For the current Press Club, the word “stringing” has all but lost its significance. Over the past century the face of the club has changed, with wireless communications replacing Western Union telegrams, and electronic list-serves instead of dope sheets. None of us has ever presented a string of total column inches to our editors as a bill. Ten cent-an-inch wouldn’t quite pay tuition these days, anyway.
The club has evolved along with the outside world. The university began as an upper-class, all-white, all-male institution but now gathers students from public as well as private schools and graduates men and women of every ethnic background. Meanwhile, the nation has endured the Depression, two World Wars, the civil rights struggle and Vietnam. At key moments in both these histories, Press Clubbers since 1900 have been on the scene to break the news.
For generations of student writers, the Press Club has served as an initiation into the real world. Press Clubbers parlay their unique access to famous figures and prime stories into professional copy. As one former Press Clubber wrote, “It was nice to see your copy in the paper without red marks all over it, which is the way class papers usually came back. It was a little like being an adult.” We now file stories by e-mail, call editors on cell phones and research articles on the Internet. When the story breaks, though, the Press Club hits the street, chasing down sources and scouring the campus for the scoop. Internet aside, we’re stringers still.
When the Press Club was formed in 1900, journalism still had a decidedly yellow tinge. Newspapers were still trumpeting an American triumph in the Spanish-American War, and jingoist-in-chief Theodore Roosevelt was elected Vice-President. When William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Roosevelt assumed the Presidency and began furnishing journalists worldwide with amazing copy.
The Press Club was founded in April 1900 by undergraduate journalists who worked as correspondents for newspapers across the country. The club was conceived as a collective reporting enterprise that would pool quotes and leads, and membership was sold to the highest bidder.
Between 1901 and 1915, when the Press Club replaced its old auction system with a candidates’ competition, Henry Ford produced the first Model T, the Panama Canal was opened, and Woodrow Wilson became the first Princetonian since James Madison to win the White House. A handful of Press Club members enlisted in the armed services to fight in World War I, but the club suffered an even bigger membership decline a decade later, as newspapers cut their stringer budgets during the Great Depression.
In 1932 the nation turned to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who promised during his Presidential campaign to repeal prohibition. The passage of the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933 injected the members of the Press Club with a new vitality. In the late 1930′s the growing Nazi movement forced several prominent German intellectuals into exile, and Princeton University became home to Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein. Their very public and often vocal presences on campus provided ample fodder for a restored Press Club contingent, but their writing stopped in 1941, as Press Club members were called away to war.
The Second World War ripped the Press Club’s century in two. While the impact of the war on the University provided the club with a permanent headline, the Press Club surrendered all but two of its members to active duty or ROTC service and was forced, in the early 1940′s, to “cease work for the duration.”
The post-War world in which the Press Club resumed work was a different place. The power of the atom had been unlocked, and Princeton proved to be an epicenter of the new atomic age. Albert Einstein, who had landed in Princeton before the war, abjured the bomb and began preaching pacifism. With a photogenic mane of God-like white hair, Einstein became Princeton’s most enduring, and endearing, figure. In 1947 Einstein was joined at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study by Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer. Four years later Princeton became the home of one of the nation’s leading nuclear research facilities, the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab.
Science was beginning to change not just how people fought, but how they talked to each other. Developing transmission technologies such as radio and film had allowed for exhaustive coverage of the war. The war’s onslaught of hard facts and the stupefying horrors uncovered in its wake changed the rhythm of language. If there was no poetry after Auschwitz, non-fiction took its place in popular culture. The introduction of the television gave journalism another boost and silenced the loose banter of family gossip under the formal deliveries of the evening news.
Straight-ahead, science-driven optimism was the melody of the post-War world, and upheaval was its backbeat. While tremors were rolling through his generation, Bill Bradley remained unshaken. He seemed to live and play basketball out of a textbook, and he became Princeton’s biggest star after Einstein. He was an earthbound hero on a campus that was like a clubhouse, the great symbol of an age already ending. Before the close of the 1960′s, man would walk on the moon, and women would walk in Princeton.
Revolution swept college campuses across America in the 1960′s, bringing sex, drugs, rock and roll and opposition to the war in Vietnam. In 1969, revolution marched to the gates of Old Nassau, in the form of 171 female undergraduates. They joined Princeton in an era of change, just in time to participate in sit-ins and demonstrations; to get their classes cancelled and to occupy buildings; to march against Richard Nixon and the draft; to protest the status of women and minorities and to decry University investments in South African business.
In the 1980′s the dreams and activism of the wonder years gave way to a new wave of conservatism. Administrators went back to their offices, and students went back to their books. Historians may one day argue that the twentieth century ended in 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved, and Tiger Inn became the last eating club to admit women members. Minority representation, sweatshop labor and the hiring of ethicist Peter Singer made waves, but the decade of tech stock and grunge rock could muster only a few small protests that echoed the great marches of an earlier generation. Between 1969 and the turn of the millennium, the Nude Olympics began and ended. The residential college system took root, and the student body underwent a series of expansions in the name of increased diversity.
Princeton raised a billion dollars for its 250th birthday. Pete Carril made the backdoor pass an institution. Bill Tierney made the lacrosse team a dynasty. Princeton’s new buildings were wired on the inside and downright weird on the outside. They looked strangely like the future, but as information access tools took learning outside the classroom and e-communication made patience unwise, the future was at once closer and less clear. Through the changes Princeton accepted and shouted and rejected and embraced. And the Press Club was there to tell the world about it all.