On a recent Monday, The Michigan Daily, in its weekly sports insert, ran a cover photo taken by a dual-degree student working on one degree through the School of Art & Design and another in biopsychology, cognition and neuroscience. The game story below it was written by a Business student, and the byline below the SportsMonday column belonged to an editor who happens to also study economics.
Glance around the rest of any given edition of the Daily and you’ll see the same trend: The University’s aspiring journalists are spending their classroom time studying anything but journalism.
That’s the way things have been since the University stopped offering a journalism B.A. decades ago. The decision didn’t slow down the Daily, however. At a school that offers no formal journalism education, the newspaper has taken it upon itself to provide that education, informally and experientially.
Perhaps fittingly, one man who understands the paper’s knack for training successful professionals better than most is neither a University nor a Daily alumnus. Nonetheless, John Lowe, who recently retired as the Detroit Tigers beat writer for the Detroit Free Press after 29 years covering the team, has spent as much time at 420 Maynard as many current and former Daily staffers.
Sunday afternoons and evenings during the baseball offseason, Lowe would join the paper’s Sports section for its weekly meeting, patiently sit through a lengthy and often inane round of “icebreakers,” then briefly address the assembled staff, frequently offering pearls of wisdom that remain with alumni throughout their careers, in journalism or otherwise.
“John always asked,” remembered Tim Rohan, the 2011 managing sports editor, “ ‘What’s the first thing you’d tell your college roommate when you come back from the game?’ ”
That concept stuck around, Rohan said.
Lowe’s presence and mentorship, however, sum up the Daily’s spirit better than just a brief advice tidbit after a staff meeting. Lowe would often stick around late into the evening, available for edits and advice, but never solicitous. If a writer wanted edits from Lowe, he’d be sitting on a couch in the back of the newsroom. If not, there were no hard feelings.
Lowe still remembers the first time he showed up at the Daily, at the invitation of former managing sports editor and then-Free Press intern Nick Cotsonika, a current editor at that paper and a former Yahoo! hockey writer.
“I was going to turn 40 in 1999,” Lowe said. “The only reason I mention that is that’s the age when you’re qualified to be a mentor. As I was in my late 30s, I was greatly enjoying my career, but I was also starting to get this urge to work with young writers.”
Cotsonika could never have envisioned the phenomenon Lowe’s presence would become. He reached a full generation of Daily up-and-comers, joining the paper on a regular basis beginning at the Sunday Sports meeting on January 24, 1999, and extending through October 2014.
Lowe was immediately struck by the newsroom atmosphere, the dedication and, above all else, the fact that the students were doing everything.
“I would just say that of the many schools I have been to, what I feel definitely sets the Daily apart is, among other things, the thoroughness of the editing process,” Lowe said.
Cotsonika’s innocent suggestion worked out well for the man at the end of that editing process in 1999, Rick Freeman, who spent more than a decade at the New York offices of the Associated Press before transitioning into a gig as a copy editor at Al Jazeera America.
“My memory of (Lowe’s first visit) evades me, because it just seemed at the time that this guy I knew who was a very good beat writer for the ‘Freep’ was like, ‘Hey, can I come by and talk to your staff?’ ” Freeman recalled. “It wasn’t very formal at all.”
The flexible structure, both in Lowe’s visits and in the paper’s organization, often paid dividends.
“Knowing that the Daily was our only outlet to getting into the field, you had to pour your entire self into it,” Rohan said, calling his experience at the Daily a “real education.”
The time Lowe spent at the Daily, immensely valuable in and of itself, also encapsulates the spirit of the paper and its self-reliance. Alumni teach older students. Older students teach younger students. Younger students teach one another.
And in the occasional instance students feel they could benefit from a more traditional classroom setting, there are ways to replicate it. John Lowe might be waiting quietly to give edits. A Knight-Wallace fellow might be invited to give a guest address in the Daily’s conference room. Alumni who write for Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and a bevy of other outlets come spend a night in the newsroom, teaching, consulting and simply talking.
And when there are no extra resources to lean on, leaning on friends never hurts.
“I realized I can figure it out on my own, and that’s the most fun part,” Rohan said. “It became like a competition. You’re there with friends, and you’re like, ‘Oh, man, Mike wrote a great game story last week.’ You feel like you have to try to beat him.”
The camaraderie fosters a sense of territorialism, Freeman said — the sense that the Daily is the students’ responsibility, their domicile. That sense is alive and well in 2015, and isn’t going anywhere.
“People are always surprised to learn that Michigan doesn’t have a journalism school, because there are a ton of us who majored in Daily,” Freeman said. “It always feels good to say, ‘No, I was a history major.’ It’s always fun to see how surprised people are.”