The Life, Death and Rebirth of The Daily Cardinal: A Reminder of How We Still Need to Keep All Student Media Alive

Cardinal T-Shirt

The other student newspaper’s staffers put our failings on their front page. When we saved the paper from ruin, we put their front page on a T-shirt.

The Daily Cardinal gave me my entire life.

And 24 years ago today, it almost died.

I honestly intended not to write this today, as the story is old and threadbare at this point. When I tell it, I feel like the grandfather at Thanksgiving who tells the same story each year, only to experience the eye rolls and deep sighs at the table. But this time, something more important than commemoration is at stake, because the Cardinal’s story may be one of the last of its kind in student media, and that is a problem we must address.

Since 1892, The Daily Cardinal has served as a student newspaper and media resource for the students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, making it the sixth-oldest student daily paper in the country. William Wesley Young launched it on April 4 of that year, and staffers long after his departure told stories of him racing his horse down the street with his proofs, hoping to make the printing deadline.

Since Young’s time, the paper has turned out more quality journalists, Pulitzer winners, entrepreneurs and legends that to start a list here would guarantee this post would go on forever and yet still omit numerous important people. On April 4, 1992, the paper celebrated its 100th anniversary, toasting these people and the thousands of others who had written, photographed, drawn, designed, sold, distributed and pressed it over that time.

Three years later on Feb. 7, 1995, the paper closed.

At the time, nobody on staff knew for sure why it wouldn’t print the next day or what led to the “reorganization” the paper’s administration tried to play it off as. We found out the next day, as all the other papers in the city seemed to know the truth: We were broke. We owed our printers more than $30,000 and they refused to print without the resolution of that debt. We also owed money to dozens of other organizations and companies. We couldn’t even get our lawyer to help us figure things out because we owed his law firm money.

According to Allison Hantschel’s incredible history on the Cardinal, when the debts were tallied and the cash on hand measured, the paper owed more than $137,700 and had $43.71 in its checking account.

It was both way too real and almost completely unbelievable at the same time.

Over the next two months, the publisher, general manager and sales manager all quit. Board members spent a lot of time in meetings, scrambling to find out what had happened, how it happened and who was to blame for it. Most of the staff left and at one point, there were basically three people left in the office.

I was one of them. I had been elected city editor about six weeks earlier. After “The Shutdown” I was responsible for trying to bill an entire year worth of advertising with the goal of paying off our debts and closing the paper “with honor,” as one of our board members used to say.

At one point, the other two people, also former editorial staffers, came to me and asked for my key to the office. They were done, tired and broken. They just wanted to go home. The plan was to turn in the keys to the board, shutter the place and go on with life. For reasons I still can’t explain, I gave them an old key that didn’t work anymore. They locked up the office and left. Once they were gone, I went back in and finished the billing.

For the next six months, it was life on a flaming high wire, as a skeleton crew of former staffers and crazy people worked to pump life back into what everyone else saw as a rotting corpse. Money came in, debts were paid and disasters continued to emerge. Every day, it was a sense of “We’re probably dead, but let’s see what we can accomplish today.”

I skipped six weeks worth of class, spending hours and days at the paper. (I don’t recommend that approach.) My two best friends, neither of whom were working at the paper at the time of “The Shutdown,” came back to rebuild the paper. It was like climbing a greased flagpole in a blizzard, but eventually it worked. “If we ever print again,” became “When we print again.”

On Sept. 1, 1995, the paper published again. It hasn’t stopped since.

Without The Cardinal, I never would have gotten a job at the Wisconsin State Journal shortly after the relaunch. Without that job, I never would have gotten a chance to teach at the college level. Those two experiences gave me just enough value that George Kennedy hired me to work at Mizzou three years after that. Without that, I don’t get a doctorate, become a student media adviser, work as a professor, publish books or a dozen other things that make my life my life.

Beyond the journalism experiences, The Cardinal introduced me to my wife, my two best friends, the godparents of my child and the people who would make me a godparent. It gave me a home and a life that I never would have had during college otherwise.

The reason I decided to write about this today is because my story is interesting but not unique. Student media has provided countless students experiences like the one I had. College students with half-baked ambitions and a shaky sense of self cross the threshold of newsrooms all across this country and find themselves every day. They learn skills, ply their trade and grow into amazing members of The Fourth Estate. They also find true friends and a surrogate family. Calling a student publication “an activity” or “a club” is like calling Godzilla “a lizard:” It’s true, but wildly inaccurate and extremely reductive.

It also occurred to me that The Cardinal’s story isn’t unique in one way, but is becoming more and more rare in another. As I was rolling through one of my feeds today, I saw this article on Drexel University’s student newspaper, The Triangle. The paper ran into financial difficulty and has likely published its last issue. Last week, I got word that The North Texas Daily, the student paper at the University of North Texas, had its funding cut and was heading into similarly dire financial straits.

Last year, we talked at length about The Sunflower at Wichita State University, which looked to be headed toward the end of its 123-year run. And, even though I don’t think I’m a jinx, our student newspaper found itself in a massive fundraising effort to keep the publication going. When it comes to publications ceasing to print or in danger of closing entirely, The Cardinal seemed to be ahead of its time. And, to borrow a phrase from a friend, it’s a club nobody wants to be a member of and we don’t want any more members.

The unique aspect of The Cardinal, however, is that it found a way back home. The presses rolled again, a web presence emerged and students continued to take part in an important part of life. Thanks in large part to folks like Anthony Sansone, who essentially built The Daily Cardinal Alumni Association, the students there get additional financial help from former Cardinalistas. The staffers also get opportunities to learn from alumni as well, thanks to the DCAA’s mentorship and training programs.

I don’t know how many of these other programs are lucky enough to find support for their news operations, be it through university funds, alumni giving or some other miracle I would like to know more about. What I do know is that student media is too important to too many people to let it die quietly among budget cuts, shrinking ad revenue and “I’ll just read stuff on Twitter” shrugs.

Below is a list of student media outlets that have active fundraising efforts available online. As I continue to get more names and links, I’ll continue to update them here. (Feel free to contact me via the form on this site.) Please spread the word and contribute if you can. As the folks at The Triangle noted, if everyone on Drexel’s campus gave a buck, the paper could run for a year.

Keep student media alive.

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