Saturday, March 10, 2012

Alma Matters

When I arrived at my alma mater, the student newspaper wasn't anything to call your Mom about.  People routinely carped about the puff pieces, the weak efforts at humor, the amateurish layout (And yes, I know I'm being awfully snarky for someone who uses a prefab Blogger website, but I make no pretense to this being other than a vanity blog, while a student paper ought to sit up straight and comb its hair).  One time in my freshperson year, the paper grasped for greatness, at least of a comic nature, with a proto-Onion article about a fraternity getting a bug zapper;  this inspired some real amusement.  Its knowing lack of substance was no less nutritious than the rest of the paper's offerings, though, so the joke reflected poorly on the whole journalistic enterprise.

Over the years of my time there, more ambitious up-and-comers changed things.  By my senior year, some future editors of professional papers were testing their skills at the rag.  I recall sitting at the cafeteria table with freshman K--- W------- as he leafed through the school year's first issue and dissected its failings with an anger that suggested he would soon be pressing for changes.  He would indeed, along with G----- B---- and G---- P-----.  By the end of the year the failings K---- had detected were gone, baby, gone.  Soon the paper boasted an improved layout, a lively editorial page, and even a humor column that, lo and behold, was amusing.  The only thing missing was that staple of college papers, vulgar cartoons.  Dunno why.

The paper even indulged in some investigative journalism, proving that the administration's claims that the the campus food services were being run on a nonprofit basis were false.  Not that there's anything wrong with trying to make a buck per se, but all students were required to buy into the meal plan, and there were no refunds for unspent meal plan moneys, so trying to make a profit off a captive customer base (with no competition for those moneys) wasn't exactly playing by Adam Smith's playbook.  Nothing changed, but at least we knew where we stood.

After I graduated I still came crawling back to campus and scooped up the paper.  It continued to grow in might.  The humor writers got funnier and more pointed, and the editorial page initiated two regular columns, one by a fightin' liberal (who largely focused on local social justice issues) and one by a peacemaking conservative (who extended the hand of come-let-us-reason-together bipartisanship to lefties in a manner I found irresistible.  I need to find out what happened to that guy.)  And although I wasn't a sports fan, I'm told the sports page was exceptional.

Then one year the bottom fell out.  Suddenly most of the student-written content vanished, to be replaced by syndicated national news stuff, so if you wanted to know what Bill Clinton had done the previous week, the school paper was your rag.  Heaven help anyone who gets their national news from a college newspaper.  The humor columnists and the lefty guy remained, but the conservative guy had graduated and his replacement lacked his ability to draw illuminating connections.  She just typed up that week's values voter talking points and called it a day.

I was friendly with the lefty guy, and still consider him a friend (despite his cold snubbing of my facebook friend request last year) so I asked him (this is shortly after the paper's downturn) what happened.  As he explained it, K--- W------- and G---- B---- had been grooming the sports page editor to take over, but the Student Council had the final say in the matter, and they chose Miss Affability instead of Mr. Black Guy With A Track Record.  (For the record, two of the three editors who made the paper great were in fact editrixes, and the better of the humor columnists was female, lest anyone think I'm implying that the gender of the new editor (or righty editorialist) was a problem.)  It seems the new sheriff in town just wasn't up to scratch.

The climax came a few months later, when the paper carried a huge advertisement, a half-pager or so.  As I later heard from an English Prof (who accepted my facebook friend request, bless her) someone called the ad editor and placed a big order.  The ad editor said "yes I said yes I will yes" without adding "Oh, sorry but I have to ask: the ad doesn't say the Holocaust is a myth, does it?"  And so the ad went straight to the printer without anyone from the paper checking to make sure it didn't say the Holocaust was a myth.  And so my alma mater's school paper found itself one day besmirched with a tiny-type explanation of how Them Thar Juden are skeered to honestly debate the reality of the Holocaust.  I assume I was not the only person to send the editor an email explaining that she was perhaps a bit of a fool.  Apparently everyone with on-campus emails got an apology/explaination, while those with email accounts ending in ranma.com didn't, which explains why I didn't.  ( I also found that ranma.com email accounts only had enough memory for about two messages, which may explain why it did not last and ranma.com is a rather enigmatic website today.  It was the 90s, people.)

About a decade later the paper got some national notoriety because, as part of its hallowed tradition of reporters interviewing their friends and fobbing it off as journalism, the paper ran an interview with a pair of students who went on to burn down a bunch of churches.  This interview got a lot of play in what-were-they-thinking articles.  (Another thing about those guys: I was almost in a lo-budget comedy movie with them.  I auditioned, got offered a small part in which I woulda been interacting with the arsonists themselves.  I thought the script was unpromising, and took a pass.  The production was scuttled by the boys' arrests.  The filmmaker planned to salvage to footage with a documentary, but he didn't seem like the sensitive insight type, so I doubt it panned out.  On the other hand, his awesome loft apartment/audition space was decorated with Kandinsky and Klee prints.  Kandinsky and Klee are My Favorites, so maybe I'm underrating his potential.)

Recently I went looking for online versions/archives of the alma mater paper, like grown-up college papers have.  I found a couple of listless, abandoned efforts at online versions scattered about the place, but for archives you gotta go to my alma mater's library.  Have fun.

If this article reads oddly (or even poorly), that's what comes of mixing foreign beer with American microbrews.