Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
July 29, 2021

A conversation with Mike Deak, Elliot Grover, Phil Konort and Mark Wolkow '79

By AMELIA ISAACS | May 17, 2021

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COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES — SHERIDAN LIBRARIES 

Mike Deak, Elliot Grover, Phil Konort and Mark Wolkow worked together on The News-Letter, as shown in this masthead from 1977.

Mike Deak (Editor-in-Chief), Elliot Grover (Business Manager), Phil Konort (Business Manager) and Mark Wolkow (Business Manager/Managing Editor) worked on The News-Letter together from 1974 to 1979. 

The News-Letter: How did you all get involved in The News-Letter? Did you all know each other before you joined the paper?

Mike Deak: I joined first, I joined before my sophomore year when one of my friends was friends of the editor, and he knew that I enjoyed writing. And that's how I got involved. And basically, we were kind of anti-social people who didn't belong to fraternities or anything. So The News-Letter became our fraternity. 

I was a Psychology major that didn't work out. I became an Anthropology major and that didn't work out. So I became a Social and Behavioral Science major, and that didn't work out. But I found my calling at The News-Letter. I did not know Mark, Elliott or Phil before that because they were younger.

Elliot Grover: We still are younger.

Phil Konort: Still are.

Mark Wolkow: We’ve maintained that advantage over the years. You might be the only one with hair left, but we're younger.

EG: Mark and I both lived in Gildersleeve dorm.

MW: Right across the hall.

EG: So we became good buds right away. Mark took us out the first week we were there, because he's a Maryland boy, to experience themed crabs and beer. I remember that during orientation week, he had a car and we went for crabs. We drank some beer, and we got the real Maryland experience. So we became fast friends. We were the same major. We both had the same student advisor. 

PK: Elliott, we all three did, you may recall.

EG: Oh, that's right. We all three had the same student advisor, Phil too, and her name is Carol Jaffe, now Carol Feldenstein. And Carol got involved in the newspaper on the business side and pulled Mark and I in our sophomore year. She was the same major as us. We were Math Sciences majors, so Mark and I got pulled in our sophomore year as co-Business Managers. And we were friends with Phil as well and then pulled Phil in the following year or the year after I think.

PK: I think it's when Mark moved up to Managing Editor.

MW: Yeah, I guess my senior year I moved from Business Manager to Managing Editor. But all three of us were the same major so we had a lot of the same classes that we skipped — I mean, that we went to. Except not so much on Wednesdays and Fridays. 

EG: But to to kind of underscore what Mike said, you know, The News-Letter became our fraternity, none of us were part of any other fraternity. We formed our own intramural teams and competed in lacrosse.

MW: And softball.

MD: And basketball.

MW: So we did form a lot of friendships, and speaking personally, almost the only people I ever stay in touch with from Hopkins are from The News-Letter because we would spend upwards of 30, 40 hours a week there. 

MD: These are friendships that were forged in fire. You know sort of like the the Saving Private Ryan of student journalism.

N-L: For The News-Letter nowadays, business and editorial are kept very separate. Can you talk about what that was like when you worked on the paper?

MD: Okay. Before I became editor — I was editor twice — we had two issues a week, one Tuesday and one Friday. Tuesday was mostly news. And Friday it was like a pizza with everything on it, except for news. And by that time, in my sophomore year, the Student Activities Committee (SAC), which funded The News-Letter, gave us a budget of around $25,000 maybe.

So they didn't like us, because we were counter revolutionaries, I guess. And they threatened to take away our funding because we criticized them, because that's our job. And so we mounted a campus-wide petition, we went around to all dorms to get signatures, and we stopped that. But it still remained a problem that we were dependent upon SAC for our funding, and that's not good. 

So our point was to become financially independent, which meant going back to one issue a week, because one eight page paper and one 12 page paper is more expensive to put out than a 24 page paper. 

And we all of a sudden instituted a lot of financial reforms — revolutionary stuff like advertising and getting revenue. And so we did not have to depend upon the money that was voted on by this committee because financial independence means editorial independence. And so that's why I worked closely with Mark, Elliott and Phil. They all wanted to make money for money's sake. I wanted to make money to become independent. And it worked.

