A college newspaper is supposed to be a place where young journalists take risks and learn through their successes and failures. At The Michigan Daily, plenty of writers have taken huge swings and had major success, including covering the desegregation of schools in Little Rock, Ark. and interviewing Mahatma Gandhi.
But for Bart Huthwaite and Jim Elsman, their reporting adventure would land them in jail — in Cuba — for trying to interview Fidel Castro.
The two were students at the University and reporters at the Daily in the late 1950s. While on campus, Huthwaite said they met a couple of Cuban students on campus who knew Castro, who at the time was hiding in the mountains, on the cusp of taking power from Fulgencio Batista.
Huthwaite and Elsman’s trip was just one assignment from a noteworthy list of Daily off-campus reporting trips. While the Daily’s audience is mostly University students, the news section has often looked for opportunities to do first-hand reporting on historic national and international news.
Over the years, Daily reporters have been on the scene for events across the state of Michigan, covering the governor, reporting from the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. — wherever there’s an opportunity to write about something meaningful to students without blowing the travel budget.
For Huthwaite, getting an interview with Castro — who was popular among students — would offer first-hand perspective for people back home.
“I figured well heck, it’d be great to interview him in the mountains and see what he’s all about,” he said in an interview with the Daily.
Huthwaite, who graduated from the University in 1960 and worked for the Daily’s news section, started out as a night reporter watching the police blotter. No longer in journalism, Huthwaite now lives on Mackinac Island.
As a student, Huthwaite said he usually travelled to Florida for spring break, and said a trip to Cuba by way of Florida wouldn’t be too difficult. So, with a contact set up who would bring him to Castro, Huthwaite set out with Elsman to Cuba for his junior year Spring Break.
But Huthwaite and Elsman weren’t able to complete their assignment — they were arrested soon after arriving at their hotel in Santiago de Cuba.
“Unfortunately word got out (that we were there) and so Batista sent his boys over to pound on our door in the middle of the night, put us in a Jeep and take us up to (Moncada) barracks,” Huthwaite said, adding that the prison they were held in also held rebels against the Cuban government, some of whom were executed while Huthwaite and Elsman were there.
“There was gunshots going off and such,” he said.
The pair would spend several days in the jail until a New York Times reporter, who was also in Cuba to interview Castro, secured their release through the U.S. Embassy.
When students returned to school after the break, the front page of the Daily read: “Two Daily Reporters Jailed in Strife-Torn Cuba.”
“Finally after 12 hours in the 90 degree heat of the cell, we started to sing the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’ A machinegun-bearing guard ordered us to be quiet or he would ‘separate us,’ ” the article read, giving a first-hand account of their experience.
“It’s one of the primary things in my youth because the people who were there, whether it was a guy like Tom Hayden or any other guy, it was always a wonderful place of free-thinking,” he said.
“Our job was always to find, cultivate your own stories.”
In more recent years, Daily news reporters have taken trips to cover political events — and have had much better luck staying out of Cuban jails.
Bethany Biron, who was the Daily’s managing news editor in 2012, said she tried to give as many people as possible the chance to cover major off-campus events. While running the section, Daily reporters were on the scene at the Iowa Caucuses, President Obama’s second victory watch party and other political events around Michigan.
While Biron acknowledged that stories written remotely are often still well reported, she said it adds to the Daily’s credibility and quality when reporters are actually on the scene.
“Being there at the event kind of gives these events more color and more of a true taste of what’s going on,” she said. “When you’re actually there, there’s just a larger level of detail that you can include that really brings the reader in in a different way.”
Rayza Goldsmith, a Senior News Editor at the Daily in 2012, was part of the team that covered the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. Like Huthwaite, Goldsmith wanted to make the political figures she was covering relatable to University students.
Not only that, Goldsmith also said covering a story of that size while still a student provided an incredibly unique experience.
“I felt like we got a real experience as journalists in determining what was worth putting in the paper,” she said. “That was definitely one of the highlights not just of my experience at The Michigan Daily, but at Michigan.”
Andrew Schulman was a government beat reporter when he was tapped to cover Barack Obama’s election night watch party in 2012. The party was in Chicago at McCormick Place, a large convention center along Lake Michigan. Schulman said he could feel the excitement in the room as election results were reported.
At the same time, Schulman remembers, he had no idea what he was going to write before the event started, which was overwhelming.
Still, Schulman said the experience helped him moving forward when he became a professional writer. He’s now a freelance reporter.
“It helped me, I guess, in the future kind of find a little bit more focus,” he said. “It was something that I think I learned a lot from.”
Even for Biron, who is now working in public relations, getting to cover a speech delivered by Obama in Detroit and cover government for the Daily helped her realize her interest in public policy and shaped her career goals after school, she said.
“I think I started as an English and comm double major. Then I joined the gov-beat and fell in love with it,” she said. “If I hadn’t, you know, done so many of those things on gov-beat I wouldn’t have been exposed to it, I wouldn’t have realized I’m passionate about it.”