published blank pages in protest. “About every ten or fifteen years certain forces come in and try to censor it,” noted Morris, who wrote about the Texan in his autobiography, North Toward Home and, before his death on August 2, penned an essay on campus press freedom for the introduction to Copp and Rogers’ book. “And, of course, one of the great traditions is that its editors have stood firm. I think the Texan remains the greatest college paper in the country because it’s still free.” Almost three decades after Morris’ stand, McKinnon locked horns with the TSP over a cartoon by Bloom County creator Berke Breathed (‘80) that attempted to use a four-letter word beginning with F. “We felt like we were fighting for something enormous,” McKinnon says. “I remember a guy got up at the TSP board meeting and gave a twenty-minute oration literally about the Constitution. It was so over the top it was a little embarrassing, but it worked. We all took it so seriously. Even though we were just a bunch of punks, it elevated the whole dialogue into something important and symbolic.”

Today that period at the Texan—the late seventies and early eighties—is perhaps better remembered for the unusually high number of staffers who went on to prominence. In what may well come to be known as the paper’s true glory days, those on hand included Begala, McKinnon, Breathed, Beyer, Emmy award–winning CBS Evening News producer Mary Walsh (‘77), Time White House correspondent Karen Tumulty (‘77), Court TV reporter Clara Tuma (‘82), cartoonist Sam Hurt (‘80), and two of the Washington Post’s best-regarded reporters, John Schwartz (‘79) and Bill Booth (‘82). There was also Nick Barbaro (didn’t graduate) and Louis Black (‘77), whose start-up alternative weekly, the Austin Chronicle, was every bit as liberal as the Texan and eventually cut into its page count and revenue. Ironically, that period was slow in terms of campus news, but by all accounts Texan staffers made up for the lack of significant news by chasing insignificant fun. “Even though we were using millions of dollars of student money, we were putting on a show,” says Schwartz, who was the Texan’s editor in the 1981-82 school year. “Austin has always had an absurdist streak, and it really focused at the Texan in a great way. We got a sense of what imagination could get us. And because it was fun, we got the idea that journalism could be fun.”

During Beyer’s editorship in 1982, Schwartz was part of a group that supported the campaign for student body president of Hank The Hallucination, a character in Hurt’s Eyebeam comic, which ran in the Texan. Today McKinnon readily admits the goal was to mock the concept of student government by pitting Hank against Begala, a former Texan columnist who was one of his main opponents. “Paul was trying to resurrect student government, and we were trying to tear it apart,” says McKinnon, who went on to work with him off and on for more than a decade. Begala came in third but became president anyway when Hank’s name didn’t appear on the ballot in the subsequent runoff. The lesson was twofold: Even at its silliest, the paper had power; and it was in touch with a group of students so obviously disenfranchised with student government that they’d elect a cartoon character. “For me, the message was, ‘Watch out! Don’t take yourself too seriously. We’ll be watching you—and we have options,’” says Begala, who got mileage out of the story in 1992 when he told it to Bill Clinton and cast Ross Perot in the Hank role.

Perhaps one reason Begala’s campaign efforts have such an enduring place in the Texan’s history is because the paper was founded on the notion of self-government: It’s one of the only campus publications in the country that elects its editor by a popular vote of the student body. In theory, the system is designed to force editors to answer to their constituents. “I think the elections make Texan alumni have more respect for the power of the press than most journalists,” Begala says. “You have to go to the frat houses, the foreign students, and the independents and listen to them. It gives you a sense that the paper matters to people, that it’s not just your private playground. That’s why I think a lot of those editors I was at the Texan with—McKinnon, Schwartz, Beyer—are true believers today. So many of the professional journalists I deal with are cynical and irresponsible. Texan alumni still believe.”

Given the Texan’s track record, one thing current staffers can believe in is that the paper will provide much of the experience they’ll need to find a job in journalism after graduation. Fernando Dovalina (‘63), an assistant managing editor for the Houston Chronicle, confirms the journalism department’s warning that a UT résumé without Texan experience is immediately suspect. “We’ll want to know why you weren’t working on the paper and what you may have done instead,” he says. Architectural Digest associate editor Jeff Turrentine (never graduated) says that his Texan clips have been so effective in landing him jobs that it was only last year that he stopped using them to solicit new work. “Sure, a lot of them didn’t hold up all that well,” admits Turrentine, who worked at the Texan alongside New York Times Sunday Magazine editor Rob Walker (‘90), Associated Press photographer and Pulitzer winner John McConnico (‘87), and cartoonist Chris Ware (‘90), who co-illustrated the cover of The New Yorker’s latest fiction issue. “But I found early in my career that publications nationwide knew of the Texan’s reputation and took it seriously. That’s why I proudly placed them alongside things I’d written for Spin or Forbes FYI.” It’s not just a recent phenomenon; Cronkite too says he shamelessly name-dropped the Texan in his early years. “I mentioned it anytime I saw someone from Texas,” he recalls.

Cronkite identifies one other benefit of being a Texan alum: You make lifelong friendships. The retired newsman says he has corresponded with several fellow Texan staffers ever since he left UT, and he’s not the only one. “We’ve all been through the same thing,” says Schwartz of the e-mails, dinners, and visits that still tie him to Beyer, Booth, McKinnon, and Begala. “It’s the strongest bond I made in college. It was like a fun boot camp. We worked around the clock. I worked hard in law school, but this was different. It was special.”

Just how special the Texan is today is open to debate. Some of its detractors say the paper has become too independent from the J school and that its attention to campus issues is less focused. In an age of all-news cable TV channels, the Internet, politically apathetic students, and ever-decreasing attention spans, the Texan is widely thought to be engaged in a struggle for its own vitality. “To me it’s not so much that the paper has changed—it’s that the issues that the paper covers have changed,” says Mike Quinn (‘56), who was the sports editor of the Texan in 1953-54 and is now the associate dean for student affairs at UT’s College of Communication. “The issues now are just so marshmallow compared with Vietnam and that era. The Texan is still the best student paper in the country, but you just don’t have anything to stir it up. You don’t have Frank Erwin or Kent State. I’ll tell stories in my media-law class about the old Texan and my students will literally say, ‘Gosh, why doesn’t something like that happen around here anymore?’”

Then again, at least one knowledgeable observer says the current Texan staff shouldn’t have to look much farther than its own back yard for a big story: “A few hundred yards down the road, they’re trying to make that guy their president,” Begala says, referring to Bush. “The Texan’s a natural.“

Andy Langer began writing for the Daily Texan in 1990. Within a year he was dismissed because Texan editors felt too many of his stories were appearing in the Austin Chronicle.

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