The FreeP Turns 50
BU’s independent student newspaper, the Daily Free Press, celebrates a half century
On May 6, 1970—two days after student protesters were shot by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University—Charles Radin (COM’71) published the first edition of the Daily Free Press. That inaugural single-page issue reported on the University’s decision to close dorms and cancel both final exams and Commencement.
Fast-forward to this past spring and BU’s independent student newspaper celebrated its 50th birthday amid another historic campus closure, this one due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In both cases, the student reporters and editors tackled challenging stories that had broad social impacts extending well beyond Comm Ave. In the 50 intervening years, the FreeP, as it’s affectionately known, covered countless triumphs and tragedies, navigated repeated financial hardships, and sparred with BU’s administration, establishing itself as one of the top college papers around—most recently winning the 2019 New England Newspaper & Press Association’s College Newspaper of the Year.
BU Today?reached out to editors from across the paper’s history and asked about the highlights, challenges, and lessons learned from their time on the?FreeP. Were you a?FreeP?staffer or reader? Share your thoughts in the Comment section below.
With Former FreeP Editors
BU Today: What did you consider to be the primary role of student journalism?
Ed Brennen (COM’96): It was all about getting that daily newspaper experience. Of course, we wanted to write stories that informed students about what was going on around them—that highlighted both BU’s accomplishments and its shortcomings—but it was also just getting the chance to go out and interview people or cover a game, to write a story on deadline, to learn how to work with editors, to help cut and paste the stories to boards at midnight before heading back to your dorm.
Samantha Gross (COM’18): Student journalism fills a void in journalism education that can’t be found in any other place. There’s something about learning to work as a team to produce something so technical and multifaceted.
Sydney Lupkin (COM’10): I learned a lot of basic journalism concepts by applying them at the FreeP before they came up in a classroom setting. But that’s a huge part of being in a real-world newsroom: you often have to do something you’ve never done before on deadline without getting a formal lesson on how to do it. And because the FreeP is completely independent, there’s also a very real fear of getting something wrong and facing the consequences for that. The sooner any young journalist gains the confidence to dive into something new but with a healthy amount of fear that they’ll totally mess it up, the better. You need both.
Don Van Natta, Jr. (COM’86): Learning by doing and failing. The Daily Free Press was an intensive and very public way to learn on the job, getting the reps you need to become a professional reporter and editor. Our mistakes—and we made plenty—were on display every day for the entire campus community. And so we learned the hard way the importance of rigorous reporting, clear writing, and meticulous fact-checking.
BU Today: What was the biggest challenge you faced as an editor?
Brennen: John Silber’s reaction to our editorial criticizing his controversial leadership style in the 25th anniversary edition of the paper. He invited me to the Senior Breakfast, even though I was a junior, and had me stand up at one point so he could lay into me about the op-ed in front of a few thousand seniors. I guess that didn’t satisfy him, because later that day his secretary called me at the FreeP and said that Silber (Hon.’95) wanted me to come visit him at his office on Bay State Road. I went up to his office and he let me have it again, demanding that we post flyers all over campus apologizing for the op-ed. I don’t think he appreciated my stammering explanation that an editorial is an opinion of the paper, but that was the end of it.
Gross: I think the hardest part is stepping up to become the face and voice of the publication. Editorial decisions ultimately fall to you and as a 20-year-old, or however old you are, it sometimes feels like you’re not the right person to be calling the shots. I felt my fair share of imposter syndrome, but eventually you learn that it’s all a team effort, and it’s really thrilling to put out a product into which you pour so much time and care.
Van Natta: There were many challenges, but probably the biggest was the lofty goal we had set for ourselves when the school year began: to publish one of the best independent newspapers in America. We didn’t just want to improve the paper; we wanted it to be special and recognized by readers for its excellence. I can still remember the relentless pace and hard work of producing a new daily into the wee hours of every morning, Sunday through Thursday nights—and on most nights we fell far short of our goal. But with each day came a new chance to get a little better.
BU Today: What advice would you give the next generation of editors?
Gross: Now more than ever, it’s so important to be fearless and tenacious as a reporter. Keep the legacy of the FreeP going by reporting important stories that no one else is telling. Trust one another. It is still college journalism, and it is a place to grow. Nothing has to be perfect 100 percent of the time. Oh, and also try getting some sleep!
Lupkin: Don’t just take what the administration is telling you at face value. As the independent paper at the school, it’s your job to question the administration. Be scrappy and cautious, but push to find more story than what you see in a press release or student life email or statement from the spokesperson.
Van Natta: Have fun. Don’t take it all too seriously. Savor every moment.