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Saturday, 11 November 2006

UMass's Howard Ziff

Howard Ziff Retires

By B. J. Roche '78

THE SEVENTIES WERE A JUICY TIME TO BE A JOURNALIST, a time when reporters not only covered, but played central roles in, the biggest stories of the day: the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate break-in. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to be a reporter back then. (The same way that today everyone wants to be a screenwriter. Especially reporters.)

The seventies were also a juicy time to be a journalism major. But if you were a UMass student who wanted to be a reporter, you had to get through Ziff first.

Howard Ziff, whose retirement party last fall drew hundreds of former students back to UMass, arrived on campus in 1971, a burly, bearded prof armed with a bachelor's in philosophy from Amherst College, a master's in newspapering from the streets and newsrooms of Chicago, and a passion for free speech, John Milton, Robert Burns, old movies, and, oh, single malt scotch. The son of a Holyoke curtain-maker, Ziff began building a journalism program that would turn kids from Southie and Springfield into broadcast and print reporters, photojournalists, editors, webmasters and public relations specialists at some of the top organizations in the country.
It was a small department, with a broad focus.
"We would like to have been bigger, but not much bigger, partly because our approach is so heavily oriented in the humanities," Ziff explains. "I hoped that a humanities-based course would have some results it was the idea that a degree oriented to writing and to thinking about problems was better than the very vocationally-oriented programs, which approach journalism as a social science."

If you wanted to be a reporter, you had to get through Ziff first: Howard M. Ziff, part precinct captain, part philosophy professor, and apotheosis of journalism studies at UMass.
If it worked in those early days, it was mainly because of Ziff. He challenged students, he scolded them. And, though most remember him fondly now, sometimes he scared the bejeezus out of them.
"Howard could be a terror," agrees journalism department chairman Norm Sims, who was a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana when he met Ziff. "It was a role he played. You had to overcome your fear, and if you couldn't do that, you probably wouldn't make it in journalism anyway."

Ziff's style was just right for the place and the time. Says Sims, "Howard was part Chicago precinct captain and part Amherst College philosophy professor. He could play several theatrical roles, depending on the situation, which was perfect for that climate of growth and development. The motto of newspaper reporters was `follow the money,' and that worked perfectly in Whitmore."
Ziff began his journalism career at Pacific Stars and Stripes during the Korean War, and ended up in Chicago, first at the city news bureau, and later at the Chicago Daily News, where he worked with columnist Mike Royko. Chicago in the 1950s was, in Ziff's words, a "vibrant and naughty town," and one with a highly competitive news business. "It was Mayor Daley's Chicago," he says. "Royko used to have a term for it: `Where's mine?'"

Later, Ziff would mine those years for classroom material, peppering his lectures with anecdotes about the city. "They'd start out: `So Royko and I were polishing off a bottle of scotch when who should walk into the bar,'" former student Dode Levenson remembered at Ziff's retirement party in October. "Howard's face breaks into that familiar smile of delight as he gives you the kicker: `That's right, Richard Daley himself.'"

Ziff served as chairman of the journalism program for about thirteen years, overseeing its transition from a sector of the English curriculum to a department in its own right in 1988. Today journalism is one of the most popular areas of study in the humanities, with 252 majors, most of them women.
Much, of course, has changed. Instead of banging out stories on battered black-and-white manual Olympia typewriters in the basement of Machmer, students now work on sleek Power Macintoshes in a new computer lab in Bartlett Hall. They learn not only how to write news stories, but also how to run spread sheets, develop photographs digitally, and produce web pages and newsletters.

The introduction of new technologies has raised some questions about journalism education for Ziff. "The technology we had in the past wasn't so dazzling that it could stand in the way of education," he says. "Our outlook is one that places us in the faculty of the humanities and fine arts, and I just think that's a good place to be. It's a signal to students that you've got to read and understand the cultural forces that journalism comes from, the great traditions that it partakes of, the political and social philosophy and, at the center, good writing."

