In the early '90s while I was attending the University of Houston, I practically lived in and around the communications department on the far east side of campus. Behind a nondescript metal door in a downstairs corner of the brick two-story building was a large, tile-floored, windowless room that housed The Daily Cougar, the campus student-run newspaper. In an era when so many college papers were turning to faculty to run them, often neutering their coverage of the college in the process, the Cougar was an anomaly, full of students, many well beyond typical college age -- fairly typical for this commuter school where Houstonians got (and continue to get) a second chance at higher education -- who lived for digging up dirt and did some remarkably good journalism.
In those days, there was a relatively small staff of editors and writers mixed in with journalism majors who were required to write as part of their classes, which is how I got started. I'll never forget standing in front of Debbie Housel, now an assistant district attorney in Nashville, then a tough, no bullshit editor who wasn't all that interested in dealing with the likes of me, a goofy-looking, long-haired kid who was sent to her by his professor.
She was terrifying, brutally honest and a hell of an editor. It was my first taste of what felt like honest-to-God journalism, the stuff I romanticized when I watched All the President's Men.
So, when I read that the Cougar was ditching the "Daily" part of their name and their print schedule, I immediately became nostalgic.
It's not all that surprising the Cougar is going to a weekly print. Frankly, it's remarkable they remained a daily this long, especially with technology being what it is. But, when I think that they barely had early Mac computers when I first walked in that building and they were quite literally cutting and pasting copy onto boards for print -- not using some fancy Quark or InDesign software -- it reminds me just how far technology has come in 20 years. Back then, few used e-mail and many still typed their stories on typewriters. Microsoft Word was just barely being used to format copy. Now, it's nearly all digital.
But, they're still cranking out good stories at the Cougar. Looking over the past week, there is a story about the university's failure to implement required student housing for freshmen and a nice piece on the Astrodome. There are opinions that, like back in my day, will make you chuckle and occasionally seethe with anger. So much has changed, and yet so much remains the same.
My first story assignment felt like a big scoop to me: The campus was charging for cups of water. With the weather heating up and some students living on rather meager income, it seemed unconscionable to charge for a basic necessity of life. I even got one professor to proclaim that free water, like refills of ice tea, was a god-given right for southerners.
It was a lot less hard hitting that I wanted in the end, but what did I expect for my first story, Watergate? From there, I covered several national political campaigns, including the outsider conservative Pat Buchanan. On a trip to his local headquarters, one dedicated campaign worker gave me what I still consider to be one of the best quotes I've ever heard: "If I started to vote Democrat, Jesus would pull my finger away from the button."
Once Buchanan was out of the race, my coverage shifted to the Democrats and one William Jefferson Clinton. I wrote a number of stories about his campaign and even the final story of his victory, but the highlight was my media pass to Clinton's campaign rally in downtown Houston. Little did I know that one of the Houston Chronicle reporters who was also on the scene would call my editor at the Cougar and ask him why he let Ted Nugent cover Clinton's visit. My hair was a tad longer in those days.
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Of course, not every story was glamorous or even all that interesting. Department grants, professor profiles, the occasional sports story, concert and record reviews (yes, I said "records") fell into my lap.
I even got the opportunity to photograph the pre-show press conference from the Black Crowes, who returned to Houston for a free concert after overzealous security had brought an abrupt end to their last show in the city. I gawked at singer Chris Robinson who was dressed in a top hat with face paint that made him look like a corpse as he admonished reporters for daring to question the band's motives. It was high drama before what is still one of the best live concerts I've ever seen and my initiation into the world of music journalism.
The Cougar may not exactly be the place where I honed my writing chops (that came years later) or even the place where they were born (I owe that to my father), but it certainly was my writing incubator. Despite having been (and still) student run, I had fantastic editors and a wonderful group of faculty advisors whom I count among the best teachers of my life.
As it goes forward as a weekly and digital publication, the Cougar continues to crank out the college journalism of today and the student journalists of tomorrow, and I am proud to count myself among them.