Interviewee: Dennis Kneale
Interviewer: Mark Ward
Date: September 13, 2003
W: This is Mark Ward with Dennis Kneale for the Florida Alligator oral history project.
We're in Tampa, Florida, and today is September 13, 2003. Mr. Kneale, where
are you from originally?
K: [I was] born in Hialeah, Florida.
W: Did you live there prior to coming to the University of Florida?
K: Yeah, I was in Hialeah until I came to the University of Florida at age eighteen in
the fall of 1975.
W: Why did you pick the University of Florida?
K: [I picked the University of Florida] because of the Alligator. I knew by age ten
[that] I wanted to be a journalist. I knew by age fifteen that the University of
Florida had a really good independent newspaper that came out five days a
week. My mentor in high school, who was two years older than me, Brian D.
Jones, now deceased sadly, had gone there and had just torn up the place in his
first quarter. It was quarters, not semesters back then. So I knew I kind of
wanted to emulate him and go there and work on the paper, and that's why I
picked the University of Florida.
W: You ended up working under Brian Jones when he was editor.
K: Yes, I did. I covered two beats at the same time, city and county commission, for
W: We'll get to some more of your beats in a second. Why did you major in
journalism when you came to the University of Florida?
K: Yeah, I majored in journalism. If I had to do it over I would major in something
else and then minor in journalism and learn more of an expertise in business and
economics or political science or something. But yeah, I majored in journalism.
It was a good college of journalism, awfully good.
W: Were most of the people working at the paper journalism majors also?
K: Yeah, plenty of them were, but probably two-thirds were.
W: Describe the first day you came into the offices of the Alligator.
K: Well, it was really kind of riveting and very intimidating. You had all of these self
possessed young journalists on deadline; this row of typewriters against this long
Formica covered desk jutting out along the long side of the room with a former
refrigerator from a former restaurant behind a pinball amusement parlor, [you've]
probably heard that a dozen times by now. You had a little copy paper kind of
through the carriages and some of these Smith Corona typewriters were easily
fifty, sixty, seventy-years-old. There was a little clackety-clack cacophony of
typewriters and photocopiers and people buzzing about and no one having much
of any time to be able to direct you to the right person to talk to, but there's those
two central news desks right there for the news editor. I just kind of walked up
and said hello. It was scary because all those kids knew each other. I didn't get
to go over my very first quarter, so I didn't go over until January, 1976. I
remember worrying gravely in the fall of 1975 that I was falling behind all the
other kids who had started that very first quarter. So it was harder to break in
because by then they all knew each other and had been doing it for a quarter, so
you had to go through a certain amount of hazing.
W: Did you fall in line pretty quickly with the others there or did it take a full
K: Yeah, you really do. My very first story was a two or three paragraph brief on the
student copy center raising the prices of per page copies. I was going after it like
it was some kind of investigative [piece]. I remember the young woman who was
running the center that I called. [She] said look, don't beat a dead horse over this,
I know what the Alligator's going to do. I realized for the first time, within my first
week, that the Alligator had this reputation as a bit of a loose cannon and a tough
paper. So that stuck with me, but within a few weeks you're there, you're one of
the crowd, and you're instantly in there. The next thing is, because kids have
class, they always need you for something. There's always going to be
something else. Even if they didn't want to rely on you because you're new, they
W: How many hours do you think you put in in those first few semesters?
K: At first [I put in] twenty [hours], then thirty, then easily forty when I was a full time
reporter covering the top beat, the administration beat. Then by the time I was
editor in chief, [I was putting in] fifty or sixty [hours], sometimes more.
W: What was the pay like at that point?
K: Well, I was getting rich. When I started out I got $15 a week for the city
commission beat, and then I became the highest paid reporter on the paper by
also taking the county commission beat. I had two beats, two people's jobs. I
got an extra $15, so I got $30 a week. By my third year, because of a labor
department ruling; I think Ed Barber [General manager of the Florida Alligator]
later got unraveled, the little exploiter; then they had to go to per hour wages. But
what you did was you said this beat, news editor, is worth thirty-five hours a
week. So you got paid minimum wage for thirty-five hours, which was quite a bit
of money. You were making a lot of money. I mean, it helped put myself through
W: Currently, it's an honorarium system that everybody's on. But the Alligator at this
time was also in dire financial straights. What was it like working there? I read
an editorial about how the roof leaked when it rained.
K: Oh yeah, the roof did leak when it rained. We were always hand to mouth. You
know, by the time I got there it was 1976, we'd been independent really only four
years. This was a brand new experiment, but it didn't feel that way. It felt like it
had been independent forever. If felt like, therefore, it was just going to keep
going on. I think that Ed Barber kind of shielded us from how tenuous it was. I
covered the meeting where editor-in-chief Brian D. Jones had to actually go to
the student government, the student senate, and request funding. He had been
instructed to do so by the board. [They said] we're going to request a special
stipend to keep us alive. I think $30,000 might have been a gout, a short fall that
we were in trouble with. We were getting university advertising at the time, but it
wasn't enough. I remember Brian hated the idea of going to the university
student government and being beholden to them. So while he followed the
board's orders to go request the money, he made secret deal with Sandy
Chism, the president of the senate. He told him look, you ought to defeat this;
this is bad precedent for government to be funding the independent watchdog of
government. And so it was voted down, and I covered the meeting. I remember
it primarily because I screwed up. Dan Lobek, the student government president,
did a speech where he criticized the senate for turning down the Alligator. He
said, I'm mad as hell and blah, blah, blah. He said this is off the record to me so
I'm sitting there not writing, but this is a public meeting of the student government
senate [and] he's the president of the government. He can't just say this is off
the record, [but] I didn't know that. Brian said, why aren't you writing? I said, he
says it's off the record. Brian said, he can't do that, and I realized, oh. It turns out
you have some power whether to grant "off the record." It's not their power to
insist on it, it's your power whether to grant it. Lesson learned.