MUCH HAS ALSO CHANGED in the news business since Ziff left it. The most fundamental change in the past thirty years has gone largely unstudied, according to Ziff, and that is the professionalization of the newsroom. Until the 1950s, reporters generally did not have college degrees, and newspapers were staffed by the working class, the sons of railroad workers and milkmen.
"The great police reporters were all police officers' sons," says Ziff. "The son got in out of the rain, at least part of the time." It used to be, he says, that "you had a guy like Tom Wicker, working his way up from poverty in the south." But in the post-World War II years, "the mass media went from being a servant of power to being one of the power sources. It became strong within itself." In the 1960s, the sons of the Ivy League began to go into journalism: the Harvard Crimson became a feeder for elite papers like the Boston Globe and the New York Times. Now a reporter without a degree is a rarity, and many have master's, and even law, degrees.

"Those changes have brought good things, but they've also worked an unexamined change in journalism," Ziff says. "It's lost the underdog, underclass point of view, which you used to get. Newspapers were more in touch with their readers."
What's also been lost, says Ziff, is the value of street smarts. "That's what the influx of minorities at papers does," he says. "It provides the point of view of someone who's some distance from the power."
Still another change in the past thirty years has been the influx of women into the news business, a phenomenon that Ziff admits he was slow to acknowledge.

"My definition of everyday life was totally masculine," he says. "It wasn't until I became a teacher that I realized I had this skewed view of the world. Journalists had to be in touch with people and I was in touch with only half of them. I learned that from my students." Ziff adds that when he first became a teacher "I paid lip service to reporting about everyday life. The more I've taught and read, the more I've realized it's a very deep commitment. And I think a lot of that has to do with the large number of women in the student body and the faculty."

Ziff thinks that the Internet, in its role as an alternative information source in an increasingly conglomerated media world, poses both a benefit and a challenge to journalists. "The computer is like the CB radio," he says. "That's the hope and that's the curse." The benefit of this technology is that anyone can publish without the traditional editorial gatekeepers. The challenge is, without the gatekeepers, how do we know whether information is reliable?

"Inevitably, we've got to ask who's believed and why," Ziff says.
"How do you do that without kowtowing to the establishment? In journalism education, we still have to teach the habits of being authoritative in what you do, in terms of research and adherence to balance.

"That is difficult stuff to get across to students, because there's so much today about the relativity of truth and objectivity. People say, `There's your truth and there's my truth,' but that's much too simple."

Whether a writer is working on paper, airwaves, or in cyberspace, one thing will always remain the same, says Ziff: You have to tell the story. "I don't think that good writing will ever go away," he says. "That's impossible. You've got to think and reflect, and you don't know what you think until you've written it."
He will be missed, says Norm Sims, not just for his teaching, but for what he brings to the campus. Ziff is known to pop his head around the doors of fellow faculty members to read passages from a Robert Burns poem or a column about the Pullman Strike by Finley Peter Dunne, the legendary columnist whose fictional characters held court in a saloon on Chicago's West Side.

"Howard is a moveable feast," says Sims. "The Chicago newspapers when Howard was there were intellectual arenas. To Howard, moving to the university was simply taking the conversation to another level. Some people want to not just publish books and supervise grad students, but to actually contribute to the intellectual conversation on campus. That's one of the things that should be cherished at the university."

ZIFF AND HIS WIFE JANE are moving from their Dana Street home, which some Collegian staffers may remember as their office-in-exile during various takeovers, to a house near the science side of campus. He's already clocked the walk from the front door to the W.E.B. DuBois library, where he plans to spend a lot more time. It takes ten minutes.

He also plans to do some long-distance traveling. Two young grandsons live in the Netherlands, which is also the setting of a good story he's been wanting to tell. Something about a Dutch bell maker, the beautiful bells he cast for churches around the country, and what happened to them during the Nazi occupation. It's likely to require trips to small Dutch villages and much time spent interviewing sources in "brown cafes," cozy bars so named for their nicotine-stained walls. It's a tough assignment, but Ziff is up to the challenge. You can, after all, take the man out of the newsroom, but you can't take the newsroom out of the man.



