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Diane Roberts: Happy Centenary, Florida Flambeau

Given the constant bad tidings in the print world, a newspaper making it to the age of 100 is something to celebrate. Especially if it’s a newspaper with a pretty good history of breaking important stories, training generations of take-no-prisoners journalists and speaking truth – sometimes profanely – to power.

Happy Centenary, Florida Flambeau.

On January 23, 1915, students at the Florida State College for Women put out the first issue. The first editor was Miss Ruby Leach, a transfer student from the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. The first front page detailed a play rehearsal, a meeting of the Glee Club and a “delightfully informal” tea and sandwiches evening at which the girls of Bryan and Reynolds Halls sang and told ghost stories.

The Flambeau swiftly quit being so ladylike and parochial, growing into an insistent voice for progress, supporting women’s suffrage, equality and the First Amendment, upsetting tradition-minded deans and proper townsfolk. In 1947, FSCW admitted men and became Florida State University. The newspaper didn’t miss a beat poking the culture in its tenderest spots.

Such as race: in March, 1960, FSU’s Board of Student Publications tried to get Flambeau editor Virginia Delavan to soft-pedal stories about police brutality at local civil rights marches. She refused, running a blank front page in protest.

Throughout the decade, the Flambeau agitated in print against Jim Crow, then against the Vietnam War and for women’s reproductive rights. Finally faced with a ruling from Attorney General Robert Shevin that no matter how fervently university officials hated the paper’s coverage of Students for a Democratic Society or Abbie Hoffman’s speeches or anything else, they could not regulate what got printed in the newspaper, FSU President Stanley Marshall cut the paper’s funding in 1972, forcing it to go independent.

That was like throwing Brer Rabbit into the briar patch – bad only if you don’t like briars. Flambeau reporters loved briars. Thorns, slings and arrows, too, controversy, adversity and challenges.

Less than a year after being kicked off campus, the paper broke a huge story about abuses in the Seminole football program. Seems the head coach thought having players fight cage matches was a perfectly reasonable training regime. The scandal went national. FSU football got put on probation.

I didn’t start working for the paper until 1980 when, exasperated by my prissy academic prose style, FSU’s Prof. Jerome Stern suggested I give it a try. “You could learn to write for humans,” he said.

In my pearls and sorority pins, I picked my way into the newsroom, over some empty beer cans and flung-off t-shirts. The very walls seemed imbued with a thick pong (is that what marryjoowanna smells like?) and the conversation veered between arguing whether the U.S.’s support for the Shah was to blame for the Iranian theocracy and who ended up in whose bed over the weekend. The arts editor, a guy called Steve Dollar (now movie critic for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post), gave me a record to review.

Reporting back, I said those Flambeau people do drugs and they’re all sleeping together. “OK,” said Prof. Stern. “But did you like it?”

I loved it, I said.

Over the past 35 (yikes!) years, I’ve written books, been a commentator on NPR and the BBC, published op-ed pieces in The New York Times, the Times of London, the St. Petersburg Times and its current iteration the Tampa Bay Times. But nothing I’ve done in my improvised career will ever mean more to me than my Flambeau columns on the Florida Legislature. Best hate mail you could ever wish for.

I’m even prouder of the work done by ten decades of Flambeau talent. To name a very few: Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette; Carol Marbin Miller, now of the Miami Herald; Martin Dyckman, the renowned St. Pete Times reporter and columnist; Moni Basu, decorated Iraq war reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and now CNN correspondent – she presided over great reporting on farmworker issues and Iran-Contra; Gina Smith, ABC TV tech correspondent and Silicon Valley guru; Sidney Bedingfield, Professor of Journalism at the University of Minnesota; civil rights lawyer Tommy Warren; and the unsinkable Gary Fineout, now of the AP.

In 1988, Fineout faced down a gaggle of large, mean frat boys to report on the infamous FSU Pi Kappa Alpha gang rape case, scooping the so-called “professional” papers.

These days, the old Flambeau ain’t what she used to be. In fact, she barely exists. In the late 1990s, traditional ads began to decline and online classifieds sucked money away from print. The Flambeau’s right-wing rivals, fraternity and sorority types, started their own paper. The Flambeau went under. Its name was sold and is now used along with the current handle, the FSView.

In a sure sign of the coming Apocalypse, the FSView/Flambeau is now owned by Gannett.

Still, some of the old Flambeau spirit lives on in coverage of student protests over John Thrasher’s dubious elevation to the FSU presidency, Florida’s Dream Defenders and Jameis Winston’s scandal-plagued career. Maybe the ghosts of those feisty girls who dared to put their names in print back in 1915 are still hanging around.

Diane Roberts wrote the “Das Kapital” column for the Florida Flambeau from 1983 to 1993. She is currently Professor of English at Florida State University. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Written By

Diane Roberts teaches at Florida State University. Her latest book, “Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America,” will be out in paperback in the fall.

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