EG: So for example, when Mark and I came in, and then Phil as well, we extended this policy. Basic stuff about establishing a connection between how big the paper could be based on how much advertising we had sold. Just basic stuff. And so we said to the editorial staff, “Listen, if we get in, for example, two pages of ads, we could run a 12 page paper. If we get in three pages of ads, we can run a 16 page paper. And that's just the way it is.” Before that the size of the paper and the amount of content had no connection to what was affordable, or what could be sustained. So we just put in some basic policies, as Mike said. 

The other problem was when Mark and I came in, whatever ads were sold frequently, there was no collection process for making sure those ads were paid for. And we were not getting our fair share of national advertisers, which come through agencies, because we weren't meeting the agency's administrative requirements. So we would stop getting ads from national advertisers like the U.S. Army and beer companies and others who were advertising and could be advertising to support the paper. So we did just super basic stuff, we had good support from the editorial crew. And I think we really felt pretty unified. It wasn't really two different teams within The News-Letter

And to slightly contest with what my friend Mike you know, we weren't really that interested in making money. We were interested in raising money to support the publishing ambitions of the paper. Because we took pride in the paper as well and the editorial side, and we wanted to see it survive and sustain. Is that about accurate?

PK: It is. And I would say we also took pride in running a true financial ship nice and smoothly the way a business should be run.

MW: Yeah, I agree with that, as well. It was kind of neat to be given the reins of an organization that had a fair amount of money that was rolling through it over the course of a year. And the impact that The News-Letter had on the student body on the administration. It was just a lot of fun.

MD: The main achievement that four of us had, and our team, was to restore credibility to paper, which had lost it, and that's because we seriously took the hyphen in the name. There had always been a conflict between the News side and the Features side. The News and Letter sides. And we sort of resolved that by putting out only one issue and that increased our credibility with everybody who read it.

MW: And we knew that having the linkage between the advertising and the writing actually allowed for more text, more articles, News and Features to go in there.


COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES — SHERIDAN LIBRARIES 

One of Mike Deak’s trivia quizzes while he was Features Editor for the paper.


N-L: We have one of the old quizmasters reviving the backpage quiz for the Magazine. Could you tell us a bit about the old quizzes?

MD:  What happened was every week we had a problem with what to do with the back cover because of a quarter fold. There was always the question of what's gonna go on the back cover. We had a lot of success with doing a trivia quiz. It got a good reaction. But we decided to monetize it by getting an ad from Eddie's liquor store. They gave us a case of beer, because the drinking age back then was 18, and they had an ad on the back cover every week.

EG: And a food certificate, which of course you’d use to buy more beer.

MD: Exactly. It was quite popular. We ran a scavenger hunt once and had people searching all over the campus for a Charlie Brown doll, which we hid in the bottom of Maryland Hall.

MW: I think they had to go through like 12 steps to get there. So on Saturday morning there would be people running all over the campus, trying to figure out the clues to be the first one and then turn it in at the Gatehouse to get the case of beer.

EG: And that lasted 25 years or so. 

MD: Do you still use the basement?

N-L: We actually cleaned it up and renovated just before we all had to head home because of COVID-19. But it used to be used for production, right?

PK: Yes, and of course, we had a darkroom back then, since you know, this was old photographic technology. So you actually had to develop the film and print it out on photo paper and so on. I’m sure you don't have a darkroom anymore, but that was the windowless room in the basement.

MW: And especially the headlines, there was actually a separate machine called a headliner. And anything over 12 point had to go through the headliner separately. You typed it in and it was a photographic process as well. So you'd get these long strips of whatever the headline was, and you'd have to bring them into the darkroom and get them developed. And then you paste them on top of the article and hopefully it fit, or you’d have to pick a different font size.

MD: The first issue of my spring semester senior year, we actually had a flood in the basement. 

N-L: That hasn’t changed, unfortunately. Although, it’s probably a lot less dramatic for us without having to do physical production down there.

MD: Yeah, I mean, we were in about four or five inches of water trying to put together a paper. And just one more thing about the bathroom. Have you ever seen the movie Trainspotting? The bathroom was like that.

MW: So is it time now to start telling stories guys?

PK: It’s time.

EG: We’ve just got to remind these guys this was the ‘70s. In the ‘70s there was a lot of smoke. Next thing you knew that the smoke was gone and we were in the ‘80s.

MW: So we had a person who would drive the van out with everything to the printer in Carroll County and one time they drove out there, and they were putting the production together and they realized they left the halftones for the pictures back at the Gatehouse. 