W: Knowing the story now it's quite bizarre because in the actual newspaper they
talk about funding. I remember Brian Jones had a plan for maybe a penny a
copy the university would pay, and they're very positive about getting funding
from student government in the editorial.
K: Yeah, Brian told me that. I'm not sure exactly when he told me. I can't
remember whether he told me at the time or years later, but he kind of played
both ends against the middle there because he thought it was wrong. We
survived without it, but we were always constantly aware of how thin the margin
was of survival. We were paying kids for ten hours a week when they were
clearly working thirty or forty. We were cheating on the labor law, but it was
because it was a whole bunch of hungry kids who were working for more than
income. They were working for a shot at something big.
W: Tell me about some of the people who were working at the time, your reminisces.
K: At the time was Tom Julin, who's now a very, very top First Amendment lawyer in
Florida and was involved in the Florida recount for the Gore/Bush presidential
election. I remember seeing him on C-Span. Robert Rivas, who's a really top
notch lawyer in First Amendment and death and dying cases, he was there. Bill
Wax, a brilliant photographer who is to this day a photographer, [was there]. [His]
photos from my editorship sometimes appear on best selling books. Andrew
Froman, who's a lawyer in Sarasota, [was there]. Let's see, what other
journalists became big during my era? David Klein was kind of an elder
statesman. He was an idol of mine. He was two years ahead of me and he
became an associate group publisher of Advertising Age over in Singapore
Magazines, he's huge. Tom Shroder [was there], [and he] went on to run Tropic
Magazine. I think now Tom maybe runs the Washington Post Sunday
rotogravure magazine. David Finkel was there. He won a Pulitzer Prize for
feature writing [found listed as a nominee in 1995 on www.pulitzer.org]. Keith
Moyer runs the Sacramento Bee or another paper out in California. Laura
Shweat, who went on to do good things in Gannet, was there. Kathleen
Pellegrino, who went on to be in charge of recruiting and mentoring at the Sun
Sentinel. We did an internship together in 1977, so she was there. Lin Calber,
who went on to be a big time layout person at the Palm Beach Post, [was there].
W: Everybody seems to be successful from that era.
K: Lauren Stoddard, who then ended up marrying the editor-in-chief of the Ft.
Lauderdale News, Jean Crier, then divorced him. [She] then ended up as a
public relations official for the environmental department that protects the
wetlands here in Florida.
W: As a group did you hang out together while working at the paper?
K: Yeah, the newspaper was everything. It was your social setting, it was your
clique, it was your job, it was where you went to hang out even if you weren't
working and you were already done. You would eat your lunch there. You would
bring breakfast in in the morning to work at your little piece along the long desk.
Sure, the Alligator defined my entire existence. I barely went to class at all the
more deeply I got involved in the paper because I realized that the real education
I'm getting is not in the classroom, the real education I'm getting is running the
paper [and] working for the paper.
W: You mentioned at one point earlier about the off the record comment. What
other lessons did you learn while working there?
K: You know, I'm introducing Ed Barber tonight for his award, he's getting a lifetime
achievement award. The shtick I'm going to use [is stolen] from David Klein,
because when David was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Alligator he said
in a speech [that] everything he needed to know in journalism in his big, lofty
position running Crane Communications [and] his big magazines, everything he
needed to know he learned at the Alligator. He learned about off the record and
on the record. He learned about the importance of accuracy. I learned about the
power of the written word. I mean, we made mistakes, and the Alligator kind of
believed that you've got to let them make mistakes and then you do the best you
can to fix them and learn from them. So we learned. I learned about off the
One kid was flim-flammed out of $700 in loan money. I never reached him, and
we ran the story anyway and identified him. Well, it just destroyed this kid
because when you get flim-flammed it turns out you were trying to make some ill
gotten profit, [and] that's how they ripped you off and got your money. His
friends were laughing at him and he came to the paper threatening me, wanting
to do violence. I learned that you might want to get that comment before you run
with a story. I learned [a lesson] when I was editor-in-chief and there was a
Nazi/anti-Jew attack in a dorm or something. Jack Collins got them to talk to him
off the record and then he took their names and put them on the record because
he didn't realize [you couldn't do that]. I was editing the story and I told him, we
need the names, you've got to get the names. He thought oh, I'm just going to
print them. He didn't realize you've got to call and talk them into it. When the
brother and sister came in terrified that Nazis were going to come after them
because they were published, I learned how careful you have to be with people's
lives. To this day it's a lesson I'm still learning. You get so absorbed by the story
that you forget about the person. I learned about accuracy. I learned about
double checking titles. [I] learned everything at the Alligator. I also learned how
to motivate without simply giving an order. Because it was a democracy and
because it was all students, you couldn't just do what a boss in a real newspaper
would do, which is [to say], hey come over here and do this. You had to instead
get them to want to work for you, get them ignited and excited because you're
excited. That's a management technique I've continued to use throughout my
W: Other people have talked about this issue, about how a vast majority of
journalism students don't work at the Alligator. Was that true in your day also?
Do you have any inclination why?
K: Yeah, the journalism college, to it's discredit I believe, was almost negative
about the Alligator. You know University of Florida professors would say snide
things about the Alligator. [They would say things] about the Alligator being
sensationalist, about the Alligator being liberal, [and] about the Alligator being
inaccurate, when what they should have done was be telling those students, you
all should go over to the Alligator. Every story that you have to write, no matter
how long or how short, every story is an intersection between knowledge and
experience, and you should be writing more stories, not fewer. People would
jeer at it and it used to really piss me off because I felt like professors were letting
jealousy get in their way. I mean the Alligator led the way in the Hearst contest
and won thousands of dollars over the years. The journalism college got
matching grant money because of the Alligator and Hearst, and it wasn't the
University of Florida that won the Hearst, it was the Alligator that won the Hearst.
