Daily Illini: 'The heart of the campus'

Daily Illini: 'The heart of the campus'

CHAMPAIGN — In a way, life has come full circle for The Daily Illini, the award-winning independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois.

The DI, as it's known, spent decades headquartered in the climate-challenged basement of Illini Hall at Wright and John streets, built in 1907 as the home of the University YMCA.

But in 1988, the Illini Media Co., the DI's not-for-profit parent company, decided to purchase a building near First and Green Street.

That was the DI's home for 18 years until the company built a new four-story brick building in 2006 at 512 E. Green St., C, consolidating all of its student-run media under one roof — the DI, Illio yearbook, WPGU 107.1 radio, Technograph engineering magazine and the Buzz entertainment weekly.

Now, in a cost-saving move, the DI is moving again — to the basement of the current University YMCA at Wright and Chalmers streets, steps from the UI Quad.

"We're kind of going back to where we were," said Illini Media board President Tom Costello.

Student editors say they'll miss the airy third-floor quarters overlooking Green Street, but they understand the decision.

"This is a bigger building than we need," said UI junior Abby Paeth, the paper's new editor-in-chief. "Green Street is very expensive for any business. It probably makes sense."

Costello said the rent at the YMCA will be significantly cheaper.

Illini Media had to sell the 512 E. Green building in 2013, in the midst of the recession, and rented the third floor back from the new owner, Doug Larson. He plans to turn the Illini Media offices into apartments.

Like other newspapers, the DI has suffered from a decline in print advertising dollars and the rise of online media. It stopped Friday publication in 2013, and in 2016 dropped to printing two days a week, though it also operates a daily news website.

In 2012, an alumni fund drive raised $30,000, and UI students approved a fee to support the DI and the other student media.

The company had spent down its reserves to build the 512 E. Green building, as the previous location at First and Green was too far for students to get back and forth easily to classes. The move proved to be ill-timed.

"The economy just took a spill, coupled with the change in reading habits," Costello said. "We went through some difficult times. Ultimately, the decision was made: Let's just sell the building."

The five-year lease is up May 1, and the Y space was available, he said.

It's less than half the size — 3,000 square feet compared to 7,000 currently. But with reporters now able to file stories from anywhere on their laptops, Illini Media doesn't need as much space, Costello said.

And the new location has some advantages for students, who work long hours in between classes. It's in the center of student activity on campus and across the street from Gregory Hall, home to the UI Department of Journalism.

"It's much easier to pop into the Y after class," Paeth said.

"We're in the heart of the campus, the Y is a great partner and we felt by moving to the Y we could save some money," Costello said.

He wants the DI to be able to remain independent of the university — a prized goal for DI students and alumni — and free up money to send students to conferences and training, something it struggled with before.

"This paper's been around for over 100 years, and we want it to survive and thrive and continue to provide opportunities for upcoming journalists," he said.

'A second home'

Former Managing Editor Joe Longo, a senior who will graduate in December, said it will be "interesting" to be in a different space next fall.

The current building is convenient to campus, too, and it was easy in the middle of a work day to grab a bite somewhere on Green Street, Longo and Paeth said.

The fourth-floor outdoor terrace overlooking Green was a popular spot, especially during the Cubs' historic World Series championship in October 2016, when jubilant fans poured out of the bars and into the street.

"It's a second home in a lot of ways," Longo said.

Northwest Herald reporter Megan Jones, a DI alum who graduated last May, said she never went on a formal tour of the UI campus as a prospective student, but she toured the Illini Media building.

"You just felt something big was happening there," she said.

Like so many of their predecessors, Jones and her DI co-workers spent more time at the DI than their own apartments.

"We all slept, cried, learned and edited from there, so it's sentimental to say goodbye," she said. "To be on Green Street where all the student life action occurs was fun."

Still, "a lot of people didn't know where we existed," she said, and the Y's location may offer a recruiting edge.

At the Green Street building it was hard to tell the Illini Media Co. was inside, she said. Getting journalism students to walk a half-mile from Gregory Hall and then navigate the maze of hallways up to the third floor was a challenge.

'Beautiful space'

Danville native Carl Schwartz, a DI staffer from 1967-71 and editor-in-chief his senior year, stopped by the building last week while visiting campus. He met his wife, Barbara, at the DI and "spent more time in the basement of Illini Hall than in my various residences over those four years."

Schwartz, who worked for more than three decades in daily journalism in Milwaukee, agreed that the move back to the heart of campus is probably "a good thing."

"While I detected some angst among current staff about moving from the modern, airy, industrial third floor into a dungeon, they will probably get over that and within two to three years no one will remember the old space. I just hope they have enough space," he said via email.

On Friday, packing was already under way. One table housed a pile of "free stuff" cleaned out of closets — Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon T-shirts, a hula hoop, a pair of cowboy boots.

Co-Publisher Kit Donahue has made every move along with the DI over the past 30 years. She started out working in Illini Hall in 1978 as a student production assistant, then left after graduation in 1981 to work at Parkland College. She was recruited back to the DI in 1984 for a full-time position and never left.

"I love being in this building. It's an absolutely beautiful space to work in," she said.

But the building isn't what makes the DI special, she said. It's what goes on inside — the camaraderie, the lifelong friendships that develop, the hard work and talent that regularly produce national awards and alumni who are Pulitzer Prize winners, noted authors and television producers, she said.

"It's the people who make the place," she said. "They're going to be fine."

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