The End of SMU's News War

You can't swing a mace and chain around Observer HQ without hitting someone who knows what it's like to fight in a real newspaper war. That Buzz fellow worked in San Antonio back when the Express-News toiled against the Light. Schutze and Wilonsky are both veterans of The Dallas Morning News's fight with the long-dead Dallas Times Herald, a battle they recall with wistful nostalgia typically reserved for people much, much closer to death.

The rest of us, we have no idea. We think a news war is climbing in our little block-quote machines, gunning them to 88 and doing some half-ass riffing on our perceived enemy's half-ass riffing. Observer v. D, Deadspin vs. Grantland, Scocca v. Smith -- they're all shorts-and-shirts walkthroughs compared with the battles waged in cities until the 1990s, when the two-paper town went the way of the newsroom whiskey cabinet.

The kids at SMU, they don't know, either. But for the last few years they've been getting a little taste of what it's like to scrap for scoops, making themselves crazy over a fight that didn't mean anything to anyone but themselves, to whom it meant exactly everything. Now that war is over too.

It started in 2008, when a small new media class started a web site, the Daily Mustang, separate from the 100-year-old student newspaper, The Daily Campus. It had its own slick, school-funded newsroom, housed amidst the journalism classes, and its own adviser in former News reporter Jake Batsell. What began as a way to publish stories generated in journalism classes over time accumulated staff and a thirst for breaking news. It also racked up readers and even some awards.

There have been ongoing talks about merging the two, Batsell says, but those talks were understandably scoffed at by Daily Campus staffers. The newspaper is funded primarily through ad sales, which gives it a certain distance from the university power structure. And no one loves distance from the power structure quite like students who are just discovering journalism. They love it almost as much as they love delivery pizza (and only slightly less than they love italics).

The two operations worked side by side for a couple of years, developing a pretty legitimate little rivalry. In February, when two men were shot at the Burger Street not far from campus, Sarah Kramer, then the news editor for The Daily Campus, found herself scrambling to get the story up before the Mustang -- a sense of urgency she wouldn't have felt without that site's presence. She was working the phones, trying to find a boss to help polish and publish the story, when she refreshed the Mustang and saw its report.

"The Daily Mustang beat us to it," says Kramer, now a senior and the Campus's managing editor. (SMU journalism, it turns out, is basically all women). "We were devastated. I probably could have cried. It's sort of pathetic."

In a perfect world, they would have kept slugging it out. But a committee of students, faculty and others decided that enough was enough. When the Campus put out its back-to-school issue this week, it did it without looking over its shoulder.

Sad for nostalgic newspaper dorks, but probably the best idea for the students. If SMU's journalism program is going to be taken seriously -- it seems to have the money (from Belo) and the facilities to do so -- the students need to churn out the best stories possible. And while competition can breed decent stories, combined resources always win the day, especially as the Campus's print ad base shrinks like everyone else's. (College: It's just like real life!)

Also, things were getting ugly.

"People would go out of their way to sabotage the other," says Ashley Withers, the Campus's new editor in chief. Withers says that as she vied for the position last spring, a graduating member of the Daily Mustang sent an email to the selection committee accusing her of plagiarizing the site.

"What we really should have been doing in the journalism department was making our future contacts," she says, on the off chance there are more than 13 journalism jobs open in the next decade. "Instead, we were looking at is as, 'Everyone here is my competition and I hate them.' We're hoping to take some of that away this year."

As for the Mustang? Yet another news web site frozen in time. I'll have the guys pour one out in its honor. We do still have that whiskey drawer, don't we?

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