So I really disliked that a lot. There were some professors, of course, who were
very helpful to the Alligator, Jean Chance, John Roosenraad, Buddy Davis; but
others were not generous.
W: Do you remember any particular incidence where you might have been helped by
one of the journalism faculty members?
K: Well, sure. Look, while they pissed me off and my affinity and affiliation and
loyalty were to the Alligator, not the college, the fact is many of them were
incredibly helpful. Buddy Davis gave me counsel on editorial writing even though
I couldn't take his class. Ralph Lowenstein wrote me a wonderful
recommendation letter for a Washington Post internship that helped me get it
because he said to the managing editor, "Dear Howie," because they'd known
each other for twenty or thirty years. Griffith was just encouraging and was a
good listener. Jean Chance kind of [helped me] learn to avoid jargon, because
we used to write police briefs with exactly the police lingo. Hugh Cunningham,
the president's spokesman in the late 1970s and a former UF journalism faculty
member was exceedingly helpful, was a mentor, and wrote me recommendations
to a couple of different internships. So sure, plenty of them were helpful.
W: Let's talk about some of your particular stories, and then I'd like to talk about the
time when you were the editor and certain events during that era. First off, do
you remember the reaction you got when you first started publishing the paper?
K: I remember especially the first page [of] one story [that was] published because it
was on drugs. It was on taking nitrous oxide canisters that you use for whipping
cream, you screw it into this canister and it goes shoo. Some kids in my dorm
were inhaling it straight without the whipping cream and it gave you this intense
rush that apparently was harmless so long as you breathed enough oxygen
quickly after and didn't asphyxiate yourself. It gave you this intense buzz, and so
I wrote a front page story about this new, safe drug craze sweeping the campus.
And yeah, I got a huge reaction out of that. The very first story I ever wrote was
a two paragraph or three paragraph brief. It was either on raising the photocopy
thing or it was on something else, and I got something wrong and it had to be
corrected. A friend of mine, who I just saw last night [and] who was a dorm mate
said to me, I saw your first byline story for the Alligator, and I also saw the
correction that ran two days later, which was a humbling experience. But the
impact was huge because of the sphere that the Alligator was the center of. It
kept a watch on what the Alligator did and said. Whether you liked the Alligator
or not, you were always keeping a watch on what they were up to.
W: One set of stories that you worked on a little later in your career was the auditing
and the misuse of HEW funds.
K: Yeah, that was a gold mine of great stories that I continue to mine to this day.
Whenever I counsel young reporters who are going to do an internship, I'll
always tell them [to] call the state, federal, and city audit offices and ask what
recent audits have come out in the last six months, and chances are you'll find
some misspending of money and everyone missed it. This was a division of the
University of Florida. In the late 1970s the university was under real pressure.
The state was cutting back and not giving much funding increases, collective
bargaining was coming in and putting upward pressure on salaries or trying to, so
federal grant money was a way to offset budget shortfalls. So the university had
a division expressly aimed at raising grant money. The problem was [that] they
were taking that grant money and using it for state purposes that really state
money should have paid for, so they were misspending millions and millions of
dollars. There was a hundred million dollars, if my memory serves [me correctly],
where sponsored research loans were called illegal because they loaned it to
state purposes. They said we'll pay it back later after we finally get money from
the legislature, and that was found to be wrong and they had to redo it. And they
were kind of using some money for personal purposes.
There was one professor, last name Soar, maybe Robert and Ruth Soar, [who]
was employing his wife, which while legitimate, was nonetheless against the
rules. It was a huge impact. I remember one day looking for Robert Soar,
Professor Soar, going into the Department of Education wanting to interview him.
After a couple stories had broken we were stripping him across the top of the
front page everyday. [I went to interview him and said] I'm Dennis Kneale of the
Alligator, I'm looking for Soar. [The person answered], no, he's not here. [I said],
okay, alright, thank you. I'm leaving, and as I turned and walked out the door I
hear him whisper to another faculty member, that's the reporter who's doing the
stories on the sponsor research. I remember feeling these goose bumps and this
rush of excitement and power that they knew who I was. There was a federal
auditor in Washington that I'd never met, and I got him to start telling me some
stuff on the phone. He gave me this one quote, "This is the tip of the iceberg,
that is all hanky panky my friend, and someone's going to get burned horrible."
Now, if you look at that story, I'll bet you that that quote that's in there is damn
close to that. This is like 1976 and I still remember it. I thought, first of all, that he
invented the phrase "tip of the iceberg." It turns out no, it's a cliche, even back
then. Second, I just remember getting this chill up the back of my neck, I felt like
[Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein [Washington Post reporters who broke the
Watergate scandal]. You know that had only happened in 1972, and so a lot of
us in 1976, 1977, 1978 were still incredibly driven to find out is there wrongdoing,
what's wrong with this picture, they must not be telling the truth here, there must
be some extra layer. [We were] searching for the conflict point. Today I tell my
writers, what's the conflict point, and the Alligator just naturally was teaching us
that. I mean I did big stories. When you look back, the scale of it is impressive.
I did a story that questioned the validity of a city loan program funded by the feds
for helping poor people fix up their homes. They were kept waiting months and
months and months for repairs. I went into the black neighborhood, the poor
neighborhood, interviewed people, and tried to shine a light on that. That one got
like seventh place in the Hearst or something. I wrote about the failure of a credit
union. We wrote about the illegal loans. We wrote about athletes getting an
easier sentence than other students did.
W: You wrote a number of pieces on affirmative action.
K: Yeah, and it was a huge controversy. I buried it when I pointed out that black
professors were already earning 20 to 30 percent more than white professors.
