Features, News

The DFP looks back on 40 years of newsrooms

Through the glass front of 842 Commonwealth Ave., the rooms stand empty, dust collecting on every surface. A chipped wooden door off its hinges leans against the far left wall in the front office, leaving an open doorway for passersby to look into with curiosity.

The doorway doesn’t betray any information of what used to lurk inside that spacious building. From the outside, nobody can tell what once went on inside those rooms &- or who it was that left them behind.

But if a passerby were to go right up to the locked glass door and squint at the not-quite-white wall in the front entrance, he would see the patchy, tan tape remnants still in the shape of the bulky block letters they held up long ago &- tape remnants that spell out “The Daily Free Press.”

Situated across from the College of Fine Arts, 842 Commonwealth Ave. was home for the only independent, student-run newspaper at Boston University for more than 20 years, before its 2008 move to its new location in Kenmore Square, the newspaper’s fourth newsroom in 40 years. Though different in size, setting and various states of dust and décor, each newsroom’s traditions and memories helped build The Free Press’ identity.

“It’s the same as an environment in any group organization,” said founding editor Charles Radin. “When people are working a big story or a breaking story, how that happens in a newsroom becomes an expression of what the organization is.”

Radin, a 1971 School of Public Communication alumnus, started the newspaper in 1970 out of a small basement room in the College of Communication, which was then known as the SPC.

“It was wild and crazy,” he said. “I think it’s all fixed up now, but it used to be more or less a basement. It was all linoleum floor and cinderblock walls.”

High-tech photo editing and computer labs now reside in COM’s basement, but Radin’s newsroom back then was just a few desks and typewriters. The photo editor at the time developed photos at the one sink in the room, surrounded by a thick, black rubber curtain. Out of a closet, the editors worked with the typesetter to punch out the text to paste into the layout.

Just a year after the paper’s start, The Free Press staff members moved out of their first home and into 27 Cummington St. at the university’s behest, former editor-in-chief Bruce Feirstein, a COM 1975 alumnus, said. The staff had been working out of the COM basement for free, effectively squatting, and university officials at that time asked that The Free Press move into the reduced-rate, university-owned facility for legal reasons.

Still just a room, the new location also had a basement for photo development and upstairs offices for the advertising staff, said Feirstein, who is author of several of the James Bond screenplays, a Vanity Fair contributor and a member of BU’s Board of Overseers.

“You walk in and it’s sort of a bullpen, with six or seven typewriters,” Feirstein said. “All the furniture was stolen from Boston University, with only a few wooden desks.”
Feirstein described the newsroom as “the college version” of the 1974 film “The Front Page.” During one winter break, he and another editor painted the newsroom black, white and green &- green “because we got the paint cheap,” he said.

COM 1975 alumna Nina Lentini, who worked as a typesetter and a copy editor for The Free Press, recalled being in the office every night, enjoying “the camaraderie” and “just being surrounded by newspapers, by newsprint, the smell of it, the feel of it.”

“I remember there were stacks of newspapers everywhere,” Lentini, now editor of Marketing Daily, said. “It was bad coffee and lots and lots of cigarettes.”

The “tenor of the times” also added to the atmosphere of the newsroom, Feirstein said. With the Vietnam War and Watergate at the forefront of news, the newsroom was constantly active in covering campus unrest.

“You’d be assured there’d be some riot that would shut down the university at least every April,” he said. “There were huge, violent demonstrations going on in Boston and there was a draft and a huge, unpopular war going on in Vietnam.”

The Free Press stayed in the Cummington Street office, which no longer exists, for the rest of the turbulent 70s. In the early 80s, the staff moved into the 842 Commonwealth Ave. location and stayed there for the rest of the century.

The Commonwealth Avenue location, sandwiched between Sicilia’s Pizzeria and the University Credit Union, consisted of two wide-open, slightly rundown floors. The business staff settled into the front office, while the top three &- the editor-in-chief, the managing editor and the executive editor &- shared an office looking out into the main room. The city, campus and sports sections divided the main room into columns, with their staffs working wherever there was room. The photo department occupied the adjacent room that was about half the size of the main one.

Despite the tacky fake wood paneling and the malfunctioning Internet and phone lines, COM 2009 alumnus Matt Negrin, the spring and fall 2007 editor-in-chief, remembers loving that newsroom from almost the moment he entered it as a first semester freshman.

“I had never been inside a college newsroom before and I loved how it was so decrepit and not glamorous at all and that there was nothing flashy about it,” he said. “It just seemed like the perfect place for a group of students to put out a paper out every night because they didn’t care about how it looked, they just wanted to put a paper out every night.”

