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Opinion / Analysis / Essays


December 10, 2000

Jill Lang learned about the muckrakers, the First Amendment, and the new journalism of Mark Twain in class by day. But the real education about plying her trade came at night as a reporter on The Collegian, the student newspaper of the Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts.

Lang, class of '86, is now the news director of an Internet publication in Maine. She was one of several dozen former staff members of New England's largest daily college newspaper to converge on the Amherst campus recently for a reunion and discussions on the state of their craft.

Lang started her journalism career on the field hockey beat. "I showed up and said, `What do you need done?' " she said. Before long, much of her time was devoted to finding stories and getting them into print.

People who worked on The Collegian would get "sucked in, and it was good, hard work," she said. "It really helped me cement my enthusiasm for the business."

Lang worked her way up to covering the university administration. The work required her to confront her anxieties about writing.

"I remember sitting at the typewriter saying, `Oh my God, the deadline is here and I've got to write this lead,' " she said. "We were doing real journalism, not just pretend journalism."

Cosmo Macero Jr., class of '90 and now the Boston Herald's statehouse bureau chief, said he majored in communications and never took a single journalism course. As the arts editor and then the managing editor at The Collegian, much of his education revolved around making mistakes and turning them into growth opportunities.

"I learned a lot about how not to put out a newspaper," Macero said.

He reminisced about a topic that resonated with Collegian alumni from just about every era - having their offices taken over by protesters.

David Mark, who went on to a career with the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey and now writes for a real estate newsletter, remembered a free trip to Israel he and other student newspaper editors took, courtesy of the Anti-Defamation League. Upon returning, he published a signed editorial entitled "I Came, I Saw, I Got Stoned on the West Bank," which, said Mark, described playing with Palestinian children who, after his delegation boarded their UN bus, pelted the vehicle with rocks.

The column sparked protests on the UMass campus among students critical of Israel's role in Middle East conflicts. Mark had the dubiously gratifying experience of seeing his words blown up into an 8-foot-by-10-foot format for purposes of harangues on a main student concourse. The ruckus was reported on by regional news organizations and, said Mark, "one of my own Collegian reporters who was stringing for the UPI and the AP was covering it."

Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz even offered his services in case the fracas escalated, Mark said.

"It was just a mess," said Mark. "They were basically saying that I had no right to an opinion and that not only should I resign but that I should be jailed."

The situation did escalate when Macero, in what he understands in retrospect to be almost hopeless naivete, thought of a way to defuse the situation. "I, the wizard of intellect that I was, said, `Bring the protesters into the newsroom.' "

The idea, he said, was that if they saw the kinds of deadline pressures the Collegian staff was up against the protesters would tone down their recriminations. Instead, they took the newsroom over - making production that much more challenging.

Darren Garnick, a video documentary producer who was also in the class of '90, concurred with his former colleagues in saying, "The Collegian taught us more about journalism than any journalism program could have."

The university does have a journalism department, which offers an undergraduate degree in what some regard as an academic discipline and others as merely vocational, or at best professional, training. The historical distance between the department, which took a lead in organizing the reunion, and the Collegian was noted during the get-together.

Many Collegian writers and editors over the years have stayed away from journalism courses and the department at times has discouraged too active engagement in the newspaper, according to several returnees, because of the time and energy it tends to draw away from schoolwork.

Jack Dean, the editor in chief in the 1968-1969 academic year when The Collegian went from being published three times a week to five, said he almost flunked out of school because of the demands the newspaper made on his time. He ended up staying an extra semester, in which he didn't do newspaper work, in order to fulfill his academic requirements.

When he started at The Collegian, Dean, who now does Web-based public relations in California, participated in an editorial campaign to eliminate curfews for freshmen.

"That was the burning issue when I arrived on campus and then the Vietnam War came along," he said.

A decade later, when Christopher H. Schmitt was managing editor, women demanding a page devoted to their concerns took the newsroom over for 10 days, forcing the staff to use temporary office space elsewhere.

"We never missed a day," said Schmitt, even though they had to put the paper out without advertising because they didn't have access to the graphics.

"We were very idealistic about the task," said Schmitt. "Coming out of Watergate, we had a lot of zeal for journalistic values."

A memorable Collegian moment for him was when a typographical error in a report on the Camp David Accords turned "a sun-drenched" into "a sin-drenched afternoon."

During a 15-year career at the San Jose Mercury-News, Schmitt explored the implications and possibilities offered by computers for practicing the journalist's craft. For a report called "The Color of Justice," for instance, he used computers to analyze data from 750,000 court cases to show that minorities tended to be treated more harshly than whites in the legal system.

Schmitt, now a Washington correspondent for Business Week, participated in a panel discussion during the reunion on the topic of how new technology influences journalism. Before moving to Business Week he worked briefly for the, an online publication.

"The core competencies of journalists working for traditional print or electronic news outlets and those working in new media such as online publications are exactly the same," said Schmitt. "The issue of quality is distinct from the medium."

Computer technology can make the delivery of news faster and can give news consumers more choice, he said, but in the end reporting is reporting.

"If anything, computer technology and the vast amounts of information it makes readily available make the reporter's job harder," said Schmitt, "because there's more stuff to go get in order to be complete."

Increasingly, he predicts, the value added by editors that the pubic relies on to sift the vast morass of information will determine which news products people will seek out.

The oldest old-timer at the reunion was David G. Bush who interrupted his academic career after editing the Collegian in 1943 to fight in World War II, where he received the Silver Star for gallantry in action. Bush, a chemistry major, said that in his day, the weekly publication was headed primarily by students in the hard sciences.

One of the more recent UMass graduates at the reunion was by no means one of the youngest. Kevin Claffey, a veteran courts reporter for the Union-News and Sunday Republican in Springfield, left the university in 1977 after cutting his teeth as a journalist at The Collegian.

Two decades later - when he decided to get a law degree - he realized that law schools tend to be fussy about applicants having bachelor's degrees. Claffey graduated in 1994 after retaking the "Intro to Journalism" course he had never completed.

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All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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