This was incredibly controversial, but I buried it in the middle of the story. I didn't
even lead with it as a conflict point; I kind of missed the point in that one. I
questioned the tenure system. [There was] incredibly aggressive stuff. [I'm] really
very proud of the stuff [we did]. I wrote about the Baker Act, the mental health
act that was really flawed, because sometimes kids who were just wild, their
parents could use it and get them committed against their will. So I wrote about
that, which ended up changing my life because that led, in 1982 or 1981 when I
was at the Ft. Lauderdale News, [to] this woman [that] I realized was committed
to mental hospitals [because] she had total amnesia and she'd been beaten up. I
knew from the Baker Act stories at the Alligator that I could invoke Florida law
[and] I could interview her. I interviewed her, we write a story, she goes on Good
Morning America, she's reunited with parents that she ran away from home
[from] thirteen years ago. The story is nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. A Wall
Street Journal editor is judging category stories entered and it doesn't win
anything, but he writes me a letter and that leads [to] me going to the Wall Street
Journal, where I was for sixteen years. [This is] all because I knew about the
Baker Act, all because of my time at the University of Florida on the Alligator.
I remember hearing, after I wrote a story about Denise Lindell Daniels, a young
woman that I had a total crush on. She was beautiful. [She] had been
committed, [but she] was clearly just sort of wild and a little crazy. I sometimes
wonder how she turned out. Her father and mother were all the way in Lake City,
Florida. It was a long drive away and I was trying to get this story out. I called
for a quick phoner, when what I should have done was gone to interview them. I
learned from that that the story was way too one-sided. It was all in favor of the
kid without putting up the dilemma of the parent. The father called me after the
story ran and said, the doctors say she's a schizo, or maybe he actually called
before the story ran. So, I used that sound bite, but I don't realize, wait a minute,
this guy's going through hell. He's worried about his daughter. What must that
be like? The story would have been so much stronger if I had reported both ends
of it. So, by messing up you learn a lesson you never forget. Now I'm always
telling my reporters, did you call back for counter-comment? Did you find out
why the CEO made this mistake? Do you think he meant to screw up? Of
course he didn't, he probably was devastated. Let's see it through his eyes. [I
got a] huge lesson from that one.
W: That's all thanks to the Alligator and all the faces of it?
W: While you were covering the HEW story, you wrote up a story, and I assume it's
you, [about] a reporter who was forced to leave a meeting between the UF
officials and auditors.
K: That might have been about myself. Grady Ray was the HEW auditor from
Tallahassee. William Elmore loved him. He was the vice-president of
administration; a pipe smoking, sterling haired guy who I kept expecting to die of
cancer but he just kept living and living and living. He may not be with us
anymore. William Elmore may be alive. I asked [William Elmore] to sign a
piece of paper saying he had indeed asked me to leave the story. Brian Jones
felt like when you have no power and you're just a bunch of students you hit
them in the paper, so we ran that story. That's me in third person I believe, and
that's when we were first beginning to throw down the gauntlet over the Sunshine
Law. Now it turns out, on later interpretation, we were utterly and entirely wrong.
I think that when some university administrators and some auditors sit down to
negotiate and talk, that's not two members of a board or a commission that holds
regular meetings that were meant to be in the Sunshine Law. We were clearly
extending it vastly farther than we really ever should have.
W: But it was about making the challenges at that point.
K: Yeah, and it probably got us into more meetings overall than we otherwise would
have. The university in some ways, I have to admit, was very generous. The
president had a president's council, and the university was a little bit afraid that
maybe that does count as a board or commission under Florida law. So when
you're the administration reporter, it's the top, it's like covering the White House
for the Post. You go to that weekly meeting where he's talking to all his big
department heads and the deans of the colleges and you're getting story ideas.
We were allowed access largely because they didn't dare keep us out, and
because we were so assertive and aggressive. It started maybe in Brian Jones'
tenure, but Tom Julin really ended up a year later making it even bigger.
W: Just to back track a bit, you were also there when the election day Alligators
were stolen. What was your reaction to that?
K: That was the most amazing story because you realized how central the Alligator
was to campus life. Students really realize, oh my God, the Alligator's gone. For
them to steal it on the morning of election day because we were endorsing the
outsider slate was just one of the headiest, most fantastic, wonderful
experiences. Yes, we lost $25,000 in ad revenue, blah, blah, blah, but the cool
thing was, they thought we were worth stealing. I mean, it was free. You
sometimes felt like no one cared, no one watched, no one read, but of course
they did. It was kind of great, and then you got to investigate the entire caper.
That lead to a wonderful investigation. We filed a lawsuit against the
conspirators, some of whom now rose to assistant attorney general of the state.
[They are] big guys with big companies, and we sued them. But the court
ordered that we had to reveal our secret sources, and we wouldn't, so they threw
out the lawsuit. I was editor-in-chief by the time they threw it out, so I came out
in the editorial and I named the guys by name; Jim Eaton, Toby Lobeck, and a
couple other guys, and I called them rat fuckers. [That's] the Nixon administration
era phrase for political dirty tricks. I said, well these rat fuckers, James Eaton,
blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I said that Judge Carlisle, I think his name was,
through his motion and his ruling had condoned the Nixonian art of rat fucking.
The one concession I made, after some real deliberation, was I changed the
headline from "Rat Fuckers" to "Nixonian Art." The judge later told someone that
he came that close to throwing me in jail for contempt, which of course I was
praying for because it would have gone on the state wire [and] would have made
my career in Florida journalism.
W: I knew about confidential sources in that case, but were there other confidential
sources you had? If so, did you protect them the same way?
K: You mean for other stories? Nothing comes to mind. If you heard it from
someone else then I'd probably be able to remember it, but nothing instantly
[comes to mind].
W: Let's talk about when you became editor.