Over time, the staff developed traditions in that particular newsroom that would add to the energy of the paper. In the editor’s office, the staff began keeping a tally of “offensive remarks” said by the semester’s editorial board, anything that could be considered “affronts to humanity and good taste,” said 2009 alumna Stephanie Perry, the spring 2008 editor-in-chief. To get a tally mark was a point of pride.

“It’s good fun, but I feel like a manifestation of the ways the people who are drawn to this journalism-type lifestyle and thinking pattern,” she said. “I feel like reporters and editors are the kind of people who cross lines. Even the mainstream public media do things that are really distasteful. I feel like if every newsroom had an offensive remarks wall, things would be a lot more civil.”

The Free Press worked out of 842 Commonwealth Ave. for more than half the time it was in existence. Former editors considered it dirty, musty and sometimes disgusting, and also their second home.

But The Free Press, as many of its journalistic counterparts, found itself struggling financially. The Back Bay Publishing Co. Board of Trustees, former editors in charge of making business decisions for The Free Press, had cut circulation and paper size in October 2007, but it still wasn’t enough. The Board had discussed the idea of moving before, but the time had come to make the decision.

“It was either hanging onto nostalgia or making it so that other people in the future can practice the craft when we’re gone,” said COM 2008 alumna Christina Crapanzano, who was board chairwoman then. “It would have been selfish to hang on to it.”

“Even though I knew that there was a certain appeal of it, all the hassles that came with it couldn’t be justified,” said COM 2008 alumna Johanna Kassel, who was the General Business Manager at the time. “It was just sort of that old mansion that”s been in your family for years and you love it but after a while it just becomes impossible to maintain.”

Although every member of the Board understood that it was a logical decision, Kassel acknowledged that it was still a difficult one to make. She described the old office as where her fondest memories took place.

“Some of my favorite memories were on final nights, when you would all come out together, sit on the front porch and smoke cigars and watch the sun rise over the Pike,” she said. “It’d be really quiet then, before the T would start running. All through the semester, you didn’t think you’d make it, but there you were.”

Perry was the first editor-in-chief in the new office on the first floor of less expensive 648 Beacon St. Though she acknowledged that the transition was difficult, she said the staff brought a lot of the old traditions with them, putting up posters and filling up the white space, just as they did in the old office.

The 648 Beacon St. location is considerably smaller than the Commonwealth Avenue office. Just one floor, the office consists of three rooms &- one that serves as the editor’s office, another as a foyer and business office and the third as the newsroom. When Perry first moved in, she was in the newsroom with the rest of the staff, and the editor’s office became a meeting area.

“There was kind of an actual change in terms of how close people were sitting together,” she said. “I think because of the physical proximity to each other, there has been an increased interest in different sections. I don’t think there were that many city writers taking the occasional sports story every once a while had we not been that close. I feel like people have been able to see what other sections do more immediately.”

Editorial Page editor Matt Donnelly was the city editor during the last semester in the old office. After taking a break, he rejoined The Free Press in its new location &- but not before pocketing a copy of the key to the old office.

Donnelly sat on the stairs in the old office on Sunday, sipping coffee as he looked at the dusty remains. An old MTV sticker from the 80s still clung to a post and pieces of the ceiling had come apart.

“The dynamic just worked so well here,” he said. “There were different sections for each news team, but we were still one unit.”

Editor-in-Chief Annie Ropeik is the first editor to have no ties with the Commonwealth Avenue office. But when she joined Donnelly that day in the old newsroom, she began to cry. For Ropeik, a CAS sophomore, the old office symbolized the financial situation for The Free Press.

“I looked at the carpet and it was all stained, and there were old newspapers lying around and the ceiling was falling down and it just struck me that we could have been there,” she said when she was back in her newsroom, curled up on her chair. “This is what it has come to in this business, that it was just left there like that, still empty, and we couldn’t be there.”

In Ropeik’s office, a giant stuffed purple frog lies on top of a seafoam green snuggie. Although she would have loved to have had the space her predecessors had, this was her home now, Ropeik said.

“You have to make the best of the place you are in and make it somewhere that you love, where you want to go night after night to make this newspaper happen,” she said. “And it doesn’t matter where we are, that’s always going to be done, by every staff in every newsroom.”

Although Donnelly and Ropeik left the old office that day, returning to their true newsroom on the other end of campus, the scribbled signatures and quotes of their predecessors stayed behind, breathing life in splashes of color along the yellowing walls.

Crapanzano had scrawled her name on the wall behind the front entrance in maroon Sharpie marker, under the declaration, “So this is how it feels to live EVERYTHING.”

“Damn the man,” she signed off on May 3, 2007 at 5:09 a.m. “Long live The Free Press.”

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