The End of SMU's News War

smucampus_opt.jpg
On campus, as it is in the real world: Two news operations became one.
You can't swing a mace and chain around Observer HQ without hitting someone who knows what it's like to fight in a real newspaper war. That Buzz fellow worked in San Antonio back when the Express-News toiled against the Light. Schutze and Wilonsky are both veterans of The Dallas Morning News's fight with the long-dead Dallas Times Herald, a battle they recall with wistful nostalgia typically reserved for people much, much closer to death.

The rest of us, we have no idea. We think a news war is climbing in our little block-quote machines, gunning them to 88 and doing some half-ass riffing on our perceived enemy's half-ass riffing. Observer v. D, Deadspin vs. Grantland, Scocca v. Smith -- they're all shorts-and-shirts walkthroughs compared with the battles waged in cities until the 1990s, when the two-paper town went the way of the newsroom whiskey cabinet.

The kids at SMU, they don't know, either. But for the last few years they've been getting a little taste of what it's like to scrap for scoops, making themselves crazy over a fight that didn't mean anything to anyone but themselves, to whom it meant exactly everything. Now that war is over too.

It started in 2008, when a small new media class started a web site, the Daily Mustang, separate from the 100-year-old student newspaper, The Daily Campus. It had its own slick, school-funded newsroom, housed amidst the journalism classes, and its own adviser in former News reporter Jake Batsell. What began as a way to publish stories generated in journalism classes over time accumulated staff and a thirst for breaking news. It also racked up readers and even some awards.

There have been ongoing talks about merging the two, Batsell says, but those talks were understandably scoffed at by Daily Campus staffers. The newspaper is funded primarily through ad sales, which gives it a certain distance from the university power structure. And no one loves distance from the power structure quite like students who are just discovering journalism. They love it almost as much as they love delivery pizza (and only slightly less than they love italics).

The two operations worked side by side for a couple of years, developing a pretty legitimate little rivalry. In February, when two men were shot at the Burger Street not far from campus, Sarah Kramer, then the news editor for The Daily Campus, found herself scrambling to get the story up before the Mustang -- a sense of urgency she wouldn't have felt without that site's presence. She was working the phones, trying to find a boss to help polish and publish the story, when she refreshed the Mustang and saw its report.

"The Daily Mustang beat us to it," says Kramer, now a senior and the Campus's managing editor. (SMU journalism, it turns out, is basically all women). "We were devastated. I probably could have cried. It's sort of pathetic."

In a perfect world, they would have kept slugging it out. But a committee of students, faculty and others decided that enough was enough. When the Campus put out its back-to-school issue this week, it did it without looking over its shoulder.

Sad for nostalgic newspaper dorks, but probably the best idea for the students. If SMU's journalism program is going to be taken seriously -- it seems to have the money (from Belo) and the facilities to do so -- the students need to churn out the best stories possible. And while competition can breed decent stories, combined resources always win the day, especially as the Campus's print ad base shrinks like everyone else's. (College: It's just like real life!)

Also, things were getting ugly.

"People would go out of their way to sabotage the other," says Ashley Withers, the Campus's new editor in chief. Withers says that as she vied for the position last spring, a graduating member of the Daily Mustang sent an email to the selection committee accusing her of plagiarizing the site.

"What we really should have been doing in the journalism department was making our future contacts," she says, on the off chance there are more than 13 journalism jobs open in the next decade. "Instead, we were looking at is as, 'Everyone here is my competition and I hate them.' We're hoping to take some of that away this year."

As for the Mustang? Yet another news web site frozen in time. I'll have the guys pour one out in its honor. We do still have that whiskey drawer, don't we?

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13 comments
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Sarge
Sarge

"SMU journalism, it turns out, is basically all women."Okay, that's not true; what IS true is that in order to move up to the editors' ranks at SMU, one has to suck a lot of *you know what*...That said, many of the males who are willing to do this are (1) in fraternities, or (2) business majors.Why just ask Mark Norris, who was an SMU editor before plying his craft at the Morning News...

John Schreiber
John Schreiber

I think the concern with merging the two resources (at least when I left there 4 years ago) was that SMU would then be funding the Daily Campus.  The question then becomes-- Can you fairly report on an institution that is providing your funding? 

If the city of Dallas was funding the Dallas Morning News, could the paper actually critically report on the city or its leaders?  This problem came up during my time at the Daily Campus when we used to send out the summer issue of the paper to all incoming freshmen.  Well, if I remember correctly, in that issue, we had an article about alcohol and drug abuse on campus (in light of student deaths) and the school did not like it one bit.  They wanted that changed.  As the school was providing us with the mailing list for incoming freshmen, we had to change things to please the university.    Now, instead of a real newspaper issue, the Daily Campus sends out its "Welcome Issue" to incoming freshmen which is really just a slap-on-the-back, Isn't-SMU-Great, piece of PR nonsense.My worry now is that the same type of thing will happen once the two entities merge.  There are plenty of campus newspapers (not funded by their respective schools) that do just fine and are taken very seriously.  Just look at the Maneater on the University of Missouri campus (Or better yet, the Missourian).   I know to outsiders this is just a small campus newspaper.  However, it is where a lot of people get their start in journalism and it is a place to form journalistic ethics and ideals.  I just hope that SMU will let its journalists fairly and critically report on campus issues once this merger happens.     

Jay Miller
Jay Miller

John et al,

The original post and subsequent comments are creating some misconceptions. I hope I can clear some of those up for folks.

The collaboration between The Daily Campus and the Division of Journalism's Daily Mustang and SMU-TV was a student-driven initiative started by a staffer of both the Daily Campus and Daily Mustang before he graduated this past May. He, like the majority of staffers for both news operations, felt the SMU community would be better served by a unified news medium that combined the multimedia content being generated out of the journalism division with the independent nature and print content coming out in The Daily Campus. Nothing has changed in the organization, independence or funding structure of SMU's Student Media Company. The Daily Campus is still entirely student-managed and edited -- no prior review by administrators or advisers and no student fee funding supporting the operation.

The arrangement basically brings all of the content previously generated by the Daily Mustang, SMU-TV and The Daily Campus under the unified website --smudailycampus.com

We're excited about the new opportunities to expand coverage through this new collaboration and to increase and better serve the SMU audience through this partnership. There's nothing nefarious here...just students coming together to create more, expanded coverage for an audience they hope to increase.

Best,

Jay MillerEditorial Adviser, The Daily Campus (SMU)

PS- As for the issue with the mail-home edition... stay tuned. The Student Media Company Board of Directors will be addressing the topic at its September meeting and exploring its options. There's no correlation to the new content partnership that has been two years in the making.

Tone's Taint
Tone's Taint

Nice story, you are really on top of this, just like me

JWiggs
JWiggs

I knew the D v Observer rivalry was contrived. KNEW IT! You and Mooney are long lost friends aren't you?

Amy S.
Amy S.

The Hillcrest Cyclone, quite possibly the best on-line, off-campus Dallas high school alternative (almost) daily news. Another "news web site frozen in time". http://hillcrestcyclone.blogsp...

We'll see those kids again here some day.

DISD Teacher
DISD Teacher

Hillcrest has, among many other programs, an amazing journalism/writing forte.Their Calliope issues are amazing.  

Steve
Steve

Somebody call Reese Witherspoon, and tell John Cusack to break out his Gordon Keith Hair Dye - - we got ourselves a downhome Rom-Com!

Mountain Creek
Mountain Creek

The REAL battle?: which male writer has on the brightest polo shirt...

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