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Learning That the Beat Goes On

Former Freep editors reminisce, from sleeplessness to success

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Karen Eschbacher Spataro (top) says working for the Free Press taught her about accountability. Photo courtesy of Karen Spataro. Jessica Van Sack, a general enterprise reporter at the Boston Herald, learned how to use anonymous sources at the Daily Free Press. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Even today, Karen Eschbacher Spataro can recite word for word the front-page “teaser” in the January 17, 1997, Daily Free Press:

“BU administration fails to take care of students at this university.”

The problem? There was no story. The knock on BU was the default placeholder for every issue, replaced by a real teaser every night — except the night of January 16. Spataro, then a freshman assistant news editor, remembers the dread she felt when she got to the office that day.

“I was the first person in, and I was waiting for someone to call and yell at us,” says Spataro (COM’00), who went on to work for the Quincy, Mass., Patriot Ledger and the Indianapolis Star-Tribune before joining the development office at Indiana University. “And I was thinking, ‘I won’t ever do this again.’”

Many a former editor at the Daily Free Press has experienced a similar moment — like the morning in 2000 when the paper came back from the printer with the headline “BU _ins Beanpot” — and most of them remember it as a formative career experience. But there were plenty of others, too. After all, Free Press writers and editors often spent more time at the paper’s offices — first in the basement of the College of Communication, then on Commonwealth Avenue, now on Beacon Street — than in their dorm rooms. Hundreds of journalists made it their home away from home for four years, learning how to meet deadlines, craft stories, and handle the responsibility of a daily. Alumni of this journalistic boot camp span the globe and have racked up an impressive list of credentials and awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.

“The fundamentals of journalism were learned there, and I apply those on a daily basis,” says Jessica Van Sack (COM’03), now a general enterprise reporter at the Boston Herald. “The definition of anonymous sources and when to use them, when to ask tough questions and how to reach people at all hours, how to gain sources and keep them — all learned at the Daily Free Press.”

Now, as the Freep struggles to keep up in a digitizing world, alumni are worried about the paper’s future. In 2007, a group of former editors formed an alumni association to provide financial support, networking opportunities, and wisdom to current staffers — the last key at an organization where leadership turns over every semester. The group, incorporated as a nonprofit, has held fundraisers and is making plans for the paper’s 40th birthday next year. Their reasons for supporting the paper are as varied as their careers: some say the Freep needs to exist to keep BU’s administration accountable; others say it’s the best supplement to a journalism education in the world. Virtually all agree on one thing: the end of the Daily Free Press would mark a serious loss to BU’s aspiring journalists — and to the University.

“Everything has to be done to keep it around,” says Katie Zezima (CAS’02), a full-time Boston freelancer for the New York Times. “It was such an important part of our college lives — it’s made us the professionals we are today.”

Becoming part of a team
In the first days of freshman year, Van Sack browsed a list of student organizations, trying to decide where to get involved. She had no journalism experience and planned to major in psychology, but she left a message at the Daily Free Press office anyway. “They called me an hour later, saying, desperately, ‘Please come in!’” she says. “I think it was the very next day I got my first assignment.”

Van Sack’s experience is common among the paper’s success stories, many of whom had no plans for a journalism career until they began reporting for the student newspaper. Dave Shaw (COM’00), now a producer at WBUR, the University’s National Public Radio station, was simply trying to adjust to life far from Greenville, S.C., when he went into the office as a freshman. He was hooked in a hurry.

“BU can be a tough place to fit in, because it’s so big,” he says. “It felt good to have somewhere I could feel like I was part of a team.”

Former staffers admit that the team environment can be too insular for some — Zezima remembers the mentality as “You get in, and you stay in.” Still, many were like Van Sack, people drawn in by a sense of belonging cultivated through shared responsibility, passed down from juniors and seniors to freshman. Most former staffers remember not only their first story, but also sitting side-by-side with an editor after filing a story, learning how to craft a good opening sentence and where to place the quotes. Lifelong friendships, and often romances, were formed. Former Freep colleagues celebrated with Spataro at her wedding; Van Sack’s bridal party is largely made up of what she calls “ex-Freepers.” Zezima’s first story was edited by Shaw; they married in 2006.

The team atmosphere also owes something to the grueling process of running a daily newspaper — without flunking out of school.

“We were in class all day, and then we’d show up at the paper to start work at two, three in the afternoon,” says Gene Johnson (COM’99), the fall 1998 editor. “You have freshmen who don’t know what you’re looking for. Reporters come back and you’re trying to work with them, and before you know it, it’s 11 o’clock and you’re getting final copies, doing all the editing, production, and page design, and then you proofread everything, and it would be three in the morning. We were working 70, sometimes 80, hours a week at the paper. I’d show up in class so overtired — not hungover, overtired — that I’d literally get sick.”

The experience is at once exhausting and exhilarating, former editors say; real-world journalism jobs often seem comfortable by comparison.

“There were definitely nights when I would say I worked the hardest that I can remember,” Van Sack says. “I work hard here at the Herald, but I always go home at night. There were nights at the Free Press when that didn’t happen.”

“Every waking moment was completely devoted to it,” remembers Johnson, who works for the Associated Press in Seattle. “And looking back now, I wouldn’t do it any differently. It was an incredible atmosphere, and just an incredible amount of fun.”

A known training ground
The long hours and learning-on-the-job philosophy that make the Free Press valuable for students have engendered tension at times. Johnson’s first story, about higher prices at on-campus convenience stores versus those off campus, blindsided his BU source. “I didn’t tell him we were doing this comparison and didn’t give the guy a chance to react or explain,” he says. “It was just completely unfair.” Editors lost sleep over such errors. But in retrospect, they’re glad they happened when they did.

