The oldest rabble-rouser on campus

This article won Gold in the Best Writing (English) category from the Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education (CCAE) Prix d’Excellence in June 2012. “A hugely entertaining read with fast-paced, irreverent, sharply focused writing,” wrote the judges.

McGill News Fall-Winter 2011 

The oldest rabble-rouser on campus

For 100 years, the McGill Daily (also known as the “McGill School of Journalism”) has trained some of the country’s best reporters, while giving senior McGill administrators frequent cause to reach for the antacids.

by Allyson Rowley

Okay, listen up, all you corporate mouthpieces and capitalist lackeys. On October 2, 2011, the McGill Daily student newspaper turned 100. That’s an entire century of questioning authority, poking and prodding the powers-that-be, and giving voice to the voiceless. Not to mention a whole lot of late-night pizza and early-morning smoked meat.

Now, in the spirit of “there’s no such thing as objectivity in journalism,” let me state right up front: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a journalist. Still, I do have my own McGill Daily experience. I wrote a short article about a professor who had been suspended. I think. This was at least 35 years ago, after all. After handing in my sweaty effort, I learned there is this thing called “A Lede.” (Those darned journalists have special words for everything.) When I opened the paper later in the week, I saw my article had been rewritten into something really quite impressive, bearing only passing resemblance to what I had handed in. After that, I stuck to theatre reviews.

But I learned a lot from that brief experience. I learned I could meet a deadline (very good). I learned I’m the kind of person who tends to believe what people tell me (sometimes very bad). And along the way, I learned that “30” wasn’t just any old number in an endless series of numbers heading toward infinity. It was The End.

“Working on the Daily was by far the most important thing I did at McGill,” says veteran journalist Andrew Phillips, BA’76, who was the student editor responsible for that efficient rewrite of my fledgling article. “I could always write, but I was quickly drawn into editing and coordinating and production work. It was a real immersion—and terrific training,” says Phillips, currently the editorial page editor for the Toronto Star and formerly the editor of both the Victoria Times Colonist and the Montreal Gazette.

Phillips recalls the laborious process of producing the paper, back in the days of typewriters, cold type technology and lay-out sheets which were (literally) cut-and-paste. “It involved not sleeping and missing classes and turning your life over to this thing,” Phillips remembers. “It was very exciting. You felt you were at the crossroads of everything that was going on.”

Like it or not—and people generally have strong feelings about the paper one way or the other—the Daily is McGill’s second-oldest ongoing publication. (Old McGill, the student annual, was first published in 1897). How to define it? Judging from the many and various claims to fame over the decades, this has proven slippery even for Daily staff. In 1915, it billed itself as “the only college daily in Canada.” This was hammered home even more fervently (and a tad grumpily) a few years later in Old McGill 1917: “The average student does not perhaps appreciate the fact that in the McGill Daily he has the only daily college newspaper published in all the length and breadth of Canada.”

By the thirties, the Daily had revised its plug to “the oldest college daily in Canada.” By the seventies, it was vari-ously known as “one of only 37 student dailies in North America” and “the second-largest English-language morning newspaper in Quebec” (after Montreal’s Gazette). Today, the Daily’s website describes itself as “at one time the oldest daily student newspaper in the Commonwealth” and “currently the second-largest student newspaper in Canada and the most widely read.”

Prone to Provocation

No matter how you spin it, there’s little doubt the Daily is, arguably, the best-known student newspaper in the country and that it has been at the centre of a fair bit of controversy throughout its history. As early as 1933, two student publications associated with the Daily—The Alarm Clock (published by a student socialist organization) and The Black Sheep (run by a group of suspended Daily students)— provoked public outrage and were each banned from publication. From charges of “obscene libel” in 1967 against several Daily staffers (which resulted in student protests and the occupation of the administration’s offices), to Daily staffers being visited by Quebec police during the October Crisis of 1970, to the many heated campaigns over the years by student council to fireDaily editors-in-chief—it’s clear the paper has earned its stripes as a venerable, leftist (if one can use those two words in the same phrase) newspaper which challenges the status quo.

“I learned a lot, working on the Daily, including a few things that were misleading,” says Flora Davis, BA’56, the second woman to become the paper’s managing editor. “My experience on the Daily suggested that women could expect equal treatment. Then in my senior year, I phoned the Gazette to ask about job openings. I was told that women could work only on the women’s page and the pay was $25 a week. Even in 1956, you couldn’t live on that. The ceiling wasn’t glass in those days, it was concrete, and we cracked our heads on it frequently.” Davis went on to become an award-winning author and a frequent contributor to magazines like Redbook andWoman’s Day.

The Daily has frequently broken new journalistic ground—for example, supporting French-language rights in the sixties, publishing a special issue on International Women’s Day in the seventies, and creating a gay and lesbian supplement in the eighties—often long before these issues were covered by the mainstream media. Daily staff have occasionally scooped their professional counterparts on the big stories of the day. And all the while, of course, the Daily has constantly criticized the University administration.

