|LIFE AS A LOSER #74: "THE DAILY ILLINI."|
|By Will Leitch|
I have been thinking about my college newspaper. Typically, long-winded stories of people’s college experiences are thoroughly boring, but in this case, rest assured, my tales are merely mostly boring.
My first day at the University of Illinois, I checked into my dorm room, set down my backpack, hopped in the elevator and walked clear to the other side of campus, where the Daily Illini was. My goal was simple: I wanted to write movie reviews. I didn’t think I’d be all that good at it, but I knew I’d be persistent and diligent and loyal, and I’d work as many hours as they wanted. So I, 17 years old, walked in the front door and asked if anybody knew where I could find the editor-in-chief and then signed a piece of paper saying I wanted to review movies and write about sports.
Two days later, Rob O’Connor, a big, imposing senior who was the weekend editor at the DI, called me. “Hey, you said you liked movies, right? Cool. You probably won’t want to see it, but the new movie by Woody Allen just opened up at the Coed. Want to see it and write about it?” I told him I’d already seen Manhattan Murder Mystery three times, written a review and would be there in 15 minutes.
After that, they let me write all the time (diligent freshmen who will work for nothing and turn their stories in three days early are hard to come by; I’m sad to say my devotion to deadlines has eroded over the years). Then I was writing sports, then I was writing a weekly column - with my picture next to it and everything! - then I was covering the men’s basketball team, then I was an editor, and it was all over but the shouting at that point. I never even had time to meet the other guys in my dorm. I’d leave class at 3 - this was back when I went to class - head straight to the DI and stay there most of the evening, writing, reading, trying to make friends.
My closest friend at the DI was Mike. He was another enterprising young freshman, but he was not self-indulgent enough to care about column photos or bylines or expressing yourself. He was a reporter, tried and true; he wanted to report the news. He worked for the city section and spoke of ordinances and zoning commissions and city councils, and none of it made a lick of sense to me. But something between us clicked - it was probably his enviable ability to both attend class and take detailed, easily copied notes - and next thing you knew, I had my first college friend. He was from a Chicago suburb, which angered my father; Dad was mortally panicked that the Chicago folks at the U of I would turn me into a Cubs fan. Mike and I talked baseball, and writing, and girls, and he introduced me to Marlboro Reds, and that was that, it was all over.
Mike and I were the hot two young reporters, and we made it a specific goal to get the older editors to like us. We took different paths in this endeavor. Mike worked tremendously hard and obsessed over every word he wrote; I, showing off a streak of sloth that never quite rinsed away, started dating the metro editor.
A clique quickly formed. Suddenly, the top reporters and editors at the student newspaper, the people who were allegedly combing the campus for any whiff of news, talking to whomever it took to get this story, started only hanging out with one another. (The ultimate real-world lesson I learned from the Daily Illini - but apparently did not absorb - did not involve journalistic ethics but rather was simply not to date your co-workers.) It was a gaggle of about eight of us, and we did everything together. Pity the poor young reporters who thought they could penetrate our inner sanctum. We were above the law, because we were the media, and we were flush with power. The campus was ours, and we could publish anything we wanted. Our stories were meant to entertain ourselves - if readers liked them, hey, bully for us - and we looked at everyone else as pathetic capitalist scum, money-grubbing swine, only out for their own self-interests. Only we, the media, could be trusted. Meanwhile, I made a vow one month that every sports column I wrote would mention Woody Allen.
The metro editor and I went through a messy breakup, but the clique remained. Two years strong we lasted, which is pretty impressive for college, I think. But the end of our junior year was approaching, and we all knew was next. The battle for editor-in-chief.
It was obvious to everyone that the new editor-in-chief - selected by a board of directors made up of students and faculty - would be either me or Mike, and if you were to ask me, it should have been obvious to everyone that it was going to be me. I was the star; Mike was my sidekick. I was the one who was charming and witty in the office. I was the one who received all the letters from readers. I was the visible one, the one everyone knew. I was the star columnist. I was the life of the party. Mike would make a wonderful managing editor during my reign, a loyal subject, my right-hand man. But editor-in-chief? Mike? Come on, he’s a city reporter. Who cares if he knows the beats? We needed a leader of men. Someone who could inspire the troops. Me.
Mike was my roommate, so we had a beer before heading to the interview at the Illini Union. He wished me luck, and I wished him luck, knowing it would do him no good. Everything had always come so easy to me. I never had to work all that hard, never dug deeper, just strolled on through. Why would this be any different? Mike interviewed first and came out quiet. I asked him how it went. “Good enough. Good luck.”
It occurred to me as I sat down that I’d never interviewed for a job before. A professor named Harris asked me if I would let writers write whatever they wanted, or would I hesitate if they could possibly offend a campus group, or an advertiser, or whoever? I smiled, looked him in the eye and said, “Ack. Fervet ritters crum speckle hot. Sheverphloom, ah spectum.” I know this defies the laws of sonic travel, but I swear, I heard the “words” about three seconds after I said them. I crumbled, and the rest of the interview dissolved into a series of “Yes, yes, I like the Daily Illini. A lot!” and “No, I don’t think writing a column is all that hard at all. All you have to do is type. Why? Do you?”
In retrospect, I figure even if I’d nailed the interview, they would have given the job to Mike. He’d put in the hours, the sweat, and I’d coasted along, assuming an occasional turn of phrase or well-timed smile would get me by. If I were a grownup, I’d have given the job to him too. That night, once they called to tell me they’d hired Mike, I called my father. He answered the phone with “Congratulations!” I broke the news, and to my complete horror and shock, I began to cry. The only time I’d cried in front of my father before that was at his father’s funeral, and I haven’t done so since. We’ve never spoken of the incident, and if he were to ask me about it today, I’d probably claim - as he did, when he cried at his father-in-law’s funeral - my underwear was too tight. To this day, that’s as good an explanation as I can come up with.
Two weeks later, Mike hired me as his managing editor, and my close friend MDS as his metro editor - whom I did not date - and the new regime was in place. But for whatever reason, my heart was never in it after that, and once the summer came around, and I met my future ex-fiancee, I began to distance myself from the DI. Mike and I remain the closest of friends. Every year I make at least one trip to Chicago, where he works as a highly successful city reporter and has a career that is stable and happy and rewarding. He is earning accolades and plaudits as a tough interviewer and a man slavishly devoted to his beat. He is not considered a troublemaker and a lazy whiner .
I am not yet old enough to have adequate perspective on what my college newspaper experience meant, but it must be reckoned with, because it played a large role in my ending up where I am. I suppose I shouldn’t hold that fact against it.