I’m a total hack at everything I do. I’m comfortable with that statement, because occasionally hacks accomplish great things like “Louie Louie” or the dog sweater. But so far I have never done anything so redeeming. I’m just a hack, through and through.
“Now, Steve,” you surely answer, “you’re not a hack at all. I never knew what you were saying in your columns, but you said it so well.” Thank you. That is the compliment I love to get, and you give it so well. But a few of you will agree: I am not only a hack, but a blight. A waste of space. A bag of hot air. A broken record. A sexual dynamo. Oops.
Anyway, if you are the sort who has enjoyed poking my eyes out on the page with a pen, then try to bear with me just one more time. It is, after all, my goodbye column, so that should give you a little satisfaction.
This isn’t going to be a column in which I retract or stand by past statements. I’ve written a lot of dreck, but some of it wasn’t so bad. Nor is this intended as an apologia for my deviant behavior. After all, am I truly responsible for getting drunk and kissing someone’s friend instead of them, or for calling Daily people by the wrong name, or for generally smelling up the Student Publications Building? Who can say for sure?
No, I can’t touch topics like those, and they would just be stuffing, anyway. So I’ve decided to be dreadfully didactic one more time. I’m going to say something and what could I possibly know more about, care more about, and be more up-in-arms about, than the Daily itself?
I want to start by saying what the Daily is. We don’t need to go back 114 years, or even to the ’60s, when our paper claimed the ideals that it clings to today by a pinky finger, to know why the Daily exists. Every day, this is the best publication in Ann Arbor — better than the Ann Arbor News, which somehow endorsed President Bush in this town of towns; better than Critical Moment, the alternative rag that is struggling to make a splash; and yes, even better than the Every Three Weekly when we made our “Jeopardy” issue last January (I am still proud of a certain “interracial high-five” diagram).
The Daily, more than any other paper, really tries to keep up with this town, and that is not an easy thing to do. Music writers swan dive into the local scene, opinion writers stalk student groups as they pop up, sports writers hide in sweaty lockers and everyone else keeps their ear to the ground through wind, rain and snow.
Or, at least, they could. Mostly, people hang around and do page layout or some other task that will help them up the hierarchy. Sure, there is plenty of attention to the page, but mostly for what it looks like, not for what it says. We are becoming a paper of editors, not writers.
And all the minions who come to the mass meetings never stay long enough to realize that: 1) yes, they can write 2) their editors can’t 3) who is going to write the stories they know, if not them? Every writer takes a shot in the dark when he or she asks to be published. It could end up glorious or humiliating, as we have seen in the last month, but it only happens if you elbow your way onto the page.
I understand if an aspiring writer is shy. The Daily really tries hard to throw its tradition at you, as if there is some old blind man in the attic who tells us secrets after dark. But the secret is, we’re all a bunch of hacks. I mean this in the best possible sense. We’re all a bunch of students with big heads who for some reason think we can say things better than other people. And some of us can. But there is never any threshold you cross when this becomes official. A writer rises and falls with every word. There is no such thing as tenure, only the occasional favor for someone who proved himself in the past. And thankfully, even the best writers have to move on from here when they graduate.
The Daily is a bit like Paul Bunyan’s ax, with six new handles and seven heads, or the ship in Thucydides that has been completely re-planked or the Buddhist saying that you never stand in the same river twice. We call it the Daily, as if we have it pegged, but at any moment it is whatever students are willing to do. Respect for precedent holds us back from going crazy, but there have been more unsettled times, years ago, such as when the Daily was taken over by leftist radicals for a semester. The paper went to shit, but it was a good demonstration of student willpower.
In my time here, the strongest student response to the Daily was a boycott. What were these people thinking? Boycotts are for consumer services, like buses, because people find they can’t affect them any other way. That’s not what the Daily is. No one is a victim here. We are students, all of us. We have good ideas and bad ideas, and we print them because we can. If you want to change the Daily, you don’t boycott it, you become it.
I suppose, for some would-be writers, no amount of prodding will get them to reach for the newspaper that props the door open at 420 Maynard. Writers don’t like to think of themselves as joiners. But I know there are people out there who could keep this town on its toes, and I hope they try while they can.
As a final goodbye, I want to thank all my friends at the Daily, past and present, who gave me an inkling of what is possible in writing and in life. I may always be a hack, but perhaps one day that will be a compliment. And as a parting gift, I just want to remind everyone that I never accepted a paycheck — not a single one — in all my time with the paper. So let’s go have a party, and say it’s on me.
Cotner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.