Daily editors juggle tradition and innovation

Tuesday, September 15, 2015 - 11:44am

There was a joke staffers at The Michigan Daily told often in the 1980s.

How many Daily editors does it take to change a lightbulb?

“The answer was three,” said Joe Kraus, the opinion page editor in 1985. “Two to change it, and one to talk about how great the old one was.”

On the surface, the joke seems silly. (Kraus says lightbulb jokes were pretty popular back then.) But in many ways, the dig encapsulates a dynamic every generation of Daily editors consider.

The Daily not only must adapt in a field that’s changing at an incredibly rapid pace, but also must do it with 125 years of sepia-colored bound volumes staring down from the conference-room shelves. That challenge is as relevant today as it was in 1985, when Daily editors voted to stop charging for the paper, or in the mid-1990s, when the Daily’s website carried breaking coverage for the first time.

Ann Marie Lipinski, a former Daily co-editor in chief who now curates Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, said most college newsrooms are too conservative when it comes to change, and that was likely true during her time as editor.

“I love Daily history, but we’ve sometimes been slaves to it, worrying too much about what predecessors will think,” she wrote in an e-mail.

When Lipinski and Jim Tobin became co-editors in chief, they sent a letter to recent editors. Cheryl Pilate, co-editor in chief of the paper two years before, responded with the following advice:

“You’re only editor of The Daily for one short year. So don’t waste your time shilly-shallying around and muttering about tradition. Try any creative thing that pops into your head. In most cases, the only thing you can really ruin is one day’s paper.”

Neil Chase, a digital media consultant and chair of the Board of Student Publications who was the Daily's editor in chief in 1985, said change is often the product of tough conversations.

That was the case in the winter of 1985, when the Daily’s editors voted to initiate free-drop, or offering the paper at no cost from pick-up locations across campus. Until then, a Daily staffer would canvas the dorms the first week of classes, hawking subscription cards. Early every morning, local seventh graders picked up the papers and delivered them all over town with Michigan Daily bags slung over their shoulders.

The move was controversial, and Chase recalls that the final meeting on the topic elicited the kind of intensity characteristic of an all-staff election.

“You’re thinking, ‘I’m going to create this thing and you’re going to throw it in a pile, and somebody’s going to pick it up and read it and throw it back down, or they’re going to be blowing all over campus.’ It just felt like it’s cheapening the product,” Chase said. “We thought we were creating something valuable, and we’re being told the new cover price for this product is now zero.”

But circulation was down, and free-drop would allow the paper to attract more advertising dollars. At this time, the Daily also began printing five days per week, instead of the traditional six.

“It’s exactly the situation that we’re in today,” Chase said. “The paper is doing well, it is not on the brink of any kind of disaster by any means, but revenue is way down.”

In response to declining revenue, in early 2015, members of the Daily’s Management Desk adopted an innovation report, which detailed these shifts and suggested new initiatives like adding a position in charge of developing more special issues (with a revenue-generating focus in mind) and putting together a team to post more news content during the day.

Kraus, now an English professor at the University of Scranton, voted against the free-drop proposal. He said it was probably the wrong vote in hindsight. But at the time, he felt compelled to vote in opposition to take a symbolic stand against what he felt the change represented.

But Chase says that kind of traditionalist mindset is important, too.

“It’s that conscience that makes the thing keep surviving no matter what happens to the market,” he said. “There are smart people who will figure out what to do and how to take this very rare thing and make sure it survives.”

Josh White, a current editor at The Washington Post, edited the paper in 1997 — a time when Daily staffers first started to see the website as something more than another platform to plop the day’s print content.  

In Dec. 1997, the Michigan men’s basketball team had beaten Duke with a game-winning dunk three seconds before the buzzer, and, in that same day, Charles Woodson won the Heisman Trophy. Class had concluded for the semester, and print production had wrapped up, too. The Daily’s website — then fairly primitive — hosted original, breaking news coverage for perhaps the first time.

“A really good story about something really important can touch millions of people, can get a conversation going globally, and there’s a lot of power in that. I think once people started to recognize that, the game changed,” White said.

“We looked at The Michigan Daily as a way to try things, and to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes,” he said. “We cared intensely about it, we tried to do it very carefully and ethically, but it was a lab, it was a place where you could make a mistake and learn from it and recover from it and build from it.”

So often, buzzwords like “tradition” and “innovation” are brushed in opposition. But maybe the Daily’s history tells us that’s simply not true.

“The Daily has done a spectacular job of changing in the way that it needs to change,” Kraus said. “And that is precisely its tradition.”