Learning Through Student Journalism

I will often say that the most defining part of my collegiate experience was the time I spent in the basement of Newcomb Hall at the University of Virginia. That space served as the home for The Cavalier Daily, U.Va.’s independent student newspaper.

The CD has been the newspaper of record at Mr. Jefferson’s University for 125 years now. It has won countless awards and broken story after story. During my tenure there, we actually had major national newspapers trying to convince our printer to read them our front pages, as we had broken a major story regarding the Honor system and a big-dollar-donor parent trying to keep his son from being expelled. They didn’t want to be scooped by a bunch of kids.

During my time at The Cavalier Daily, I held many positions. I started off as an opinion columnist. Over time, I was a sports writer, a sports columnist, a copy editor, the founder of the nation’s first collegiate business section (serving as Marketplace editor), and then as managing editor of the newspaper.

Like me, those who work for The CD do it for the love of journalism. Reporters and editors don’t get paid. They don’t earn college credit (as Virginia doesn’t have a J- school). After being elected managing editor for the 1994-95 year, I worked on average of 80 hours a week down in that basement. Five days a week, we put out an (on average) 16-page newspaper. We had nearly 150 individuals on staff, managing an annual budget of nearly $500,000, all coming from advertising revenue.

At The Cavalier Daily, I learned to write. I learned to think critically. I learned both to work as a team and lead. I learned to appreciate deadlines (as missing deadline cost us money at the printer). And I learned a sense of pride in hard work, in the truth, and in the right thing.

I learned to embrace the words of Thomas Jefferson, found on the masthead the topped my work each and every day. “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

In recent years, my beloved Cavalier Daily, like so many journalistic institutions, has struggled in the transition into a digital news economy. When I was on the managing board, back in 1994, we actually launched the first web version of the daily newspaper. We were among the pioneers in collegiate journalism.

A few years back, another CD managing board made the bold decision to move from a printed newspaper every morning to a digital one. Instead of using the web to accompany a broadsheet, online and email would lead the day. And again, like others in journalism, The Cavalier Daily realized it was much harder to generate advertising revenue without a print product. And with no financial support from the University of Virginia and a shrinking bank account, the CD fell behind in its rent to the University.

After a time, The Cavalier Daily righted the ship and has been regularly paying its rent to the landlords at U.Va. But it still had $50,000 or so in unpaid rent it needed to make up. The multi-billion-dollar University of Virginia wanted its money. It threatened to evict The Cavalier Daily from its space. So generations of CD alumni acted, and acted swiftly.

The Washington Post tells the story of how those CD alums came together in a matter of hours to pay the rent bill. And Susan Svrluga tells it quite well. And I thank her and WaPo for telling this important story of how a “storied student newspaper” has been rescued (even though WaPo was one of those newspapers, 20 years ago, wanting a sneak peek of what would be on our front pages that winter.)

Yes, the tale of The CD’s rent woes could speak to the financial challenges of print journalism in a digital world. It could speak to the challenges of a fiercely independent student newspaper in an era when universities want to control any and all messaging about them. Or it could speak of the incredible impact organizations and institutions like The Cavalier Daily have on generations of individuals.

The Cavalier Daily saved me when I was at U.Va. As a first year (U.Va. version of a freshman), I was completely lost. I was miserable being in Charlottesville and terribly homesick. I missed my high school days and I didn’t know how to replicate that experience at Mr. Jefferson’s University. My mother pleaded with me to visit the newspaper’s offices. I didn’t want to, but I listened to my mother. And I’m glad I did.

My college experience was The Cavalier Daily. I majored in The CD. It gave me purpose. It helped me get my first job out of college. It is where I made life-long friends. It gave my college days meaning (even if it meant skipping the majority of my actually college classes during my four years at U.Va. – seriously).

Today, I am proud to serve on the board of the Cavalier Daily Alumni Association. And I am even prouder of all of those alumni who stepped forward in recent days to save the CD’s space. Sure, the newspaper could have moved offices. But for the past 20 years, the basement of Newcomb Hall has been The CD’s home. No one wants to be forced out of their home. Particularly when their central mission is training generations of college students to follow truth wherever it may lead.

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