“It’s not as noble as it seems, but it’s as noble as it’s ever going to get.”
One of my Medill instructors, David Abrahamson, didn’t say this about journalism, but I think it fits perfectly. I’ve always been one of those green, wide-eyed kids who thinks this business has a purpose, that there was a reason the freedom of the press was in First Amendment and not the last.
But hair is starting to grow on my chest now, here and there. I’m a little bit wiser than I used to be.
I know that most of journalism is fluff: human interest pieces designed to grab an audience or tight, bare-bones jobs that are easily primed, packaged and pushed across the internet. Tabloid journalism has gone mainstream (Fox News) and the role the Framers expected the press to play in American democracy has been all but written-off.
Every long while, however, there is a small beacon of light coming from journalism’s far-removed tower. It happened this week at Northwestern, and I was part of it.
Town-gown relations between Evanston and Northwestern University have always been strained. The townies hate us for being rich, snobby college kids from all over the country. And we hate the townies for every single thing they do. It’s a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle.
Yesterday, The Daily Northwestern reported that Evanston would begin to enforce a “brothel law” starting July 1. The law stipulates that no more than three residents can live in one living space if they’re not family. Alex Rudansky wrote the long, in-depth story, which may turn out to be one of the most important the newspaper has every published. To put it in perspective: Rudansky’s piece garnered 20,000 views on its first day of publication online, according to Editor-in-Chief Brian Rosenthal. That’s more than double what DailyNorthwestern.com averages per week.
The numbers aren’t important though. The article whipped the student body into a frenzy. What was once a simple zoning ordinance turned into a firestorm of angry students, defensive residents and a dumbfounded administration.
More than 500 students attended a town hall meeting last night to protest the ordinance, which would have led to the eviction of hundreds – and maybe thousands – of students living off campus next year. The lecture hall in which the meeting was held quickly became standing-room only, and many were forced to turn away at the door because of it.
The Daily followed up this investigative piece with tight coverage of the protests and hard-hitting editorials of the policy. It was populist journalism, in a sense, and an official petition circulated by NU’s student government was signed by thousands of students on its first day.
Today, after the NU administration gauged the fury gripping its student body, NU President Morty Schapiro sat down with Evanston officials and convinced them to rescind their decision. Later this evening, the announcement was made official.
It was a huge victory for NU students, who have to scrounge for off-campus housing like few other university students do. The general lack of housing surrounding NU – a student ghetto is sorely missing – along with the new zoning ordinance would have not only forced students far away from campus, but also drove an even deeper rift between Evanston and the private institution.
In a sense, the NU students’ victory brought town-gown relations back from the brink of the abyss. Evanston would have become a town with a college in it rather than a college town. And it wouldn’t have happened had The Daily not published the piece.
And, naturally, what did the city of Evanston do? While announcing its change of heart on the zoning ordinance, it attacked The Daily. And why not? Why not cover your rear end after what would have been an socioeconomic gaff of epic proportions? And why not pick an easy target? Everybody hates journalists, and student journalists most of all.
Evanston is playing dirty, that much is certain. But it’s not going to work.
They’re attacking one of the best college newspapers in the country, attempting to discredit a news staff that will one day decide the media climate of this nation. These are Medill students, ladies and gentlemen, not some run-of-the-mill kids with pens and notebooks.
But, to be perfectly honest, there’s not a better feeling in the world for journalists. Trying to cut bait as Evanston is only means one thing: The Daily Northwestern won. If anything comes out of this situation, it’s that journalism can have real, tangible power. It can inform the constituency. It can be the driving force that pushes public policy one way or the other. And this week, The Daily Northwestern did exactly what the Framers would have expected of it.
That’s why we picked this profession: not to make a difference every day, but to have a chance to. My professor was right. Journalism isn’t as noble as it seems. Not by a long shot.
But the fight put up by a bunch of 19-year-olds this week in Evanston is just about as noble as it’s ever going to get.