If The Michigan Daily weren't such a good newspaper, I would not have gone to college at the University of Michigan. As an eighteen-year-old hungry for the life of a writer, I literally discarded prospective colleges if their primary campus publication was not as good as, or merely equal to, the high school newsmagazine I edited (which, to be fair, was pretty damn good). Kalamazoo College, Notre Dame: they didn't have a chance.
But The Michigan Daily stood out. On a campus with no journalism program, the newspaper has been run by students since 1890. It was the first in the world to print news of the polio vaccine in 1955. It broke the news about football star Tom Harmon missing in South America. In 1957, the paper sent a student to Little Rock to go undercover in Central High School: he borrowed the ID of an absent student so he could report the integration story from the inside -- the only journalist in the nation to do so. Daily alumni include Tom Hayden, Arthur Miller, Rich Eisen, Mike Wallace; more recently, New York magazine's Jonathan Chait, Nieman's Ann-Marie Lipinski, and the New York Times' Jeremy W. Peters, my former editor. The Daily published an exclusive interview with Gandhi in 1923, and directly covered the trials of Alger Hiss and the Chicago Seven. Two Daily reporters were arrested in Cuba in 1958; they'd traveled there to interview Castro. Over many, many years, the Daily exposed on-campus FBI and CIA informants. The boldness of the paper is evident in the byline on the 1973 story reported from President Nixon's inauguration: credit to "the Daily's Washington Bureau."
I figured there was something I could learn here. At summer orientation, I skipped off and signed up.
What followed were intensive years reporting the university's affirmative action trials and presidential politics. I grit my teeth through a lot of it, but I ultimately credit the paper with teaching me some of the most important lessons in journalism I ever learned:
- Take myself seriously as a reporter. (The Daily saw its rival as The New York Times, not other college rags.)
- Delete a hell of a lot of words.
- Double-check, and know (all too well) the defeating cost of shortcuts.
- News does not abide by a schedule of your choosing.
- Don't worry about making people look as good as they want you make them look.
- Don't think that your story can't or won't reverberate beyond the bounds of your expected audience.
- Don't apologize for telling the stories that you know matter.
This last lesson that comes to mind with the news that The Michigan Daily is being sued for defamation by the Kitchener Rangers, a Canadian junior hockey team. It involves a story the Daily printed about where ninth overall draft pick Jacob Trouba will play hockey this fall. Here's the rundown from Deadspin:
Trouba, who was taken by the Winnipeg Jets last month, was selected in the 2010 OHL Draft by the Kitchener Rangers. Just out of high school, Trouba now has a choice ahead of him: play college hockey for the Michigan Wolverines, or go to the OHL and make some money, but forfeit his NCAA eligibility. What an OHL team would normally do in this case is offer something called an education package: reimbursement of tuition, book, and room and board at any university once the player's OHL career is over. The problem with such packages is that they expire just 18 months after leaving the OHL team, and few players take advantage of them, because they're too busy playing hockey in the NHL or elsewhere, or just have no interest in attending college if they're not able to play.
Last week, The Michigan Daily reported, via two OHL sources, that Kitchener had offered Trouba $200,000—in cash, not as an education package—to pull out of his Michigan commitment and come play for the Rangers. Kitchener strongly denied the story, and demanded that the Daily retract the story and issue a formal apology. Their Monday deadline passed, and today Kitchener filed a defamation lawsuit in Ontario court against the Daily, seeking $1 million in damages.
“We’re actually not making any comment at this time,” Jacob Axelrad, editor-in-chief of The Daily, told Yahoo! Sports. Relying on an unnamed source, the story is still on the paper’s website. Trouba, as it happens, will attend college in Ann Arbor this fall.
Deadspin suggests that while no newspaper, even a student one, is compelled to reveal its sources, student publications will simply not get "the same benefit of the doubt as a professional outlet" in a court of law.
That's probably true. But as my eighteen-year-old self can attest, there is a vast range in quality among student papers, and the best of them are doing some of the best national journalism, period. The Daily is in that tier, alongside The Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia, which did a huge FOIA of emails relating to the school's bizarre presidential drama. The Daily Collegian at Penn State is all over the aftermath of the Sandusky abuse story. The Harvard Crimson broke a big plagiarism story a few years ago, and beat me and every other outlet in the nation in reporting the ascension of Lawrence Summers to the Harvard presidency. (Our guy at Michigan, Lee Bollinger, was up for the job; he's now at Columbia, where he presents the Pulitzer Prizes each year to a helluva lot of former student journalists.)
To do this kind of work on a college campus, with all kinds of administrative pressures -- to say nothing of how students are also, you know, students -- is remarkable. (Inside Higher Ed has more on what goes into "the making of a real student newspaper.") Of course, by nature of college newspapers, there is swift generational turnover. Reporters have to learn all over again. Some of the same mistakes are made, and even some of the same stories are run. "As finals loom, students studying in library a lot more" is the kind of headline that, alas, seems to make an appearance every couple semesters.
But some student newspapers have proved that they are above and beyond the average. They come from a tradition of practicing professional journalism; as this lawsuit moves forward, they deserve to be treated like professional journalists. In a funny way, the plaintiffs in this defamation lawsuit are demonstrating that they, at least, take student journalism seriously. To the Michigan Daily: you better have double-checked your story. But don't name your source.
Thanks to Chris M. -- a former Daily colleague -- for the tip on this story.