Turn on a cable news show these days, read a top newspaper or listen to a political podcast. You’ll likely find a News alum breaking an important story.
The current roster of top journalists from Yale includes The Washington Post’s White House Bureau Chief Philip Rucker ’06, its Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus ’80 and the host of its daily news podcast Martine Powers ’11. Michael Barbaro ‘02 hosts The New York Times’ daily podcast, and David Leonhardt ’94 is an op-ed columnist. Zeke Miller ’11 covers the White House for the Associated Press. Michael Crowley ’94 is the White House and national security editor for Politico. Isaac Arnsdorf ’11 covers the Trump administration for ProPublica, the award-winning investigative news organization founded by Paul Steiger ’64, after he served as The Wall Street Journal’s Managing Editor for 16 years.
At a time when serious, fact-based reporting is more essential than ever, the News continues to train some of the best journalists in the world, just as it did in the days of Briton Hadden and Henry Luce, both members of the Class of 1920.
Last month, the Society of Professional Journalists named the News the best all-around student newspaper of 2018. The News also won the national prize for best breaking news reporting, and the Yale Daily News Magazine was a finalist in the best student magazine category.
But the economics of college newspapers have changed drastically over those years, and News alumni have rallied to help.
Older alums may remember a time when the News was so flush that when graduating editors split up the year’s profits, their share could cover the cost of a car, an engagement ring or a full year’s tuition. That was largely due to cigarette advertising, as rival tobacco companies aggressively promoted smoking among college students and competed to win their brand loyalty early on. In 1963, U.S. tobacco companies voluntarily agreed to stop advertising in college newspapers — eliminating about half of those papers’ national ad revenue overnight.
Liquor and beer ads made up much of the remaining revenue, and those gradually dried up, too, leaving college newspapers, including the News barely profitable by the 1970s.
The News also had another issue: its historic building at 202 York Street, built for the paper in 1932 without an endowment to maintain it, was in such bad shape that the University contemplated taking it over and giving the space to the Art and Architecture building next door.
In 1978, future-minded student editors, guided by former publisher Eric Nestler ’76, asked News alumni for help to pay for the building repairs and set up a retirement fund for Frances Donahue, a fixture at the paper for more than 50 years.
That effort inspired a group of News alumni, led by Jim Ottoway ’60, Jonathan Rose ’63 and Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67, to establish the Oldest College Daily Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization that could solicit tax-deductible contributions to assist the newspaper they loved.
The student-run Yale Daily News Publishing Co. also filed for not-for-profit status. In the subsequent years when the News made money, those profits were added to the
Foundation’s endowment to be available for future needs. In years when the News didn’t make money, the Foundation has provided a safety net and a way to fund major capital improvements. (Since 2003, the Foundation’s endowment has been invested along with Yale University’s endowment, which has greatly enhanced its returns.)
Over the years, funds from the OCD Foundation (recently renamed the Yale Daily News Foundation) have helped the News launch its website and online publication, purchase state-of-the-art software and other equipment and pay for repairs. Even before he graduated, Paul Needham ’11, now the Foundation’s vice president for development, raised over $600,000 to fund an extensive renovation of the building that was completed in 2010.
From the start, the Foundation has left the daily business and editorial operation of the News to the students. (We all remember that making high-stakes decisions over coverage, trying to cut costs, making mistakes and facing the consequences were what made the News such a valuable experience — and also so much fun.) But Foundation members are available to give advice and expertise as needed. Board members over the years have included numerous lawyers, publishing executives and financiers, as well as working journalists.
As part of its mission to support young journalists, the Foundation also helps pay for living expenses for News staffers working at low or unpaid summer journalism internships, a classic stepping-stone to a career. Since 1993, the Summer Fellowship program has helped some 300 Newsies take internships at over 100 media outlets, ranging from the Financial Times of London to the BBC in Kazakhstan and Vanity Fair.
In recent years, the Foundation also heard growing concerns that promising reporters and editors had quit the News because they couldn’t manage to work at a campus job (as required by their financial-aid package), keep up with their classes and devote 20 or 30 hours each week to producing the News.
In 2016, after extensive debate, the Foundation began offering stipends of up to $3,000 a year to beat reporters and editors on financial aid to allow them to work fewer hours and devote more time to the News. (Many other Ivy League papers have similar programs.)
The stipends have clearly helped individual students. One recipient wrote: “I am incredibly grateful for the stipend from the YDN Foundation. I can’t emphasize enough how much stress it has taken off my shoulders. This makes it possible for those of us with a [student-income requirement] to participate at the News with the same time commitment and intensity as everyone else on the board.”
In a recent survey of News staffers and alumni in the classes of 2013 to 2021, 85 percent said it “very important” for the Foundation to provide some financial assistance to Newsies on financial aid.
Meanwhile, the economics of publishing have taken an even more challenging turn. Print advertising for all newspapers and magazines has dropped precipitously in the internet age; web advertising hasn’t grown fast enough to take its place. Newspapers across the country have folded or cut back on production. Many college newspapers no longer publish every day; some no longer publish at all.
The News remains marginally profitable—thanks in large part to student-led innovations. (Among them: a book coming out next summer profiling current Yale students and including their admissions essays to feed the insatiable hunger for advice on how to get into college.) But if current trends continue, the News will need to rely on its alumni more than ever for financial help in the coming years.
For now, though, those of us on the Foundation mostly watch in awe as student journalists put out the News in print and online, with video reports, blog posts, podcasts, a daily headline service and other offerings we never dreamed of in our day, fully bringing the Oldest College Daily into the new media age.
Come see for yourself. The News and the YDN Foundation are hosting a reunion open house for News alumni and friends on Saturday, May 25th and Saturday June 1, from 3:00 to 4:30pm.
Melinda Beck ’77, a longtime Wall Street Journal editor and columnist, is the chair of the Yale Daily News Foundation. Contact her at email@example.com.