News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Stephanie Salter

October 7, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: College journalism: It called Alice, when she was just small

TERRE HAUTE — It was the kind of request I never decline. A student at Purdue University phoned to schedule an interview to talk about my days on the staff of the student daily, the Exponent.

Those days were long ago in a galaxy far, far away, but something about them keeps hooking kids who’d normally run the other way when a baby boomer starts to wax nostalgic. A 2003 reunion in West Lafayette of dozens of Exponent staffers from my era was like an out-of-body experience. Bright, eager young people sat around the paper’s Northwestern Avenue offices urging us geezers to go on and on about the way we were.

That never happens in real life.

One reason I think young people like hearing about those days — roughly, Winter 1968 to Summer 1973 — is that they were exciting. Disillusionment with the Vietnam War, combined with strong movements for black civil rights and feminism, produced a roiling social sea across U.S. college campuses. Purdue wasn’t Columbia or Berkeley, but it didn’t escape the phenomenon known as “student unrest.” Like most campus newspapers, the Exponent was right in the middle of it all.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned the editorial reign of Bill Smoot, who was Exponent editor-in-chief from January 1968 to January 1969. He and his senior staff were the first to rebel against the university administration’s authority to dictate Exponent content, an amazing pushback by straight-up, fraternity and sorority types that set the paper’s ultimate transformation in motion. By the time I occupied the editor’s chair a year later, the Exponent was struggling to buy its freedom from the university as an independent nonprofit corporation. That struggle continued for the editors who followed until 1975, when the paper’s finances began to flourish, thanks to free circulation.

During his time at the helm, Smoot was fired, then reinstated by the university after his staff refused to accept his ouster and a faculty commission concurred. During my year as editor, the administration locked us out of the Purdue Memorial Union offices we rented, just as we were to publish our summer issue — the paper that pulled in many of our paid subscriptions.

I was summoned to campus for a meeting with administrators along with our editorial page editor, Jim Swanson, and our managing editor, Ron Thornburg. While I do not remember a minute of that meeting, I do know we struck a deal that allowed the paper to start publishing again. (I think it helped that Swanson — now a brigadier general — was an active member of the Air Force ROTC.)

Among our concessions were a professional in-house babysitter from the Lafayette Journal & Courier and our promise that we would use **** in place of offensive words we printed in columns or quotes. The babysitter, Bob Kriebel, turned out to be a terrific guy and a fine newsman who made us better reporters and editors and engendered a respect for “establishment journalism” that we retain today.

Which brings me to another reason I think young Exponent staffers still seek out those of my era: We geezers have remained close, not only through e-mail and phone calls, but with real-time visits to one another’s cities or through reunions. In 2003, 75 of us came to West Lafayette. Two years ago, about a dozen gathered in McCormick’s Creek State Park for the Hilly Hundred bike race. This weekend is our third annual get-together there.

Not everyone bikes. Some of us just soak up nature and focus on making a big outdoor dinner for the group. Inevitably, we end up around the campfire to drink, sing our unofficial anthem — Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” — and talk. Not just about the old days, but about life now, with all its frustration, fear and promise.

Many of us stayed in journalism. All of us who were liberals in college have remained politically progressive, including two guys who work fairly high up in the federal government. (So much for background checks.) To this day, we are amazed at the staying power of lessons we learned while putting out the Exponent, from investigative reporting skills to recognizing that a fat paycheck comes in a distant second to a job you love.

We also know most of us would have trouble getting on the Exponent staff these days, let alone running it.

In 1989, the Exponent moved from the PMU basement into its own 22,500-square-foot office building on Northwestern — 100 years after the publication of the very first Exponent. The paper’s circulation is 17,000 today, making it the state’s largest student daily, bigger even than Indiana University with its renowned journalism school. That’s a comforting fact for someone who still is asked, “Why did you go to Purdue to major in journalism?”

Silvia Son, the student who interviewed me and a few other geezers this week, is trying to win a place on the Exponent staff. She was among about 200 kids who attended the semester “call-out” for candidates. In my day, you had only to be semi-literate and walk through the door to get a job. Son and her counterparts must attend training sessions over several days, then submit a trial story for the Exponent’s website.

Pat Kuhnle, the paper’s professional publisher since 1984, said the staff employs about 150 students. Right, employs. The Exponent is no longer just a labor of love and the rare $50 check.

“We had our second-best year ever last year,” Kuhnle said. “I know, it’s counter-cultural, but niche publications are still doing OK.”

OK is an understatement. The Exponent grossed about $1.8 million last year. Its full-time staff of seven professionals was joined this year by a professional-in-residence, Maura Pierce, who spent 15 years at C-SPAN, which included producing the excellent series “The American Presidents.”

Kuhnle told me something else that explains why Exponent kids today are interested in the era in which my compadres and I ran the paper.

“The last training session we do is a history session,” he said. “I talk about the era that began with Smoot and ended with the Exponent becoming independent. I actually do a PowerPoint on it.”

Kuhnle asked if I’d like to see that PowerPoint and borrow discs of the digitized bound volumes from my era. All I could say was, “****, yes!”

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com.

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