70 years of the D49er, Special Projects

Daily Forty-Niner adviser says student media is like the mafia, in a good way

The first Forty-Niner newsroom I knew was a windowless basement expanse with walls that had been freshly painted neon lime green. When it rained hard, water poured down from the ceiling.

A reporter just out of the Orange County Register with a toddler and a preschooler, I was hired as Daily Forty-Niner newspaper adviser. I didn’t know what I was getting into.

In the early days, students kept an eye on my son Drew and daughter Ellie when I was in class. When Drew wet his pants one day, he proudly announced it to the newsroom. His declaration — “I peed!” made it onto the newsroom quote wall. 

The quote wall was an old-school window into the profane bawdiness that marks many a college newsroom. Quotes and observations about politics, bodily functions, pop culture—you name it— were typed out, printed and tacked to the wall, which became a paper platform for late-night frustration and reporterly observation. 

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Photo by Matt Grippi

“It will be a grand celebration when Miley Cyrus turns 18,” said Bob. And, from an exhausted editor when a story was breaking: “Why does news have to happen, like, all the time?” Those are some of the tamest ones, others were laced with expletives or veiled threats uttered in the heat of deadline or midterm panic.

When groups like the Cub Scouts toured the newsroom, I used to hold my breath,  watching their eyes scan those little paper diatribes. 

The newspaper was something of an oasis then, even as it was at the center of dreary, intercine department warfare; trust me, you don’t want to know. Things were rough but over time they got better. My co-adviser Gary Metzker, fresh from the Los Angeles Times, joined our little gang. The paper started winning awards and moved to upper campus where the space was drier and able to receive natural light.

Student journalists can be clique-y, arrogant smart-asses. Yes. But, also at their best, funny, smart, irreverent, curious and extremely hard-working.

When I left journalism and moved to education, I noticed a difference in the flow of daily events. When 20-somethings run the show, the highs are higher and the lows, lower. 

The highs? Seeing the quiet student get a key interview with a reluctant but important campus official. Watching a young reporter break a story; that perennial catnip for journalists. The look on the arts editor’s face before she collects her first-place headline writing award at a fancy student media banquet. Reading a former student’s Facebook post describing a new job at the L.A.Times, or some other job that thrills them. 

The lows, the lessons learned, are part of the joy. Sort of. Actually no. The front-page headline that read “billion” when it should have read “million.” The underreported story that makes it into print. The angry faculty member who says they were misquoted. The time a staffer’s behavior disappointed Forty-Niner colleagues and me.

I could go on, but enough PTStea. 

I’ve learned, too, when to push — the students, other university forces on behalf of the student media — and when to let things be. I’m still learning. 

We mark the passage of time through our kids. Drew is now 17. His sister is in college. The student editors who fed my kids donuts and chips are now having kids of their own. 

I still get messages from old students when they see a mistake in the Forty-Niner website. 

Student journalists come and do their thing, graduate and move on, like all students. But I’ve often said the Forty-Niner is kind of like the mafia: You never really leave.

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