My Biggest Book

Cleaning out my office closet gave me a reason to haul out the single largest book I own: The complete 1989-90 run of the Chicago Maroon, the student newspaper of the University of Chicago. I have a copy because this was the year I was editor in chief, and this is one of the perks you get for all that slave labor. The hardcover copy of Old Man’s War is there for scale. While I certainly did not write the whole book (newspapers, even ones for a university, have actual staff), I did write several articles a week, including music reviews and opinion columns. Yes, I know. Opinion columns. What a shock. How were they? Well, just about what you’d expect the opinion columns of a 20-year-old who was full of himself to be. But come on. That’s what college newspapers are for.

Besides my own byline, the bylines in the book include Dave Auburn (Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who contributed play reviews), Clinton adviser Howard Wolfson (who was a reporter and a news editor over the summer), notable science fiction author James Cambias (who wrote a kick-ass trivia column), Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Angwin, OED editor and blogger Erin McKean, cartoonist Ivan Brunetti and Ken Hite, who is best known as a writer for RPGs these days, but back in the day drew cartoons and wrote political opinion. These are the names most recognizable to non-U of Cers today, but the whole staff was very sharp; I’d’ve put them up against the newsroom of any student newspaper anywhere.

Also of note within the 89-90 run of the Maroon is the appearance of The Fourth Estate, a conservative political section which I created as a counterpoint to The Gray City Journal, which was old-school lefty, and which had been around for years within the paper. Those of you who know my personal politics will find it deeply amusing that I of all people created a conservative political magazine, but there were good reasons for it. The Grey City Journal over the years had managed to give itself special protected status in the paper, so it couldn’t be killed or edited by the E-I-C like any other section. Leaving out anything to do with the section’s politics, this made its staffers more than a little annoying and since there were so many of them, the section ended up being the tail wagging the dog — you couldn’t get anything done, basically, without running it past the GCJ. Naturally, I didn’t like that.

Since I couldn’t kill the section, which would have been my preference, at the very least I could counterbalance it (and take half its pages to do so, which amused me to do), and in doing so also added a number of staffers (delighted conservatives) who were intensely loyal to me. This was now useful, since every member of the GCJ now loathed me and would have shot laser beams at me through their eyeballs if they could. Ah, the politics of college newspaper editing. As they say, so intense because the stakes were so low.

That said, at least one good thing came out of it: one of the editors of The Fourth Estate and one of the editors of the Gray City Journal were challenged by each other’s ideas, started dating, eventually got married and are married still. So there: from time to time, opposites do attract. Anyway, some time after I left, one of the EICs finally ditched both political sections. Good on her (or him).

Aside from that particular scuffle, I had a great time as the Editor-in-Chief of the paper, and I suspect that friends who know me from the era might tell tyou hat while most people went to the U of C to get a degree, I went to edit the newspaper. I would not disagree with this too much (although, you know, I got a degree too). The year I was editor of the paper is certainly my favorite year at the university, and one of my favorites over all. It’s nice to have a big honkin’ reminder of that time.

32 Comments on “My Biggest Book”

  1. This reminds me of my own years on the school paper. And, hell, yeah, people who know me now might be a little surprised to see my old political cartoons. They have more than a whiff of College Republican to them. My only defense is: I lived in Utah. Even the Democrats were on the right side of the aisle.

    I was feature editor, layout editor, political cartoonist, and illustrator at our school paper. (This is where the graphic design sneaks in…as you knew it would.) Those were the days…and nights…and every moment we could cram into our week.

  2. I wasn’t there when you were editor, but I have to say, I did really enjoy writing for the Maroon. Good times! I don’t think I have any record of what I wrote, though.

  3. I’m curious about the two editors who got married: are they still political opposites, or has one managed to convert the other?

  4. That’s really good to hear. Since you were the one to bring balance to the force, maybe in a few more years we can draw you over to the Dark Side?

  5. At my college they elected the newspaper editorial board every semester. I wasn’t as professional as other college papers, but it was far, far more interesting than any other I’ve seen.

  6. Try to make it through the pain, Vito.

    Skip: sorry, not likely.

    Kevin: I think they are still political opposites, but I haven’t spoken directly to either in a number of years (not because of any conflict, just, you know. People don’t always keep in great contact).

  7. As someone who is still recovering from a very brief stint in politics, I am delighted to hear you were responsible for providing some balance somewhere, especially since it was not necessarily to your own ideological benefit.

    I received a Bachelor’s in Journalism but never worked for a news organization. More than a decade later I am doing image retouching (Photoshop might as well be my job description) and developing database applications. I’m sure another decade from now I’ll be doing something different.

