Stephanie Steinberg is the editor of the new book In the Name of Editorial Freedom: 125 Years at The Michigan Daily. Her other book is Michigan Football. She is the assistant editor of U.S. News & World Report's health and money sections, and her work has appeared in a variety of other publications, including The New York Times and The Boston Globe. She was editor-in-chief of The Michigan Daily in 2011.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book?
A: In the summer of 2013, a friend from Michigan was visiting Washington, D.C. We were talking over brunch, and he told me he was reading Those Guys Have All the Fun, which shares behind-the-scenes stories at ESPN, told by the journalists who worked there.
It got me thinking that Michigan Daily alumni also have rich, interesting stories to tell. The 125th anniversary was also coming up in two years, and I thought something should be done to commemorate the paper and the journalists whose careers started there.
So I sent an email to an editor at the University of Michigan Press with my pitch for the book. He liked it, and three years later, it’s now on bookshelves.
Q: How were the contributors selected?
A: There’s over 6,000 students who worked for the Daily since 1890. Not all are still alive, of course, but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to narrow it down. (And I did have a word count restriction.) So I decided to limit it to alumni who continued to pursue journalism as a career after leaving the Daily.
I then made a list of successful and recognizable alumni such Adam Schefter, an ESPN Insider; Michael Rosenberg, a sportswriter at Sports Illustrated; and Jeremy Peters, a politics reporter at The New York Times.
Just in the last five years, there’s been a lot of alumni who’ve launched impressive careers straight after the Daily. These rising journalism stars include sportswriters Nicole Auerbach at USA Today, Chantel Jennings at ESPN and Tim Rohan at The New York Times.
In some cases, I chose contributors based on the story they had to tell. For example, GQ editor Geoffrey Gagnon was the Daily’s editor-in-chief in 2001, and I wanted to include a story that revealed what happened in the newsroom on 9/11.
There’s another infamous story about the Daily starting the rumor that Paul McCartney had died in 1969. So I asked Columbia Journalism School Professor Leslie Wayne, the Daily’s managing arts editor at that time, to explain how that story came to light and why it went viral.
Q: What did your work on The Michigan Daily mean for you, and what impact has it had on your career?
A: Today I’m an assistant health and money editor at U.S. News & World Report in Washington, D.C.
I honestly learned everything I need to know for my job now from my time at the Daily and the year I spent as editor-in-chief in charge of 170 college students. After working 80+ hours a week and staying up to produce the paper until 3 or 4 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, you’re prepared take on any journalism job after that.
While it was stressful and made me question the sanity of college students at times, it was honestly the best job I think I’ll ever have. Mostly that was because of the people I worked with. Michael Rosenberg, who was an editor-in-chief in 1996, wrote this in his story for the book, and it really resonated with me:
“I did not have to spend as much time at the Daily as I did, but I learned one of the most valuable lessons in life, and it’s not a journalism lesson: If you love what you do, it won’t feel like work, and you will never feel overworked. It helps if you love the people who do it alongside you.”
The editors I worked with remain some of my best friends to this day, and I owe the Daily for those friendships.
Q: Do you see common themes running through these essays?
A: Former Washington Post publisher Phillip Graham once said, “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.” I think the book provides a look at the first draft of history – from the perspective of college students.
For example, Sara Fitzgerald was the editor-in-chief the night the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade and Lyndon B. Johnson died of a heart attack in 1973. In her essay, Sara describes the feud in the newsroom over which story should run lede.
As you can imagine, that was a battle of the sexes. The LBJ headline ultimately won, but the story shows how the country’s views were changing.
Since the book starts with the March on Selma in 1965, and goes through Vietnam War protests, presidential elections and the present day, you can see the shift in the country’s values as you read through each reporter’s “first rough draft.”
Q: What do you see looking ahead for the journalism profession?
A: That’s a really tough question, since this industry is impossible to predict. I do think there will always be a need for newspapers to report the news, keep communities informed and act as a check on government officials.
There just might not be as many newspapers printing those stories off a printing press. In fact, there are now more college papers than there are daily print papers in the U.S. The Daily is one example of this trend: It became the only daily print newspaper in Washtenaw County after the Ann Arbor News shut down in 2009.
But in an ironic way, the Web has kept the profession afloat. Since I’ve graduated, it’s been encouraging to see how many journalism positions have opened up to fill Web production needs, from writing and editing to social media.
My job itself only exists because U.S. News & World Report stopped printing the magazine in 2010 and turned into a digital publication.
In the future, I think we’re going to see more online-only publications enter the media landscape. It’s been interesting to watch how The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Vox have become real competitors with some of the nation’s legacy newspapers such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
But the competition is a good thing – it helps keep us journalists on our toes and striving to produce better work.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now, I’m working on presentations for my West Coast book tour stops in February. Once the tour is over, I’ll be ready to take on a new project, but I’ve told myself no more Michigan Daily-related books. (I published one in college on Michigan football, compiling photos and articles from the Daily archives, so this was technically my second Daily book.)
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: What many people find surprising is that the University of Michigan has no journalism school. The journalism department shut down in 1979, so the students at the Daily really teach each other everything they need to know, from how to write a new story to how to take photos.
Some come to the Daily with high school journalism training, but for the most part, students come through the doors wanting to try journalism.
In the case of Shannon Pettypiece, a reporter for Bloomberg, she just wanted to make friends. Adam Schefter joined the Daily because a fraternity on campus didn’t have an open spot, and “Michigan’s football office didn’t need another student intern to pick up dirty jock straps,” as he wrote. “The Michigan Daily turned away no one. It welcomed all.”
Still, others join the Daily because they know they want to become journalists, which was the case for me.
No matter the reason you join, you get hooked. Best of all, you discover that editorial freedom means you have the power to change the world with your words.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb