Volume 4, Issue 11: John Mabry
"Having an old guy like him around can serve as quite an example for the young players."
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Twenty-seven years ago, I was a sophomore at the University of Illinois and the sports editor for the Daily Illini. This was a particularly exciting time to be a top editor at the student newspaper because that year the Daily Illini, which counted Roger Ebert, Hugh Hefner and Robert Novak as distinguished alumni, was celebrating its 125th anniversary. To commemorate the occasion, the staff invited former DI editors to come back to Champaign for a weekend, reminiscence and drink with old friends and, and here’s the best part, actually produce a special edition of the Daily Illini. It seemed like a terrific idea. Get everyone in the newsroom, assign them “stories,” put together the paper like we did every day, no big deal, and produce a physical document everyone could take home with them. We even brought a keg into the newsroom so everyone could revel and bond, so they could wax nostalgic about their days making a newspaper while making a newspaper.
I desperately wanted to be a part of it, and not for entirely altruistic reasons. The Daily Illini board was selecting a new editor-in-chief a month later, and I was one of the top candidates. I was one of those kids who didn’t care about my classes but was helplessly dedicated to the Daily Illini—I would sometimes get up for an 8 a.m. class, walk to the building where it was being held, get to the front steps, change my mind and then walk all the way across campus to the DI building, just in case something needed done somewhere—and I wanted that job badly. So I volunteered to be the night editor for the DI 125 Commemorative Edition. I’d closed the paper countless nights, it was no big deal at that point, so running a tight ship to produce a newspaper that alumni would proudly take home and hold onto forever would be quite the feather in my cap. I’d put the paper to bed, show off my leadership skills and cement my status as editor-in-chief frontrunner. And all those alums would marvel at the electric talent in their midst. That kid is going places.
Well. I knew I was in trouble when it was 8 p.m., with a 1 a.m. deadline, and no one had even sat down to start writing yet. The problem was self-evident. When alums come back to their college environment, they do not want to work. They want to have fun. They want to remember the good times, to share stories with old friends, to escape the stress of their grown-up lives by remembering how much simpler and easier their lives were when they were in college. They return so that they may regress. And we had just streamlined that process by putting a freaking keg in the middle of the newsroom.
I couldn’t get them to do anything. The political editor from the mid-80s, the guy who was working for The Washington Post and who had given a speech earlier that day, he’d promised to write a column about how he used the knowledge he acquired at the Daily Illini every day on the White House beat. But by 10 p.m., he was drunk and laughing and remembering the good times with his old college buddies, and the last thing in the world he wanted to do was sit down at an old Microtech computer and get to work, no matter how much this floppy-haired, sweaty college kid was imploring him to do so. We’d assigned 12 stories that night, and by 11 p.m., no one had even started any of them. We were two hours from press time, and not only did we not have any stories laid out on the page, we didn’t have any stories written. And no one wanted to stop drinking.
I remember walking up to Jordan Dzuira, our editorial production manager, a guy who had graduated a couple of years earlier but was sticking around as an advisor, in a panic.
“We’re not going to have a paper,” I said, seeing my EIC dreams slip through my fingertips. “I can’t get them to listen to me.”
Jordan looked at me and smiled. He was a nice guy, and a smart one—I suspect he knew I was doomed the minute I took on the assignment.
“Yeah, looks like you gotta figure something out!” he said, and then took another swig of beer himself.
I do not remember how we put that paper together. I have vague memories of actually interviewing some of the alums, whittling their recollections together into a coherent narrative and then just writing it up myself under their byline in the first person. My friend and roommate Mike, along with some other staffers, helped me out too, formatting some pages and doing some line editing. At one point I might have slapped myself in the face with a pica pole. It somehow came together, late, and incoherently, and full of mistakes and madness and I think an upside down photo or two. We finished it. But it was a nightmare. This night actually comes up in dreams sometimes, still today, where I’m lying on the floor of the newsroom, looking up at dozens of people standing over me and yelling, the paper’s late, the paper’s late, we don’t have any stories, we’re going to nothing to read tomorrow, how could you let this happen, Will, how could you let this happen?
I did not end up getting the editor-in-chief job. My friend Mike did. He deserved it, and was the right choice. He was good at managing people; I always just wanted to do everything myself. I remember something else from that night. I remember vowing, to Mike, to Jordan, to whoever would listen, that when everybody came back for the Daily Illini’s 150th anniversary celebration in 25 years, when I was the impossibly elderly age of 45, I was going to find the kid who was in charge of putting together the DI 150 edition … and I was going to make their life hell.
The Daily Illini’s 150th anniversary celebration had been scheduled for two years ago, but there was a bit of a pandemic, so it was postponed until this year. Jordan Dzuira is still around, as it turns out, named the executive editor of Illini Media just last year. I was delighted to hear from him that the celebration was back on, and I was doubly honored to be invited back as part of the Illini Media Hall of Fame Class of 2022. I found out in February that I’d been selected, alongside my old DI colleagues Natasha Korecki (whom we’ve written about in these parts before) and John J. Kim. But what I really wanted to know: Were we doing a DI 150 commemorative edition? And: Was there a keg?
But the world, of journalism and of everything else, has changed a lot in 25, or 27, years. In 1995, the Daily Illini was published in print form five days a week, every week, including the summer, taking off only for Christmas break and spring break. It was the only morning newspaper in Champaign. We had a big huge building that Illini Media Company owned outright, with the advertising and circulation departments downstairs and the editorial department safely ensconced and separated upstairs. The paper cost a quarter; you could buy it in big bulky machines outside of your dorm, or at the grocery store. No one I knew even had an email address, let alone were publishing stories online, as if we would have understood what that meant anyway.
