I haven’t seen the man in almost 30 years, yet Bill Harmon still intimidates me.
His sharp-toned advice echoes in my head whenever I try to write or edit a news story. I cringe every time.
Believe it or not, that’s a good thing.
Mr. Harmon was the faculty adviser of the student-run Daily Egyptian newspaper at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale while I lived and breathed journalism there. He served in that role for nearly two decades. He was famous for, among other things, having two tools at the ready. In one hand he clutched a red felt pen that cut through a young reporter’s copy — and ego — like a butcher’s knife. In the other hand was an ever-present cigarette.
The walls of his office and the edges of his moustache were yellowed testaments to his nicotine habit, no doubt aggravated by the likes of cocky young know-it-alls such as myself.
He was gruff, direct, uncompromising, and when he was upset with a journalist for not asking a key question or missing the point of a story even the air in the room escaped to find safety. But when he issued praise, no honor was higher or possessed more value. It was the Pulitzer of my youth.
The staff of the DE strived daily to hear him utter that praise, however mild.
I mention him now because Mr. Harmon’s legacy, and perhaps that of the DE itself, may vanish this summer. Last week, SIU’s Board of Trustees, the principal governing body for the entire Southern Illinois University system, tabled further discussion of a proposed $9 student media fee that, in part, would deliver the DE from rough financial straits by covering an estimated $200,000 operating deficit.
The 98-year-old newspaper relies on advertising to pay the bills yet still struggles, as does every other university newspaper in the United States, to remain solvent. Most of those other student newspapers, however, already receive fee support, including the twice-weekly student paper published at SIU’s campus in Edwardsville.
SIU-Carbondale students endorsed the $9 fee when it was first proposed last summer. Then-SIU Present Glenn Poshard buttressed that endorsement by digging $55,000 out of his own budget to lend short-term assistance.
But on May 1, a new president, Randy Dunn, took over and brought with him a different perspective. He said last week at the trustees’ meeting that he preferred to reexamine the fee proposal and the DE’s finances, and suggested he might take a year to do it. As if the DE had not considered pinching pennies before now.
Despite its name, the DE publishes only four days a week, down from five a year ago. Staff salaries and student work hours have been slashed over and over. The salaries are paid out of advertising revenue, not out of the university’s pocket.
Current DE Managing Editor Eric Fiedler told the Chicago Tribune that he doubts the newspaper can last even a few months, let alone a year, without the university’s commitment. SIU-Carbondale School of Journalism Director William Freivogel said he intends to have the trustees revisit the fee when they meet again in July.
(Full disclosure: I am a member of the DE editorial advisory board, and Bill Frievogel was a colleague of mine for several years in the editorial office of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)
The easy thing to do now is voice frustration with President Dunn and the trustees for displaying what appears to be a laissez-faire attitude toward a teaching tool that just won 17 Illinois College Press Association awards and was key to the School of Journalism receiving reaccreditation this year.
But I can understand the president’s reticence, to a degree, and it may have less to do with money than with, well, discomfort.
When I was a student reporter for the DE, one of my assignments was to cover the university administration — the president, the chancellor, the vice chancellors, the provost, the deans, etc. The role required attending meetings, analyzing budgets, sifting through sundry official documents, and upholding Mr. Harmon’s insistence that “Titles don’t matter, damn it! Only the facts matter.”
Often, these administrators begged off from answering my questions, resented them, even ran away from them. Once, I learned through a couple of dependable sources that a handful of SIU officials planned to fly together to Chicago for a conference and discuss university business along the way. I met them on the tarmac at Carbondale’s tiny airport and insisted on going along, arguing that the context of their discussion was required to be public, not private.
At that, all but a couple of the passengers stepped away from the plane, fetched their luggage and left the airport. On his way out, one particularly vexed administrator stormed up to me, pushed his nose to within an inch of mine, and grumbled, “You just ruined my vacation.”
When I returned to the DE newsroom, Mr. Harmon asked, “Were they pissed?”
I replied that they were.
He smiled broadly, snorted and said, “Ha! Good.”
Great student newspapers such as the Daily Egyptian are, first and foremost, public servants both mindful of and responsible to their university communities. Their staffs should be as tough and as diligent as the staffs at small-town weeklies or big-city dailies, because how else do student journalists grow to become professional ones?
Great student newspapers such as the Daily Egyptian should insist on honesty and integrity, and demonstrate the same, no matter the issue or the authority. The least we can do is lend them our support.
They are not obligated to make anyone feel comfortable. Bill Harmon was keenly aware of that.
Perhaps President Dunn is not.