“A student newspaper is meant to be provocative,” says Judy Rebick, BSc’67. Author, activist and a professor of distinction at Ryerson University, Rebick echoes Phillips’s assessment of the value of working on the Daily: “My life totally changed when I joined the paper in my second year. It was the centre of my education at McGill—and the start of my adult life.”

Rebick remembers a seminal experience when she worked on the Daily. Editor-in-chief Sandy Gage, BA’67, was fired by the student council for an article exposing a McGill professor’s research for the U.S. Pentagon. The Dailystaff resigned en masse in protest; Gage was reinstated two weeks later through an arbitration process. “It was the first time in my life that I took on a leadership role,” says Rebick, who went on to serve as president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women and as the founding publisher of

Ink-Stained and Well-Trained

If the main purpose of a student newspaper is to get up the nose of those in authority, clearly it serves another essential purpose: to foster the next generation of journalists and opinion-makers. And that, the Daily has done in spades.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Charles Krauthammer, BA’70, DLitt’93, one of the most influential syndicated columnists in the U.S., is a former Daily editor, as is legendary CBC producer Mark Starowicz, BA’68, DLitt’01, the driving force behind Canada: A People’s History. You’ll find ex-Dailyites on the mastheads of most of the major newspapers in this country. You’ll even find them in Ottawa. Canada’s natural resources minister, Joe Oliver, BA’61, BCL’64, once chaired the Daily’s editorial board. Brian Topp, BA’83, one of the leading contenders for the leadership of the federal NDP, is a former Daily editor.

Neuroscientist Marc Tessier-Lavigne, BSc’80, DSc’11, started off as a photographer at the Daily before serving as science editor. “We put together special editions on many of the topical issues of the day—including test-tube babies, genetic engineering and alternative energy sources—some of which are just as topical today,” says Tessier-Lavigne, now president of Rockefeller University in New York. “It was definitely one of the highlights of my McGill experience.”

Even a media mogul or two got their start at the Daily. “I was as low-level a reporter as you could be,” says Mortimer Zuckerman, BA’57, BCL’61, LLD’11, of his time at the paper. It was an important chapter in a lifelong love affair for Zuckerman, who remembers biking as a teenager every day to a favourite newsstand to buy the New York Times, which he would read from cover to cover. “It was all part of my passion for the news. I know it sounds corny, but I still love it,” says Zuckerman, a Manhattan-based real estate magnate, philanthropist and political commentator, who owned (and sold) the Atlantic Monthly and Fast Company magazines, and now owns both U.S. News & World Report and the New York Daily News.

And let’s not forget the poets. According to a special 100th anniversary edition of the Daily published earlier this year, the paper’s annual literary supplement in the twenties was “arguably the birthplace of Canadian Modernism.” Edited by Canlit giant A.J.M. Smith, BSc(Arts)’25, MA’25, DLitt’58, the supplement featured the early work of such Canadian literary icons as A.M. Klein, BA’30, and F. R. Scott, BCL’27, LLD’67.

Speaking of icons, a 20-year-old Leonard Cohen, BA’55, DLitt’92, published his award-winning poem “The Sparrows” in the Daily in 1954. In 1962, Irving Layton, BSc(Agr)’39, MA’46, offered two of his poems for publication: “Breakdown” and “Drunk on McGill Campus.” Not too surprisingly, Layton is quoted as advising undergraduates to “go out and lead drunk and disorderly lives.”

“Weg” Leaves His Mark

So, how did this iconic rag (a.k.a. the unofficial “McGill School of Journalism”) get its start? Seems it happened in the usual way—with a lot of debate, discussion, doubts, and trial and error.

According to Old McGill 1914, the Daily was “the out-come of several more or less unsuccessful attempts at journalism.” A monthly magazine named the Gazette had been launched in 1873 and lasted 17 years. The McGill Fortnightly followed from 1892 to 1898. Then came two weeklies: the McGill Outlook, which had an eight-year lifespan, and the McGill Martlet, which lasted three years.

Why start up a daily, when weeklies, biweeklies and monthlies had failed? Well, it might have had something to do with one rather ambitious young man: 19-year-old William E. Gladstone Murray, BA’12, the Daily’s first editor-in-chief.

Judging by Old McGill 1912, “Weg” was a busy guy. Not only editor of that year’s Old McGill, he was also class president for Arts 1912, he belonged to the Arts Literary Society, the Mock Parliament and the Western Club (presumably, because he hailed from Vancouver), and he was treasurer of the Track Club and captain of the Harriers (long-distance runners), who were the Canadian intercollegiate champions that year, ousting the U of T favourites in a surprise upset.

With the encouragement of Stephen Leacock, Murray transformed the weekly Martlet into the Daily. A daily student newspaper “has long been the dream of enthusiasts for the welfare of McGill,” states an article on the front page of the Daily’s first issue, published Monday, October 2, 1911. Years later, in 1936, Murray would become the CBC’s first general manager.