Our hero, left, with Larry Carpman '75
"WHAT'S FUNNY," said Bill Densmore'75 as he listened to alumni tell their Howard Ziff stories at Ziff's retirement dinner at the Top of the Campus in October,"is that each one of us thought we were the only ones he was helping out."

Ziff probably planned it that way. In his own speech that evening, he quoted his old pal, columnist Mike Royko, who, when signing copies of his books for all the assistants who had worked for him over the years, wrote: "You were the best. Don't tell the others."

Ziff had, after all, helped so many, and that night, 285 alumni and friends showed up to return the favor. Ziff's legacy to the department is the Howard Ziff Visiting Alumni Lecture Series, which will build an endowment to bring distinguished grads back for lectures and networking. The fundraising campaign was kicked off at the retirement party amidst ample schmoozing and back-to-back tributes.

From Washington, D.C., for instance, came a video produced by Heidi Berenson `79 and featuring veteran correspondent Helen Thomas flanked by her fellow UPI staffers and members of the
White House press corps, Paul Basken `83 and Ken Bazinet `84. A paean to Ziff from Kevin Cullen `81 arrived from Dublin, where the latter writes for the Boston Globe. And Teresa Hanafin `84, city editor for that paper, told about a letter she received shortly after she got the job: wrote Ziff, "The city editor is the heart and soul of the newspaper."

Gerry Grenier `80
, director of Internet development for John Wiley and Sons Publishers, who got his start as a night editor at the Collegian, told how he once wrote a particularly misleading headline about local merchants, and of the fallout the next day, when some of them threatened to withdraw their advertising if the paper didn't apologize.

"The news editor and editor in chief were all gathered together discussing whether they should issue an apology, and Howard ambled into the newsroom," Grenier recalled. "They explained the situation, and Howard said `Don't apologize, don't explain. [ ****** ] `em!' So we didn't."

Sonia Paz `95
, a bilingual news reporter and producer at Channel 10, the educational access channel for the Lawrence school system, told this story:"I wanted to do an interview with some people at an AIDS hospice, but because it's educational public access, my boss says it might be too political. What if someone doesn't like it, what if, what if. I remembered Professor Ziff saying in the class, you can't worry about who you're going to offend. I'm like, `Listen, this story has to be told,' so if someone gets upset, awesome.'"

Also reminiscing were Don Aucoin `78, another Globe writer, Jack Flynn `77 of the Springfield Union News, and Jacob Michaels `97, who had driven all the way from Ohio where he works for a small daily with the motto, "If you miss a day, you miss a lot." Liz Luciano `86 came over from the university's news office; she named her cat "Ziff" after the big guy. And with his goatee, Dode Levenson `87, a screenwriter living near LA was even beginning to look like Ziff.

It was a great time for people to catch up. Ed Fouhy `56 and former vice chancellor Dan Melley `55 hung out; so did Larry Carpman, former spokesman for Senator John Kerry, WBUR radio reporter Steve Tripoli, and Miriam Zoll `84, co-founder of the Ms Foundation Take Your Daughters to Work Day. Former Poor Richard's Editor Pat Coffey `79 drove up from the Cape, as did Mark Mulcahy `82, who is now an editor at the Cape Cod Times.
Former Collegian editor and Ziff T.A. Bill Parent `77 recalled sitting at the long table in Machmer Hall with"Howard at the head of the table looking like an old defensive end, saying, `Listen to this,' then reading a long paragraph from Orwell, Dreiser or Dickens; then the dramatic pause, and then the classic endorsement: `Great stuff. Great stuff.'"

The weekend's events were funded by an Alumni Association grant, and kicked off on Saturday afternoon with two alumni panels. Issues surrounding new technologies and what they mean for journalists were discussed by Janine Warner `90, Chris Schmitt `81, Bill Densmore `75, and Bob Faletra `78. Discussing their lives as writers in the real world were Josh Meyer `87, Carolyn Mooney `80, and Sean Horgan `78.

In keeping with tradition, celebrants retired to the Collegian office for cocktails after the Top of the Campus bar closed down. The weekend left us wondering two things: One, do the folks over in polymer science have this much fun when they get together, and two: Howard, can you please retire again next year? -BJR


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