K: Here's the thing, first day of school, freshman year, September 1975, and I meet
this friend of mine that I just saw last night, Rob Cohen. Within ten minutes of
talking I said to him, I'm going to be editor-in-chief of the college paper, of the
Alligator. He said, oh, you are are you? He kind of sneered, like who was I to
think I could do that, and I had a chip on my shoulder. I've realized, running
Forbes magazine, [that] much of greatness, much of excellence, is driven by a
chip on your shoulder. You're really pissed off, those guys don't realize how good
I am, they doubt me, they dissed me, they don't think I can pull this off. I wanted
to be editor-in-chief of my high school paper in Hialeah, Miami Lakes, but Laurie
Brown, who was my year, started the year before in ninth grade instead of tenth
grade on the paper. So, she got editor-in-chief and I was the number-two guy,
[and] that drove me crazy. So I went to the Alligator vowing that I would run it, it
was my dream. So by the time I finally, fall 1978/winter 1979, [won] as editor,
having run once or twice before and been rejected ... I still remember the vote, it
was like six to one or five to one or four to one. The one lone dissenting vote
was John Roosenraad, who never quite admitted, even twenty years later, that
he was wrong to vote for Robert Rivas instead of me. But he was wrong,
dammit. He didn't vote for me because he thought I was too flashy, too
maverick, too "show me." [He felt] I had a show me attitude, I'm going to show
you attitude, would be my guess. So when I became editor-in-chief, it was the
culmination of three or four years of extremely hard work.
W: Robert Rivas talks about, in his interview, you're going up against him. He said it
was a very close vote and he felt very intensely about it. We both really thought
we were going to win. It was a really head to head thing.
K: It was, and it wasn't a close vote, it was five/one baby. Robert, [that's] not a
close vote, first of all. Second of all, that was 1977 or 1978, cut to roughly 1985.
Robert Rivas comes to New York and we go out to dinner. He says over a beer,
you know what, there were some times when I was just so angry. I just hated you
so much I wished you were dead. [He said this] because I got editor-in-chief and
he didn't. It was such a nice thing to say.
W: You must have somehow reconciled because just a few months later he became
a news editor for you.
K: Yeah, what I did with him, because he was managing editor before we ran and I
was news editor. Managing editor [is] a higher position, so you're in danger of
him vaulting past me. So I became it, and boom, once again [I was] learning
management. [I was] learning to take an elder statesman and unharness him, let
him work on super-star stories, don't make him have to tow the line, don't make
him into your little bitch to show that you won. I think that we made him [a]
special projects editor. Barry Klein was my news editor. But yeah, he came back
and won the Hearst Award for a page one story he did on John Spinkelink, who
was likely going to the be the first American executed against his will [since the
death penalty had been declared Unconstitutional]. This is during my editorship,
and then Robert wrote the accompanying editorial. So for the editor-in-chief to let
him write the editorial that was a big deal, because that is your space, that
belongs to you. I could have easily said, no, I want to write it, but I let him do it
because it was his. The Spinkelink story was wonderful, and Bill Wax took this
jarring photo, black and white, of Spinkelink looking through the bars. We ran it
across the full center of the page and he took some sodium ferrite and he
brushed it on the eyeball to make the eye jump out. You know you do all this
with digital imaging now and people don't think anything of it. Cut to 1992, David
Vondraly of the Washington Post has a new book out on the death penalty and
there's these bars and one eye across the cover. I said, oh my God, Bill Wax
took that photo. Sure enough, from 1976 there it was. That was a brilliant piece.
I got great stuff out of [Robert Rivas] even though, supposedly, he should have
been vanquished under management theory.
W: In your role as editor, did you take control of a lot of the editorials? I know you
used your own editorial notebook space on occasion to explain some things.
K: "Editor's Notes," yeah, I wrote that. I wrote most of the editorials, sure, you
W: On the first day, your first editorial called out the administration, comparing the
relationship between the administration and the paper as being volcanic at the
K: Right, that was because of the open meeting thing. Tom Julin had been editor
the year before and he was the one who really made it and got Barry Klein
arrested and all of that. Then Andrew Froman kept it going. Then I just thought,
I've got no other issue. My real issue when I went in, I didn't have an ideological
issue, [was that] I wanted to do great big special reports. I wanted to do holy shit
clips. I wanted to do big stories, and we did a great job with that. We had some
really good stuff [that] I was hugely proud of. We did one of the first big stories
on South African disinvestment that Gail Epstein did. Melanie Simmons did
some really good stuff. Where am I going with that? So volcano, yeah, I really
proud of that. I was basically the new editor. I had covered the administration,
they knew who I was, and I was letting them know, don't be messing with me
because we will come after you on this open meeting thing. I showed it to Buddy
Davis and I asked him what he thought. He said, well it would have been good if
you didn't mix your metaphors. I had used [words like] volcano, cauldron, and
chemical concoction or something. I was all over the map with those metaphors,
but you know what, I never ever again mixed a metaphor. I tell my writers not to
do it all the time.
W: Four days later you wrote an editorial pretty much calling for former student body
president, Terry Brown, to be thrown out of school.
K: I did that?
W: It was an editorial. I'm not sure if you wrote it, but it was under your reign.
K: That might have been Brian Jones, who was my mentor and I was going to let
him get away with anything he wanted, or Tom Julin. It probably was Brian
Jones. I kind of liked Terry Brown, I wouldn't have been that mean.
W: I'm going to list off a couple editorials that were done that first quarter under you.
In one, you challenged Gainesville's reputation as a university city "based on its
treatment of citizen students."
K: Yeah, the headline was "A University City?" I pointed out that they have a
landlord law that makes it illegal for three unrelated people to live together, and
here this is [a] student [town]. [I said] that that was openly hostile. Yeah, I
remember that. I can't believe I remember that.
W: You called out SG, in fact anybody involved in SG, but in particular the vice-
president Chris Kenward for drawing his salary during a trip to China for five
K: That's just so petty of me, but I can imagine. I can't remember that one.
W: What was the relationship between the Alligator and student government while
you were there?
K: [It was] exactly what it should have been, it was acrimonious. We were the
watch dog, they were evil. They got $23 million in student fees every year to
spend on concerts etc., but they used it as a very elaborate, sophisticated
patronage system. If you weren't Greek, if you weren't in the fraternity system,
you couldn't get the appointments, you couldn't get the service on your resume.