The first issues of the Daily sold for five cents a copy. It was published four days a week, although that soon increased to daily (except for Sundays). Not surprisingly, sports got a lot of coverage. And also theatre—this was before TV, movies and even radio, of course.

Still, there was much that was familiar. For example, the October 15, 1915, issue had ads for clothing, coffee, school supplies and toothpaste, with a few surprisingly timeless headlines (“How about a Glee club?”) along with a few not-so-timeless (“Study of Latin has increased greatly”). Military coverage had grown, of course, including lists of McGill casualties. (The Daily even published a weekly called the McGilliken by former members of the editorial staff stationed in France.)

Printed at the office of the Westmount News, the Daily had a staff of six women and 19 men in 1913-14, rising to 10 women and 30 men by 1915-16. (The Daily office was the only place in the student union building not restricted to men.) Recurring concerns were pretty much the same then as now: whether to pay the editor; whether to pay anyone at all; how to get enough advertising revenue to pay for the paper’s operations; how to overcome the usual apathy of the student body; and how to negotiate the age-old give-and-take between satirizing your least favourite professor and knowing when you have gone too far.

A “Fiery Divorce”

Let’s flash forward now to 1981. After years of locking horns with the student council over editorial policy and especially over its choice of editor-in-chief, the Daily becomes independent, ratified by a student referendum on March 4. The weekly (and more mainstream) McGill Tribune is created to replace the Daily as the newspaper overseen by the student council.

Interestingly, the Tribune itself has now gone independent, as of 2010-11. Former Tribune editor-in-chief and board chair Matthew Chesser, BA’11, explains this was several years in the making to ensure a smooth and peaceful transition. “I’ve heard the Daily’s split described as like a fiery divorce after an affair, whereas with theTribune, it was more of a mutually beneficial break-up,” he jokes.

Today, the Daily is published twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays. It shares its office with sister publicationLe Délit (rough translation: “offence,” as in “criminal misdemeanour”) which hits the stands on Tuesdays. Their combined weekly circulation is 28,000.

The Daily no longer has an “editor-in-chief,” choosing instead the egalitarian title of “coordinating editor” (although annual elections are still held for the position). Its website clearly reflects the Daily’s continued left-leaning bent: One of its statements of principles is “… the Daily recognizes that all events and issues are inherently political, involving relations of social and economic power.”

“It’s a really great thing to be a part of,” says 2011-12 Daily coordinating editor Joan Moses, a U3 student in political science and English. Late nights and early mornings are still de rigueur, despite the fact that current staffers now use sleek Macs and Adobe InDesign software. (They upload a PDF directly to the printer.) Moses speculates that the new technology in fact enables staffers to work even later, since they no longer have to worry about physically getting files to a printer.

Run by the Daily Publications Society, the paper is funded by advertising revenue and student fees ($6/semester per undergraduate). Boris Shedov, the DPS’s full-time general and advertising manager, emphasizes this revenue has to pay for three issues a week (two from the Daily and one from Le Délit), as well as two ongoing websites. “The world has changed,” says Shedov, who has been a DPS staff member since 1984 and now oversees five part-time staff. He points to increased competition from more free newspapers and web publications, as well as significant increases in costs—all the while running a fully independent business not subsidized by a larger media parent and funded in part by student fees which are “not indexed to inflation.”

Shedov emphasizes the important opportunity the Daily continues to provide to McGill students. “They are free to write what they think, before they go out and work in the commercial world. It’s the only true liberty they will ever have,” says Shedov, adding: “We really draw some of the brightest students at McGill.”

“It was one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done,” says Daily board member Will Vanderbilt, BA&Sc’11, of his two years as production and design editor. “It’s a huge time commitment, but you gain an amazing skill set.”

Caroline Zimmerman, BA’08, agrees. Now a literary agent with the Kneerim & Williams Agency, she was a Dailyculture editor, overseeing the work of 25 to 30 writers. “It was an education in real-world teamwork,” says Zimmerman, who credits her Daily experience with helping her to nab internships and then land her first job.

Broadcast journalist Melinda Wittstock, BA’86, has spent the past nine years leading Capitol News Connection, a news service which specializes in localized “shoe leather” reporting. “My office is close to the Supreme Court,” says the Washington-based Wittstock, who has also worked with BBC World TV and ABC News. “All the struggles that play out here on Capitol Hill played out hour by hour at the Daily. Was it good training? You bet it was!”

Wittstock is now launching a new venture called Newsit, a user-generated news service which leverages social media to create what she calls “hyper-relevant news”—local news which “people are passionate about and the media doesn’t cover.”

She credits her Daily experience with teaching her not only to be a journalist, but also an entrepreneur. “It was so critical to my education,” says Wittstock. “Technology may change… but words have power.”