I guess there were a couple of calls made, but no one came out to bring them and they didn't come back and get them. And so they used some file photos that were in the files of the Carroll County Times. I don’t know whether you have found a particular issue that might have been — what’s the word Mike?

MD: Notorious. 

EG: In which the pictures have nothing to do with the articles

MW: Nothing whatsoever. 

MD: But that’s not that's not the crime.

EG: We're saving the crime for last.

MW: The crime was in the pictures that were used, especially the cover picture, which was of a Klansmen in full robe and regalia. And that's the picture that was selected in the infinite wisdom of the people involved with that decision. None of which are on this call, by the way.

MD: What was what was even more embarrassing is that the Carroll County Times insisted on putting a black stripe on the eyes of the people in the pictures. So there was a picture of a bride with a black strip over eyes to hide her identity. And the worst thing was the cover picture of a Klansmen with a black strip over his eyes. So he was wearing a white hood with this black strip over his eyes.

EG: You can imagine, it was not received particularly well by the administration. And others. 

MW: Or anybody.

MD: I mean, it was surprising that they had a Klan rally in Western Maryland in 1977, which is horrifying enough. But to have it come into our campus. And the inside pictures also had Klansmen and innocent people from Carroll County. We all have the names of the guilty parties, but we're not going to reveal them. 

MW: It was not our proudest moment to say the least.

MD: I don’t think anybody here was involved.

MW: No, but we were working at the paper. So guilt by association.



N-L: On the flip side of that, what are some of the things you're most proud of from when you were at the paper?

MD: I think what we did was, we restored the credibility of the paper, we mixed it up between the News and the Feature sides. There was a lot of content there that interested a lot of people and we rebuilt. And we established the management style, and this united goal of what people were up to. And there wasn't much micromanagement. We let the News side do what they did and the Feature side do what they did. 

We also were proud of making our production schedule. If you remember correctly guys, previously they weren’t getting the paper back on campus before, maybe, two o'clock in the afternoon on Fridays, when we got back on campus at about nine o'clock on Friday mornings, which is the whole goal. 

So it was always great for us to wake up at 11 o'clock, go over there to The Rathskeller for lunch and see everybody reading the paper. That was an adrenaline rush. 

MW: 7000 copies was our press run at the time.

MD: And we reduced the press run. We started out at 7500, then we went down to 7000.

EG: And we also did a lot of community distribution as well, not just campus. 

I would say one of the one of the things I'm most proud of is that I think we helped create an enterprise that was not just a good training ground for aspiring writers and aspiring production folks, but aspiring business folks. And I think it established a legitimate business enterprise, with legitimate structure and protocols and such, that was a good little training ground for people to learn about business, to get a passion for business and maybe to have something to talk about when they were applying.

And I know that I had no interest in a career in business until my experience at The News-Letter, after which I did pursue a career in business. Phil and I both went on to a business school together, actually, University of Chicago, and there's no doubt that my experience at The News-Letter changed the direction or trajectory of my future. 

MW: Speaking personally, it had a big impact on my career. I ended up working one way or the other in publications, as part of my job for almost every position I had. 

I seem to, by luck or by chance, be drawn towards jobs that ended up needing to have documents published. So having the experience on the business side and the Managing Editor side, it was incredibly useful to be able to, number one work with different people who have different roles, as well as just understanding the technical side of things from literally doing it yourself.

PK: From my perspective, it was the first time that I was involved in the finances of any real organization. So putting together a plan and doing monthly reports and maintaining financial accountability and responsibility is something that I really enjoyed. We did a good job at it. And as Elliott mentioned, we both pursued business degrees and then I followed it with a 39 year career in finance, so very much followed up on what we started at The News-Letter.

MW: And it also became a training ground. You know, so many people from The News-Letter have gone on to do pretty amazing things. After News-Letter life, without a doubt, the things that they learned, whether it's interpersonal relationships, or management, or finance absolutely helped them in their careers.

EG: We spent far more hours down at the Gatehouse than we spent in classes plus doing homework, and no doubt at least 50% of the education of going to Hopkins was the time we spent at The News-Letter. No doubt.

MD: I'm lucky enough that I'm doing for money when I did for free at The News-Letter. And that's really very fortunate to do something you like, And for me, I don't consider what I'm doing in journalism work. It's still as fun as it was at The News-Letter, but without beer in a vending machine.

Sophia Lola contributed reporting to this article.

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