We thought that was wrong. They did sophisticated block voting to get people
elected. No other students were organized in that way. I just always assumed
that government was up to something bad. Dan Lobeck came in and he was an
outsider, and we liked him a little better. But that was a healthy relationship. We
were all sort of playing house. We were all sort of getting ready for what it was
going to be like once we got into real journalism. Even though a lot of people
didn't go into politics, didn't go into journalism, that adversarial relationship was a
hallmark of the student paper. We were just so virulently aggressive. We were
so certain that we were going to save the fucking world. We were like there. [We
wore] rose colored glasses, [we were] totally ideological, anti-death penalty, pro-
choice, pro-right to have an abortion if that's what a woman wants, that of course
is the entire ethos of the paper which got us started [in being] independent.
Yeah, so we were like that. Also, [we were] against the university; we were sure
that the university somehow was going to make decisions that made it easier for
them to do their job instead of necessarily making it better for the education of
W: Was it definitely an us versus them kind of mentality while you were at the
K: Sure, and a part that might have been infused [is that] the strength of the
Alligator is the ethos' hands along from student to student. So when I was there
all these big heavyweights who were kind of moving into the last semester or two
of their time [such as] David Smith, David Klein, David Finkle, the three David's,
and Tom Shroder kind of taught you this swaggering, in your face, no, no, fuck
me, fuck you. [They taught] this amazing aggressiveness to where you're always
punching back. Bob Bryan was Vice-President of Academic Affairs. He used to
love the way I would wave and argue [about] are you increasing class size or
not? Well, [he'd say], we're not, but yes, if this and this happen we may have to.
Then I'd do a story saying, they may have to increase the class size if certain
things happen, you'll have to read the bottom to see what those extra things are.
We were always trying to push the envelope farther. I still do that to this day. I
do this with my writers and I try to get them to come out and really call it and put
the expertise into it. The other thing I was proud of as editor, is that I did an
editor's notes column that was sort of this separate thing. I did one column
saying that we were lily white, that the Alligator staff didn't have enough blacks
on it, and as such, maybe we were culturally insensitive sometimes.
W: I think the local NAACP chapter came out and supported that call with a letter to
K: Yeah. Then we did another one that really upset Larry Turner, a superstar
lawyer in town. I said that basically the Alligator's guilty of a conflict of interest
because he is like the top attorney. We cover his drug cases, we cover all these
other things, and at the same time we're paying him money and he gives us
counsel. That means we can't really do a very tough job. Well, as a result he
ended up resigning the account and he had a lesser partner of his take it over.
He was genuinely injured I think.
W: Well, the final quote on that editorial was you ended up asking if any highly
qualified constitutional law specialist was ready to take Turner's place.
K: I feel bad because I learned later that Larry was hurt by that because he had
done a lot to help the paper. I meant no disrespect, I was just probing the
interesting idea that as much as we were constantly looking for conflicts of
interest and looking for bad behavior. I thought we were daring to come out and
call it out. I wish I would have called him and said, listen, I'm about to do this, but
I want you to know we love you and we think you're the best lawyer we could
ever have. I wish I had done something like that. I'll bet you that Larry Turner, if
he is still among us, I'll bet you he still remembers it. Maybe he doesn't, maybe it
was a really little thing, but I heard he was upset and I felt bad about that.
W: I know after you became editor, he came back in a more administrative role in
the September of 1979. You also had pieces then. You kept your editorial
notebook pieces where you went behind the front page and you told people
about the inner workings of the paper.
K: Did I do that?
W: There were two separate columns. One talked about former editors and how all
of them had something that they championed. One was a homosexual, and so
[he championed] gay right things.
K: Brian P. Jones, yeah.
W: One was an ardent feminist.
K: Minnie Karen was the first woman, yeah.
W: What would you say would be yours? You didn't mention anything about
yourself. What would be your slant, your bias, while you were editor?
K: [My bias was] great, great journalism. I mean it lacked some ethos, it lacked
some political bent like Tom Julin did with the First Amendment, but I think I had
splashier, holy shit clips. [I had] big, big stories, bigger than any editor around my
era. I thought that we were really top notch. I was really proud of that. I didn't
find one issue and go after it and really hit it and hit it and hit it, because as a kid
back then I wasn't really ideologically motivated. I was journalistically motivated
to tell compelling stories. I tried to always go for the underdog, tried to always
find what's wrong with this picture, but then tried to really set it out on a scale and
sweep, [so] that when the reader opened it up the reader just said, holy shit.
Then when an editor who's going to hire you opens up your clips when you left
the Alligator, the editor said, holy shit. That, I hope, was a hallmark.
W: Well, besides straight news, also under your tenure there was the inside section
which covered such diverse topics as porn in Gainesville, hypnosis, modern
witches, coffee, child convicts, disco, [and] working morticians.
K: [I wrote about] the legacy of cancer in a family. Jeff Carnis was the inside
features editor. Jeff, to this day, is a brilliant writer. He writes on fishing. He
lives in the Keys, he chose a life instead of a career, was a fishing guide, [and]
owns a high-end fishing tour [and] tackle shop. [He] is famous in the fishing world
[and] has written two lovely books. He was the feature editor for Inside
magazine. We ran this one great story that Kevin Turley wrote on porn. The Art
was a nudie magazine with a plain brown wrapper and a pair of hands like ripping
it open with a wedding band on the hand. Those hands were Jeff Carnis'
hands. There's all these little hidden things that are nice. In my life, I'll say, I like
to think I opened up the Alligator more to outside public inspection by writing
about it with some of those editor's notes. In my debut column, I wrote about the
lineup coming up in the fall and who was doing what as a way of paying tribute.
A.C. Harbor was this amazing figure in the history of the Alligator at that time.