  8. My old man actually went to Med School at the University of Chicago. He bought me a t-shirt after an alumni event that read:

    “Harvard, the University of Chicago of the East.”

  9. Good thing you picked OMW instead of TAD with its esteem issues.

    How’s the room clean up coming?

  10. Can’t really clean up until the plumbers are done, and it’s a multi-day sort of thing.

  11. John, do you ever get the chance to read the Maroon nowadays? When I was at U of C five years ago, I was impressed by the local bent they tried to give the news, but I always kind of felt a lot of the stories were fluff. I guess I was expecting more intellectually challenging stories, like multi-part exposes on city neighborhood problems or something.

    Plus, there was no random classified section for hook-ups. And we all know how U of C students are there to party.

    “University of Chicago – Where Fun Goes to Die.”

  12. Robert Silverberg, as I recall, possibly from his telling me, had a friend stuck with a warehouse full of some huge over-sized book on a not inherently interesting subject, and wanted to cut his losses.

    Robert Silverberg agreed to write a classified ad, on commission, to sell some of these whale-sized tomes.

    The ad that he wrote was a gem. In it’s entirety (besides the address and price including shipping) the ad copy was:

    “Do you want a REALLY big book?”

    The warehouse sold out completely.

  13. No kidding– a fellow Maroon. We just missed each other (I didn’t start until the fall of ’91). My main claim to fame was being a Scav Hunt judge.

  14. It so happens that two of my housemates are U of C alums; the more vocal of them said the consensus among her classmates was that the _Maroon_ was “better than it had been in decades” under your leadership. And knowing just how driven those two folks are (and what one of U of C’s former professors is up to these days), that’s saying something.

    Well done, sir. That’s a big damn book in more ways than one. (Ever consider going back to the newsroom?)

  15. Technoshaman:

    “Ever consider going back to the newsroom?”

    Nope. At this point it would mean a prohibitive pay cut to do it full time. I would be thrilled to have a column syndicated to newspapers, however. Unlike the last time I did it (when I was 24), I’m competent in the form now. No one’s offered to syndicate a column from me, however.

    Todd Stull:

    I look at the Maroon Web site from time to time, but I’ve not read the paper in any depth for years. That said, the Maroon (and most student newspapers) has always had a high fluff factor, in no small part because the students putting it together actually have to go to school, too.

  16. In addition to being a notable SF author, Mr. Cambias has dabbled in the occasional RPG design. Conversely, Mr. Hite is well on his way to becoming an authority on Cthulhuiana, as an offshoot or evolution of his work on RPGs.

    I’ve been fortunate enough to work with both of them, and I’m not in the least surprised to find them both associated with you as all your careers got going.

  17. I definitely went to school to edit the newspaper. In fact, that is why I didn’t learn Spanish. I mean, I went to class and all, but studying? Who had time for that?
    But really, the three years I worked on The Temple News were the best, and the one when I was editor in chief was the very best.
    What was your management style? My predecessors tended toward management by anger, which worked for them, because they were big and loud, and not for me, because I am scrawny and my voice cracks when I yell. So I settled for a mix of grumpy and funny.

  18. Back in college at Cal Poly, SLO, I helped create a robot competition to raise the profile of my relatively new major of Computer Engineering. The competition (RoboRodentia) is now in its 14th year and draws a larger crowd than the tractor pull on the ag side of campus. I have a legacy!

  19. The two editors I think make no secret of this story — it’s Ken Hite and Sheila — oh, dang, I’ve forgotten Sheila’s last name. Sorry, Sheila. Ken’s the conservative and Sheila’s the liberal. Ken’s a writer himself, and a game designer. But to answer the question posed, they still hold their previous political convictions, at least per a conversation I had with Ken a few years ago.

    If I remember right, he claims that the marriage doesn’t founder on that rock because in fact, they agree on most issues — it just so happens that they each have one issue that they feel strongly about that puts them in the liberal or conservative camp. (Not the same issue.)

  20. My first involvement in journalism was when I was a contributing photographer for my high school paper my last two years in high school covering sports and school events.

    Later I also contributed some photographs for a travel piece in my college paper as a favor to my friend who was EIC at the time.

  21. How did this one section manage to give itself a special protected status? And was your decision to create a conservative counterpart one of the factors that made it easier for one of your successors to finally kill it?

  22. G-d I loved editing the school newspaper. My lasting contribution is that mine was the last paper to lock to the baseline grid–silly, I know, but there you are.

    John, did writers also do layout, or did you have a separate layout staff? If so, what did you use?