“There’s no safety net, no moderator, no adult supervision. If you make a mistake, there’s thousands of pieces of evidence of that mistake the next morning,” says Don Van Natta, Jr. (COM’86), a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative correspondent for the New York Times. “It toughens you up, and those mistakes are the best education you can have. The great thing about the Free Press is it teaches you what not to do as a journalist.”

Plus, for every pitfall, there was a triumph. Zezima remembers the thrill of going neck-and-neck with Boston’s major papers with the news that Terrier hockey player Rick DiPietro was leaving BU for the NHL; Bill Yelenak (COM’04) recalls a similar race against the Globe and the Herald to cover the hiring and quick dismissal of former NASA administrator Daniel Goldin as president of BU in 2003. Spataro’s coverage of an MIT student’s death from alcohol poisoning was her first reporting on a tragedy; the relationship she later developed with a close friend of the student’s proved to her that she’d been fair and accurate.

“It was the first time I had the sense that what you write can really impact people,” she says. “There was this sense of accountability, because this was someone I might see in the hallway.”

Editors say it’s the kind of training that can’t be gotten in the classroom.

“The stories I wrote in class weren’t under deadline,” Spataro says. “They weren’t published, so someone couldn’t call my professor and say, ‘She got it wrong.’ If a quote was wrong, how’s my teacher going to know? That level of accountability, probably the most important attribute in a good reporter — I got that through the Free Press.”

Former editors say there’s no doubt the Freep opened doors for them. Van Natta, who edited the paper for a record three semesters, says his clips helped him get an internship at the Miami Herald, which then led to a job. Other former staffers include David Barboza (CAS’90), Shanghai bureau chief of the New York Times, Andrew Cohen (COM’88, LAW’91), chief legal analyst and legal editor at CBS News, and Renée Loth (COM’74), former editorial page editor of the Boston Globe.

Present and future
The alumni group held a meeting in October 2008 and a fundraiser last May. Organizers set a goal of $2,000, “because we’re in a recession, and reporters and editors make no money,” says current president Dan Atkinson (COM’04). They raised $2,800, used to pay down the Freep debt and offset operating expenses. Longer-term goals include an increased presence at the annual alumni weekend celebration in the fall and a celebration for the paper’s 40th anniversary in 2010.

The renewed interest comes at an opportune moment. When the paper had to close its Comm Ave offices, where dozens of Free Press editors had literally left their mark on the paper (and the walls), moving to smaller, less expensive digs on Beacon Street, alumni felt the hit.

“Driving home from work, I used to pass by and see the lights on,” Zezima says. “Once it closed, it was really weird.”

And after many nights when it seemed that the paper wouldn’t come out, followed by mornings when it did, the second recent cost-saving decision — cutting back to four days — was heartbreaking.

But former editors say that as long as the Freep maintains its independence, they can’t criticize choices the recent leadership has made.

“The decision to cut Fridays must have been one of the hardest things that the board has ever voted on,” says Yelenek, now the communications and development manager at the Providers’ Council, a nonprofit human services membership organization. “But other papers have closed; the Rocky Mountain News was around forever, and now it’s gone.”

“If you compare the plight of the Daily Free Press to the plight of the New York Times company and the Globe and the Phoenix and the Herald and even Boston magazine, you’ll find that every one is struggling, and even struggling to survive,” Van Sack says. “And those people get paid to do what they do.”

One graduate who’s confident the paper will survive is its founder, Charles Radin (COM’71), who spent three decades at the Boston Globe, serving as a foreign correspondent, a religion reporter, and Middle East bureau chief before accepting a buyout in 2007. Now director of global operations and communications at Brandeis, Radin says students inevitably find a way to make their voices heard, even when challenges abound. When he founded the Daily Free Press in 1970, the staff was squatting rent-free in the COM basement. A curtain around a sink served as the darkroom and an old closet housed the typesetting machine. On the nights it broke down, a volunteer would crawl into the machine with paper clips and fiddle around until it started working again.

“As long as the kids want to do it, that’s the only essential ingredient,” he says. “I have a lot of confidence that students who want to have a paper will keep, phoenix-like, rising from the ashes.”

Want to share your thoughts about this story, or any part of the Daily Free Press series? Leave a comment below, or even better, go on the record and be featured in our feedback gallery. You can e-mail us and we’ll get back to you for an interview. Or Skype us (leave a voice mail at bu-skype-1). We’ll share your responses ASAP.

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.

Read more from the Freep series.

2 Comments

2 Comments on Learning That the Beat Goes On

  • Anonymous on 09.16.2009 at 10:17 am

    It’s time to grow up. Adapt with the times. In crisis there exists opportunity. We are in an era where SMG student must STEP IT UP, along with I/T concentrators and marketing majors to bring the Daily Free Press into the 21st century.

  • Anonymous on 09.17.2009 at 12:33 am

    The Daily Free Press is for reporting, not for creating the finest most sellable newspaper. Not that I’m involved with it personally, but why would it need marketing and management teams? The point is to report on things, not to sell the reporting. Obviously you want people to be interested but the story should be what is interesting.

    On the other hand, I can see the benefits of putting the paper on the internet or something, but it’s not necessarily inherently better. I mean, it’s readily available to most students for free already, so I think if they were interested in it they’d check it out. I guess it might make it more interactive for the students, but that would mean that people would be working on it as a website or whatever. So I can see the need for IT people, but I don’t know about marketing/management necessarily.

    Also, just what are they adapting to? The lack of interest in what is going on around us? Or what?

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