But in 2022, the Daily Illini is free, and published in print form only once a week. The offices are now in the basement of the YMCA building on the edge of campus. The alums of the Daily Illini, back in 1995, were still in the midst of long careers in journalism, often deep into the ever-relentless battle between the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, journalists fighting with each other for stories all day and then drinking together at the Billy Goat once they closed the paper all night. But most of the alums of the Daily Illini now, the ones who still work in journalism who came back, they’re almost all young and just starting out, because, in most cases, they’re the only people who can still afford to work in journalism. Most people in their 30s and 40s and 50s got out of the game years ago, because how could they not? The bottom of the entire newspaper industry fell out almost immediately after we all left the Daily Illini. So many of the contacts we made, so many of the career paths we’d planned out for ourselves, they all imploded in our faces. The Daily Illini, and the newspaper and journalism world it represented, that we were celebrating in 1995 is almost entirely gone in 2022. In 1995, the alums all got together to reflect on where they were when they worked for the DI, and what it had done for them. Now those of us who come back can mostly reflect on what has been lost.
Which is why the DI 150 celebration is dramatically different from DI 125 in one key, important way: It’s not about the alums anymore. There is no special edition to be made, because why would we make a special print edition of anything? That’s about the past. The festivities this weekend are focused on the kids in school now, what they know that we don’t, what they can fix that we have broken. They have been through experiences we could not have fathomed back then. In 1995, I was just worried about getting a job to get my parents off my back after I graduated. In 2022, kids are worried about their mental health, about trauma, about simply being able to navigating an industry they have reasonable suspicions could be in danger of vanishing. There are no big parties for alums, because it’s not about the alums anymore. We are of an old, mostly dead world. It’s the future that matters.
I would never dream today of putting a Daily Illini kid through what those alums put me (and the rest of the staff) through in 1995. Those alums did that because they believed I needed to pay my dues, that I needed to eat it for a while, just like they did, because they believed my time would come and suffering would make me stronger. But there is no reason any longer to just assume that any of these kids’ time will come. They are entering a world that changes so dramatically, so often, that having certainty about anything is a fool’s errand. There is no seniority anymore, no “paying of dues.” You just get through the best you can. The idea that they should struggle the way that we struggled is not instructive—it’s sadistic. There is no need to run them through the gauntlet the way we were run through the gauntlet. Their lives are the gauntlet.
I listen to these kids this weekend, and in many ways, they are just as foolish and silly as I was back then. They’re focused on the wrong things, they are far more worried about their lives right now than they need to be—I’ve never heard a grown human say, “my life was never more stressful and restricted than when I was in college;” I find myself wanting to tell these kids to try to have some fun, while they can, before their lives aren’t their own anymore—they’re impossible, absurdly young. But they also know so much more than I did then, and more than I do now, in so many ways. They’re savvy; they’re strong; they’re willing to learn and try out whatever ever it takes to break through. They’re adaptable, already, because they know they’re going to have to be; they’ve been digging their way out of quicksand so long they have no illusions about ever finding solid ground. And they’re going into this doomed, exhausting, glorious field regardless. I believed the world I was entering in 1995 was going to be stable. College kids today know better. But they plunge forward, regardless. They’re smarter than I was then. They have no choice.
I won’t be getting back at some poor college kid at DI 150 just to make up for what I went through at DI 125. The world’s different now, and so am I. They just have to find their path, just like I did, and if I can help, I’ll help, and if I can’t, I’ll get out of the way. Maybe this is ultimately what the role of alums should be. Be ready and on call if needed, but don’t pretend you know better or that your experience should be everyone’s experience. You can sit around the keg telling your old stories all you want. But eventually, there will be no one left at the tap to hear them who hasn’t heard them before. Then they will be gone. And you’re only talking to yourself.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
Can Baseball Finally Get Out of Its Own Way?, New York. A general, generalist, season preview.
113 Opening Day Predictions, MLB.com. I am not good at getting predictions right, but I am good at making a lot of them.
Will Donald Trump Ever Set Foot in the White House Again? Medium. I mean, assuming he doesn’t become the President again. (Gulp.) (Tugs collar.)
Your NL West Preview, MLB.com. I’m higher on the Padres than everyone else is, I think.
Your NL East Preview, MLB.com. Had to do some Mets adjusting on this one.
Opening Day Matchups, Ranked, MLB.com. This did not turn out the order of awesomeness of these games.
Opening Day Starters, Ranked, MLB.com. Always good for irritating people. They tried this one in some new format.
Billionaires Are Bigger Heroes to Your Kids Than You Think, Medium. It is crazy how often my kids’ friends bring up Elon Musk.
Playing Pepper: Cardinals 2022 Predictions, Cards Conclave. I think I’ve been doing predictions for this site for more than 10 years now.
Tiger Will Never Go Away, New York. I wrote a short second-day recap news story for New York about the only golfer anyone knows or cares about.
Your Friday Five, Medium. Dance like nobody’s watching. (Because nobody is.)
The Long Game With LZ and Leitch, we previewed the baseball season, talked Trevor Bauer and debated NBA MVP.
Grierson & Leitch, we discussed “Morbius,” “Apollo 10 1/2” and “The Bubble.”
Seeing Red, Bernie and I did our big season preview.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“The Unraveling of an Expert on Serial Killers,” Lauren Collins, The New Yorker. Just exactly the sort of “I can’t fall asleep because I’m reading this story” piece that I’ve been subscribing to The New Yorker for for 15 years now.
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
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CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Hey Man Nice Shot,” Filter. This weekend, my mind can’t help but waft back toward the songs that surrounded me the most in college. When I think of every stoner party in Urbana where I spent most of the night doing whippets in some graduate student’s basement, this is the soundtrack.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
The kids, they had fun this week.
So did their dad, for that matter.