Back To The J-School

IMG_3420From 1977 to 1979, I spent huge amounts of time in an unassuming brick building tucked away at an anonymous intersection on the sprawling campus of the Ohio State University.  It was the home of the School of Journalism, known to its denizens as the “J-School.”  It was where I met Kish and where my friends were, and the epicenter of my little college universe was the Ohio State Lantern newsroom found on the second floor.

Last Friday afternoon I had the chance to go back again, thanks to a kind invitation from Dan Caterinicchia (who helpfully goes by “Dan Cat”), the Director of Student Media at OSU and faculty advisor to the Lantern.  Dan asked if I would come out and talk to his class of Lantern reporters, purportedly to discuss journalism ethics but in reality to give an aging ex-reporter a chance to share some memories with fresh young people about a time and place that still evokes many warm feelings.

During my visit I got a chance to see the Lantern newsroom, pictured above, which has changed tremendously since my era at the J-School.  During the ’70s the newsroom was a long room that ran almost the entire length of the building.  It was filled with rows of desks covered with electric typewriters where reporters were furiously typing copy, pods of desks where copy editors and section editors were marking up stories, a dark and smelly photo lab, and a “wire room” where constantly clattering marchines were spitting out reams of reports from the Associated Press and United Press International.

There was a tremendous buzz and energy in that long room, with reporters trying to meet their deadlines and the pressure of putting out a newspaper that was published every weekday and distributed to a community of more than 50,000 critical readers.  The newsroom was filled with an ever-present blue haze of stale cigarette smoke because everyone seemed to smoke like fiends in those less cancer-conscious days.  The ashtrays were dented silver film canisters, and they were always jammed to overflowing with crushed butts.

For an aspiring reporter, it was a little slice of journalistic heaven that made you feel like you were part of a real newsroom — and you were.  When I worked briefly for the Toledo Blade after graduation, the look and feel of its newsroom was not materially different from that of the Lantern.  I felt like my J-School experience had trained me well.

IMG_3421The newsroom looks a lot different now.  The long room has been cut in two, with one half devoted to a TV studio for Lantern TV.  The newsroom part is smaller, cleaner, and quieter.  There is no need for the long desks of typewriters or the noisy wire room, because reporters can just type their copy on laptops and email it to the editors, who work on huge Apple computers to put the newspaper together.  There’s no indoor smoking, either, which is a good thing.  Although a lot has changed, I imagine that the Lantern staffers of our day and of the present day would quickly find common ground — at least, the stack of empty pizza boxes on a trash can at one corner of the newsroom suggested as much.

I was a bit flummoxed about what to talk to the class of Lantern reporters about, but the flow of memories and stories came easily and the students listened respectfully.  Dan made things easier by calling up some of the newspapers and stories of my day — the Lantern now has a terrific, easily accessible on-line archive of its editions from 1881 to 1997, available here — and displaying them on a large screen as we talked. I’m not sure the students got anything out of the talk, other than random recollections and references to cultural touchstones that are now decades out of date, but it was fun to remember some of the issues and challenges that we struggled with so long ago.

I was impressed by the journalism students, who seemed as bright and inquisitive and interested in the world as the J-School rats of the ’70s that became my friends — but much more polite, of course.  And I also was impressed by Dan Caterinicchia, who has an excellent record of work as a professional journalist with the AP and also obviously has a  good rapport with his students and a keen eye for how to keep the Lantern meaningful in a changing, digital, social media world.

I would say to my fellow ex-Lanternites — and you know who you are — that the Lantern is in good hands, and that the J-School, and the on-line archive, are worth a visit.