Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 25, 2021

A look into The News-Letter in the late 1980s

By ERICA GUM BURSON | May 17, 2021

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One of Gum's most memorable stories was covering the address to freshmen by then-University President Steven Muller, pictured in 1987 with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Alfred Carl Toepfer.

Walking into the Gatehouse, to the right sat a long table with mismatched chairs. On a good day, pizza had just been delivered. On a bad day, half-empty boxes sat with grease congealing on cold slices. The paper had an arrangement with local pizza places: free pizza in exchange for ads. For hungry News-Letter staff, it was mutually beneficial unless you were a discerning eater. Cokes and Pepsis, regular and diet, were the fuel of choice.

On the left was a room with typesetting computers into which every story had to be typed. While copy editors corrected errors, section editors composed headlines and subheadlines, pressing the correct buttons to get the desired font size and type. A huge printer extruded headlines and stories onto shiny photo paper. 

In the basement, opposite the darkroom was layout, where text, headlines, pictures and ads were literally laid out onto large sheets of blueline paper. The paper was placed on light tables where, using X-Acto knives, stories were chopped into pieces, pasted down and fitted artfully around photos. If a story had to continue onto another page, editors climbed back upstairs to type and print out “CONT page XX.” Then, they headed back downstairs to modify the layout. The finishing touch was bordering stories and pictures with line tape, narrow tape with various thickness of black lines. Laying tape down in straight lines became more challenging as the clock passed 2 a.m. Long after graduation, I found line tape on my sweaters. 

This was the state of newspaper technology in 1987, my freshman year. No cell phones, no world wide web, no social media and mice were found in off-campus apartments, not attached to computers. Macintoshes were for making apple pie, not for laying out newspapers. Ronald Reagan was president, the Soviet Union still existed and the Baltimore Orioles played at Memorial Stadium, snarling traffic on 33rd Street. Freshmen ate at the Terrace Room cafeteria, and there was no sushi on the menu. The well-off kids had CD players, the rest of us had cassette tapes and a Sony Walkman. The fashionistas wore their sweatshirts inside out. 

I started at The News-Letter as a reporter. My most memorable story was an address to freshmen by then-University President Steven Muller (aka the man with the tan). We all paid attention when he talked about losing his virginity in college. 

Sophomore year I co-edited the Features section with Erik Ruck. Junior and senior year I returned to reporting. In 1991, I covered a lecture by Professor Steven David about the ending of the Cold War, where he warned that things were going to become more chaotic. Doc David got that one right.

While researching a story about University honor codes (Hopkins did not have one), I examined microfilms of News-Letters past. I found an intriguing editorial titled “I Spy.” To this day, editorials are unsigned, but the Editor-in-Chief then was Alger Hiss, who was later accused of spying for the Soviet Union. 

Then and now, The News-Letter was a (small) part of history, both of the University and of its graduates. Happy 125th, News-Letter and many more. 

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