But the formal breakaway did not come without apprehension. Steady financial support from UNC offered the assurance that the DTH would exist as long as UNC did.
“To go independent was to raise the possibility that we could fall on hard times and suffer,” said Jean Lutes, the 1988-89 editor of the paper.
“But it seemed entirely worth the risk.”
*Giving back student fees*
In the summer of 1991, the DTH was down to its last dollar.
Two years earlier, the newspaper had begun to wean itself off revenue from student fees, intending to incrementally reach financial independence by 1993. But that meant replacing roughly $100,000 of a $600,000 annual budget in four years.
This made things precarious, said Kevin Schwartz, the DTH’s general manager at that time and now.
“It got so tough that in August of 1991 ... I had to actually go take a loan out at Central Carolina Bank, 10 grand, to make payroll,” he said.
“It doesn’t get any tougher than that.”
It wasn’t the only rough patch the newspaper would face in the four-year transition. But, for those invested in the paper, it was better than the alternative: Student Congress, which the DTH covered, had the responsibility of approving the newspaper’s budget.
“Student Congress got to basically hold us hostage for all year’s coverage, you know,” Schwartz said, adding that a “no” vote after the annual presentation froze all the newspaper’s funds — not just student fee revenue.
The budget approval process took a toll on editors.
“We asked (editors), ‘Did you feel like you pulled punches around budget time?’ Everybody said, ‘Oh yeah, we totally did that,’” Schwartz said.
Lutes recalled that the obligation seemed entirely contrary to the idea of a free, independent publication.
“It was just ridiculous,” she said. “We were frequently critical of Student Congress, and to then feel we were beholden to them was very frustrating.”
So frustrating, in fact, that it gave Schwartz the motivation to put the wheels in motion on his plan for independence, which had been the subject of his thesis as a graduate student in UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
In 1989, the DTH incorporated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. It passed a campuswide referendum in 1990 to defund itself of student fee revenue.
“So that was my five-year plan,” said Schwartz, who was later inducted into UNC’s Order of the Golden Fleece for making student fee revenue available to a broader base of student groups.
Formal independence allowed the paper’s leaders throughout the 1990s to realize a streak of defiance that dates back to the newspaper’s foundation.
Historian Ken Zogry is working on a book about the DTH’s history. He said he’s found traces of a defiant mindset even when the newspaper was tied to the Athletic Association.
“Very early on, the editors were critical of how the football program was being run,” he said. “That, to me, was stunning information.”
Zogry added that 1993 marked the conclusion of a roughly 25-year arc in which independence was foreshadowed. But the formal breakaway set off a series of concrete changes, not the least of which was a new way of choosing the paper’s editors.
Until 1993, the editor-in-chief was elected by campuswide vote, just like the student body president. The process brought out the worst in the staff, recalled Schwartz. The editor was elected on February’s election day, then required to take the helm of the paper the next week.
The staff divided itself up into different camps, and those allied with the runners-up would sometimes quit en masse, taking editors’ Rolodexes with them, for example.
The paper switched to selection — conducted by a special board — to select the editor in the spring and install him or her in the fall.
But the chief ability the DTH gained, which has been the basis of some of its defining moments in the past 20 years, was the ability to sue the University. The newspaper has exercised the ability twice: in 1996, to challenge the Honor Court’s use of the N.C. Open Meetings Law, and in 2010, to challenge the ability of the University to protect football players’ records under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
Thanassis Cambanis, who led the charge on the first lawsuit as the 1995-96 editor, said the effort grew out of a skepticism of the University that he observed in the leadership of the early 1990s and sought to emulate.
“I viewed all the journalism we did in the ’90s as an extension of that era of aggressive challenging of the University,” he said in a Skype interview from Beirut.
“I didn’t think of that case as a direct outgrowth of our independence but, of course, it was.”
That connection is hard to judge, said Erica Perel, editor in 1997-98 and the DTH’s newsroom adviser.
“A lot of people like to call (the 1990s) kind of a golden age of the DTH,” she said.
“You have to kind of think, well, maybe it was our independence that helped maybe fuel that golden age ... It definitely didn’t hurt.”
And that spirit carried on after Cambanis, in his own career and at the DTH. Now a journalist covering the Middle East, Cambanis said his dealings with the University prepared him for his professional work.
“When I was dealing with horrifying liars in Baghdad who were representing the U.S. government either in uniform or as diplomats, it was very much like trying to deal with people in South Building ... who were entitled and contemptuous of the people’s right to know,” he said.
Rob Nelson, editor in 1999-2000, said he idolized Cambanis and the values associated with him, though he didn’t know him.
“By the time we got to the change of the millennium, the independence of the newspaper was so firmly entrenched in how we operated and how we thought and how we perceived ourselves that it was a given,” Nelson said.
The feeling continued into the next decade, which included the 2010 lawsuit — handled by the same team of lawyers hired for the 1996 case — that was resolved last year.
And the iconic quote still hangs in the three-year-old off-campus office.
“I’m the editor who said put that quote on the wall,” said Nelson, now co-anchor for ABC’s World News Now and America This Morning.
“I love that it’s still there all these years later. It should never, ever come down.”
Contact the editor-in-chief at email@example.com.