He put in six years in the production. By the time I was editor, he and I were arch
enemies, because A.C. really had the power. If A.C. didn't want to change a
headline late at night, the headline didn't get changed. If A.C. hated a layout, he
would just change it. He was like a civil service bureaucrat you could not get rid
of, but once I was editor I realized I got to get this guy to work with me. So I gave
A.C. a plug that he had an eye for art and a pension for the bizarre. I can't
believe I remember these phrases, I'm telling you, it's there. So I gave homage
to him, which really touched him. He and I talked a few years ago for the
ninetieth reunion. He couldn't come, but we were quite warm to each other even
though we were at each other's throats [while I was editor].
W: Did that warm your relationship, when it got to
K: Yeah, that helped. It was kind of more when I was coming up the ranks that he
talked to me as a real maverick, full of myself, and he was going to break me,
which he never did. We got in a fight over a struggle of tenure because it made
the whole newspaper run late. Instead of writing early and then stuffing stuff in
later, I'm waiting for my key interview and then I finally start writing right around
six o'clock, and it's front page, it's all they have. A.C.'s upset, and Andy
Newman, the managing editor, takes me outside because I'm upset at A.C.
He's going, have you got the story? I'm saying, fuck you, and A.C.'s standing
outside watching. I said, I [am] so glad that when I'm editor of this place he's
going to be so gone, when I'm editor, he's gone. I was that sure I was going to
be editor, and indeed A.C. was not gone. He stayed around for my first
semester, and then he left and we gave him a going away party that I arranged.
We gave him a tribute and we raised a bunch of money and we gave him a really
nice gift. It was a $300 bag of incredibly good Gainesville-green marijuana in a
hermetically sealed plastic with a pair of white cotton gloves for him to handle it.
Should I not mention that on the oral history project? [laughing] I think it's color
W: One thing that I was surprised about, just going through some of the clips while
you were editor, you published this story on the inside on the Miss Nude World
who had won in Florida.
[End side Al]
K: ... amazing institutions in American journalism, certainly in journalism education,
and I would like to do whatever I can to really get across more of that story. We
should either do email, or do you ever do phone for this oral history?
W: I will look into it, definitely.
K: You should just come [up to] New York. [You can] get a cheap Jet Blue ticket and
see New York. If you want to crash in my basement you could. Okay, so Nancy
Blin [was] a reporter on my staff that I had just had such a crush on. She was so
beautiful. This was 1976 or 1977. She remembers, because she just called. I
talked to her for the first time in like twenty [or] twenty-five years. She called, and
she remembers me sending her to a Playboy centerfold interview for candidates,
and she wrote a story on it. She remembers me sending her there to do some
reporting on it or editing it or something. She remembers me having her do the
porn story, you know, with the wedding ring. She wrote that. Yeah, there's some
racy little stuff there. We just loved the f-word in the Alligator. We just thought,
hey man, we're independent man, if we want to use the f-word we can man. It
turns out like twenty or thirty years later [that] the New Yorker, under Tina
Brown, started using the f-word. So we were really like the forerunner.
[interruption in recording]
W: Are you still involved with the paper? I know you've been to more than one Hall
of Fame banquets.
K: I've been to a couple of those. I mean, I'm not actively involved, none of us really
is actively involved. Tom Julin [is involved] because of the lawyer stuff. Ed
Barber keeps that thing running. That the Alligator exists today is testament to
the life work of Ed Barber, so I kind of read it now and then. I always am going to
give extra consideration to anybody from the Alligator. Class men that came on
years after me ended up following me right to the Wall Street Journal. The Wall
Street Journal has lan Johnson. He won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting in China.
He came in probably eight or ten years after me. Phil Koonst is in the Wall
Street Journal. I was in the Wall Street Journal for sixteen years. [He is] in the
Wall Street Journal Washington D.C. bureau. Bobby Block is a superstar foreign
correspondent. He's still writing for the journal and living in Washington and
traveling the world.
W: As Alligator alumni, do you see any difference in their writing style, or you just
know they're quality people because they came from the Alligator?
K: I know they're top notch, quality people willing to work their asses off. The work
ethic at the Alligator was fierce. I mean, don't whine about your classes, don't
run out on something at the end of the semester, stick with us and work.
W: What were your grades in college?
K: Oh they were fine, a B [average], a 3.4 or something. But you know what, in the
interviews I did nobody ever asked me about my grades. They wanted to know
how I got that fantastic story or how I got four internships.
W: You interned at the Miami Herald. Did you do any before that period?
K: I interned in the summer of 1977 at the Ft. Lauderdale News, then January 1978
at the Herald, the summer 1979 at the Washington Post working directly for Bob
Woodward, and then I graduated and I put in six months as an intern with the
Lexis Team at the Detroit News.
W: What did your parents think about your work at that paper?
K: My mother, who had worked on her high school paper, was really especially
proud. My father died when I was fourteen, so he never got to see any of that. I
started on the high school paper by the time I was fifteen. My mother was just
always extremely proud. I created a huge controversy in my family that my
brother mentioned just last night. Our Uncle Johnny, my mother's brother,
Johnny Olinger, was an engineer at Pratt-Whitney. He was working on a laser
and he'd seen laser technology like basically disintegrate a toaster. He said,
they're trying to get this amplified up to where you could put it into space and zap
missiles. Now ten years later this would be Star Wars, but I ran a front page
story after hearing this. I called him, [but] he wouldn't really help me. I called
Pratt-Whitney, they confirmed some things and we ran a front page story about
laser research in Florida to zap and disintegrate things. Apparently my uncle got
in trouble with the company about it, and he didn't even tell me. He told
someone else and the relative had told me. I didn't think twice, man, about
hurting my uncle. This was a great story and we just threw it in.
W: I'll just ask you some general questions now. Did the Board of Campus
Communications ever influence the editorial side of the paper at all?
K: [The Board of Communications] never [influenced the editorial side of the paper].