    [/Typesetting geek]

  23. Johnny Carruthers:

    They managed to get the paper’s bylaws changed to give it and its contributors special status. There was some debate as to whether these changes were in themselves entirely kosher, but by the time I was EIC they’d been doing things their way for a while and no one could remember the details.

    As for whether it made it easier to kill later: No idea. Wasn’t around for the kill, so I couldn’t say.

  24. Hi John, a friend saw your post and sent me a link.

    IIRC correctly, what actually happened was that the GCJ decided to go independent on it own, leaving the Fourth Estate behind as the only separately-edited political section of the Maroon, which posed the same problem as having the GCJ alone in the Maroon had done—Why have just one side of political opinion represented in the official student newspaper?—and so the Fourth Estate was axed either the same or the next year, I can’t remember which (I don’t remember which Editor ended up doing it, either).

    When I worked at GCJ, staffers would informally discuss the possibility of going independent from time to time (in classic “parallax view” fashion, we felt that the Maroon had way to much power over US :-)), and once in a blue moon even have a little meeting about it. We always wound up deciding that even if arguably we could get as much advertising on our own as the Maroon ad guys were placing in our section every week, the operating expenses—all of which were subsidized for us by either the University or the Maroon–would still be too prohibitive for us to really make a go of it, so it never got past the what-if phase while I was there. But as I said a later generation of GCJers made a different decision for whatever reason, and I think published for a year or two before going under.

    (Another independent student paper, the Chicago Weekly News, started up and has survived for years now, though for most of the time they’ve done so in partnership with another independent Chicago paper called New City I believe. It’s an arts & entertainment & student life type paper rather than a political one, and so it probably has a broader appeal than the independent GCJ ever did.)

    Regarding whether Ken & I are still political opposites, I don’t really know how to answer. (Part of getting older, for me at least, is feeling maybe a bit less certitude about my political opinions in general, and a little more inclined to draw a forgetful shade over how different I might have been 20 years ago). I think there are a lot of things Ken & I do agree on, and as Mary Anne mentioned above, there are only a couple of issues we can’t discuss without getting into fightin’ words. But fundamentally, I’m still a Democrat and he’s still a Republican.

  25. Oh, cool! Hi, Sheila, great to hear from you! And thanks for the follow-up on the fate of GCJ and TFE.

  26. John, I felt that the paper improved vastly under your chiefdom. I don’t know if you recall but in the mid-80’s the nickname among the student population was “The Chicago Moron”. My wife (’91) and I (’90) still call it that but really just out of nostalgia.

    And, BTW, another talented cartoonist from the era was Jessica Abel (though I don’t recall if her work appeared in the paper). She’s still active, and I thought her La Perdida was wonderful.

  27. BKB:

    Jessica Abel is indeed very talented, but I don’t recall her being on staff. She is, however, in the two copies of “Breakdown” I unearthed yesterday as well. (that was the U of C comic book, for the rest of you)

  28. My wife was the E-I-C of her university’s newspaper (York University’s Excalibur) in the early-00s.

    When Torontonian politicians started demeaning her in mainstream press, she knew she was doing her job…

  29. I still have copies of all the issues of the Big Ten daily I worked on in 1988-90 as chief night editor. Important days (nights) for me; for one thing, I learned that I wanted to continue appearing in the masthead of a daily or weekly (of the sort that I’d want to read), and have done so for nearly all the intervening years.

  30. My college was considerably smaller, so the student newspaper ran from appallingly bad to surprisingly good, sometimes within the same issue. For an example, we had one hyperventilating opinion writer who wrote articles on (no joke!) how people acting smart in her classes made her feel dumb, or how people dressing up for class were annoying. And there was the annual screed against the Honors program by one of two writers— the most hilarious part is that one of them actually tried to use me to get info. (“It’s pretty non-diverse, isn’t it?” “Sure… no, wait, there’s Joe, and Kara, and…” I wasn’t being sarcastic, I just hadn’t realized until I thought about it.)

    Then you could contrast that with the time the* student from Zimbabwe got hold of the opinion section, and suddenly it was full of well-reasoned, in-depth political information.

    My job was the illustrator, usually at the last minute. I treasure that experience for the skills it gave me in coming up with stuff at the last minute. My favorite crazy assignment was “We need a graphic on abortion. Make it neutral.” (It turned out pretty boring.) And then there was “We need a graphic for the anniversary of the El Savador priest killings. We have photos but we can’t use them.” Silly me, I asked to see the photos. They were 4×6 reprints off somebody’s camera from the scene. In your typical grocery store photo envelope. Where the hell did they get them? I learned the reality of certain terms that day, and that I really don’t need to see certain things.

    *I said it was a small school.

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