The closest they ever came was a terrible spat between my predecessor, the
spring/summer editor of 1978, Andrew Froman, who is to this day a good friend
of mine and I just talked to him yesterday, and the city commission campaign of
real estate developer, Jack Erwin. Jane Thompson had written some stuff
about Jack Erwin, including saying that he has a receding hairline and an
expanding waistline, when actually the hairline was not receding at all. But it was
a good line, so why let the facts get in the way of a good story? Then, Andy
Froman had written an editorial endorsing Jack Erwin's opponent, who was
probably Aaron Green, an African American. [He said] Jack Erwin was
supported by developers such as, name a firm. It turned out that firm actually
supported Aaron Green. We were wrong, and yet we came out on election day.
So Jack Erwin complains, and Jack Erwin's campaign manager is the guy we
see across the street in the parking lot behind the old Alligator. He runs this
parking lot that usually has got beer cans strewn all over the place and broken
shattered glass. We're in there on the board, and I think at this time I'm in the
board meeting but I'm not yet on the board, and Andy Froman's defending
himself and Jack Erwin comes in to complain. The board members are listening
and they're clearly concerned, because to write a factual error in an endorsement
editorial on the day of election [is bad]. By the way, lesson learned, when I
became editor I always did my endorsements the day before elections so that
you could correct in time before the election. I learned that from Andrew Froman.
Why the board got upset was [because] after they came in and did it and asked
Andrew Froman what his response was, and Andy should have said, we fucked
up and I'm sorry, and from now on we're going to run the endorsement editorial
several days before an election. Instead he told the campaign manager, listen,
when you can run your parking lot and not have broken glass strewn all over the
place and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah; when you can do that, then you can come
here and tell me how to run the newspaper. I remember this woman named
Robin Vesig or Robin Nesig who was a graduate student, kind of a mousy little
thing, just said, look sir, I want you to understand, because they were fearing a
lawsuit, we were always one suit away from being put out of business, [she said]
this does not reflect the policy of the paper [and] we're sorry we got this wrong.
Andy still laughs about it today and realizes that that was a rash way to respond
and it wasn't exactly the best response. It was good though, it was very funny. I
still to this day, twenty-three years or something later, tease him mercilessly
W: Are you still close friends with a lot of people you worked with?
K: I'm still friends with Andrew Froman, Sally Anne Stewart, Theresa DeFino.
Then there are others that, even if you don't talk to them much or that frequently,
they are still positive friends in the world, positive acquaintances. We learned a
lot together and did a lot together. I'm still very good friends with David Klein,
who is Barry Klein's older brother. Barry Klein was my news editor. David was
several years ahead of me and he never became editor-in-chief, which is
something I tease him about.
W: Is there anything else that I haven't asked that you would like to talk about?
K: [I would like to talk about] Alligator affairs. I don't know what, in this current
politically correct environment, the Alligator does about interoffice romance?
W: They still go on.
K: I must tell you, it was just torrid. When the Alligator had the eightieth and the
ninetieth anniversary gathering and I was calling all the editors trying to get them
to come, I remember this one guy, this one editor-in-chief, just an incredible fire
brand. He was just known for such fierceness. He kept saying he had to find this
one woman. [He said], you've got to find her, you've got to find her. He had been
asking, have you seen so and so? He said, you've got to get her there. Then I
talked to David Klein about this ex-Alligator editor's request. David said, oh,
that's just because she gave him a blow job in the dark room one night because
she just wanted to get ahead on the staff, and that's why he wanted that. I
thought it was so funny that twenty-five years later there were still pulsing
remnants of that kind of thing. When you're editor, that's kind of something that
you kind of did. There were these epic romances. [There were] Robert Rivas
and Cindy Spence; Barry Klein and Donna Wares; who was truly this beautiful,
luminous young woman. They were all over the place. [There were] Kevin
Turley and Laura Shwed; Andrew Froman and Lynn Calver, they got married.
Then there was this young guy, this short guy [named] John Long, an amazing
photographer, who convinced some of the most beautiful woman to pose, and
inevitably, they would end up disrobing. My managing editor one semester came
to me one morning mortified that he had gotten her shirt off and he took these
beautiful pictures, so he was quite a svengali. Erica Burger, she was this
photographer, every guy wanted her. [Then] this one Belgium exchange student
comes in to be on the photo staff and he's the one who gets her. She ended up
taking photos for Newsday. I saw her in New York a few years ago, [and] she
ended up becoming quite successful in the field. So romance was this really
torrid element. It was really very fierce because there's a lot of creativity going
on and these people are spending so much time together. They didn't have any
kind of policies against intra-staff dating at that time.
Ed Barber, his role just cannot be underestimated. When I first got there in 1976,
he had just come back and had just taken the job as general manager. He's got
this ridiculous handlebar moustache that I thought was such an affectation, he
hardly says a word, and he doesn't talk about himself. He doesn't even tell you,
hey, you know what, in 1963 I was on the staff of this newspaper; he doesn't
even tell you that. But I really grew to love him because he was this stabilizing
force looking over your shoulder. He never interfered, but if you went to him and
asked questions, if you could sort of not be so insecure and afraid to ask, he
would tell you, with enough pushing, what he really thought. He was this
wonderful influence. The best gift he gave to the kids at the Alligator was he
didn't get involved, he let them make their mistakes. He let them learn as they
went. By him basically saying I have nothing to say about that, I'm not going to
weigh in on that, he made us all more responsible because we realized it was up
to us. If we screw this up and liable someone, we could shut down the entire
paper. There's no one here stopping us, it's just us. That gave us more
responsibility and let us learn a lot more about journalism than we ever would
have if he were more intrusive. So it's truly the love of his life and is truly a labor
of love. He's going really straight to a top spot in heaven, which will be his first
new job in forty years. There's something about him; really he's extraordinary.
You worry [about] what happens to the paper when it's time for him to move on.
just hope that time never comes.
[end of interview]