Tribute to Alligator Publisher Ed Barber

Date: June 27th, 2007

Category: Machen, Speeches, Speeches 2007

Good evening and welcome!

The first edition of The Florida Alligator appeared nearly 95 years ago, on October 22, 1912. The paper read like a newsletter, with headlines about student clubs and other items of general interest. Its offices were next door to those of Student Government, and the relationship between the two was just as close. Published by UF, the Alligator debuted as a vehicle for university communication (also known as propaganda).

Ah, the good old days.

We are here tonight to celebrate Ed Barber, who retired this year from his position as general manager of The Independent Florida Alligator after more than 30 years.

We are honoring Ed with a Distinguished Alumnus award, though he never completed his journalism degree. He was too busy doing something more important: Making sure this university and its student journalists had a real newspaper to read and write for.

In the late 1960′s and early ’70′s, when the Alligator and the university were butting heads over control of the paper, Ed helped it emerge not only independent, but also on sound financial footing. As general manager, he stayed out of newsroom affairs but was very active in business affairs. His sound and steady management allowed the paper to become what it is today: Questioning, tough, fair, irreverent — and always willing to let young reporters and editors pursue their visions, despite the risks.

In other words, Ed gave the Alligator what it needed to be the kind of paper that can take a chunk out of my flesh on any given morning before I’ve had my breakfast.

Ed is one of those people who was born as what we used to call a newspaperman. A Miami native, he started his first paper when he was nine. In high school, he worked on the staff of the Hialeah High Record.

After a stint in the U.S. Coast Guard reserves, he started a career at a Miami bank, but it didn’t agree with him. With his new wife, Judy, and the couple’s first child, the family moved to Gainesville. Ed enrolled at UF in the summer of 1963, living with his family in converted World War II barracks known as Flavett III.

It was an auspicious era for journalism. Ed took classes from two of UF’s most famous journalism professors, Hugh Cunningham and Buddy Davis. In 1963, then student and editor David Lawrence wrote a series of articles criticizing the Board of Student Publications, which oversaw the Alligator. He was promptly fired. But the Alligator had stirred, and there was no putting it back to sleep!

Ed covered the Tigert Hall beat, earning a Hearst Writing Award for editorial writing in 1965. But with his young family, he needed to earn a living, so he started working in production. There he helped typeset stories, make half-tones of photographs and do the other tasks needed to put out a paper in those pre-computer days. When a spot came open for assistant production manager, Ed took it, dropping out of journalism school to do so.

His boss was Don Addis, the famous politician-skewering cartoonist, and one of dozens of well-known journalists who got their start at the Alligator. Another was David Lawrence, who I mentioned earlier. He became publisher of The Miami Herald.

But, back to our story. By the mid 1960s, The Alligator was yanking at its tether. In 1966, the Board of Student Publications fired three editors for, and I quote, “constant unprofessional harassment of Student Government officials and friends of the University of Florida.”

In 1968, four editors quit after a dispute involving tenure for an outspoken liberal professor. The civil rights struggle, the Vietnam War and student protests against the administration of President Stephen C. O’Connell only made times more volatile.

The Alligator and university were ripe for an abrupt and bitter split. And that’s how people often tell the story. In that version, evil UF administrators kicked the Alligator off campus, where it promptly continued its noble quest for truth and justice. But the breakup was a lot more complex, as Ed would be the first to tell you. What he might not say is that he may be reason the Alligator survived it.

Most people here today know the split started with the 1971 publication of a flier containing a list of abortion referral services. Then editor Ron Sachs, now head of Ron Sachs Communications in Tallahassee, is one of our speakers today, and I will let him tell that story. But, I want to say this: Following publication of that fateful list, both the university and the Alligator struggled mightily to find a way to cut the paper free while also ensuring it wouldn’t go broke.

The Alligator needed UF student fees to keep printing, fees UF didn’t want to provide without also having some control. The result was a long and drawn-out divorce, with more than its share of committee meetings, lengthy reports, and scotched plans. The process took 16 months to play out, culminating in 1973 with UF selling the paper to a private student-controlled company called Campus Communications.

That sale, which included a large loan from UF to keep the Alligator afloat during the transition, occurred as part of a plan suggested by none other than Ed Barber. It was Ed’s plan that set in motion the Alligator’s new era.

But, a funny thing happened. Those heading the transition naturally asked Ed to serve as the general manager of the newly independent paper. He wouldn’t do it. He believed it was unethical to accept a position at a private company whose creation he had recommended while serving as public employee.

As Ed told retired Journalism Dean Ralph Lowenstein in an oral history, his fear that was that he would, and I quote, “in effect, be creating with state money a position for myself in a private industry. I would be stealing state money.”

It almost seems a quaint concern by today’s lapsed standards. And, it couldn’t have been an easy decision, as Ed and his wife had just bought their first home. But, he is an ethical man. Thankfully for us, two years later the Alligator had a national search for general manager, and Ed felt enough time had elapsed to apply. Of course, he got the job.

Some may wonder what Ed did in the ensuing decades to make the Alligator a success. Part of the answer is what he didn’t do. He didn’t use the Alligator’s newfound independence to drive a wedge between the paper and the university. Instead, he maintained a healthy relationship, at least on the business side.

Unlike a lot of publishers, Ed also never meddled in the newsroom. He always kept a firewall between the business and editorial sides. Many newsroom alumni will tell you, they never saw him and barely knew him. In the news business, that’s not an insult, it’s a compliment.

Ed stayed away from the newsroom even as he helped the paper prosper though business decisions like buying the High Springs Herald in 1990. Editorially, the UF/Alligator relationship under Ed’s tenure was…how shall I put it?…complex. The paper has covered this university fairly, insightfully and comprehensively. Also, on occasion, not at all.

As for our differences on a day-to-day basis, I will only say this: Sometimes it’s best to take a long view. Whenever I read something that causes me concern, I try to remember that the net result of the Alligator’s scrutiny has been to strengthen and improve this university — the way any good newspaper strengthens and improves its community. Even when presidents and their cabinet members get exercised about it.

The Alligator’s reach has also extended beyond Gainesville. It’s hard to understate the importance of the paper to UF student journalists who later made important contributions to public life. The paper’s long list of important alumni include not only David Lawrence, Don Addis and Ron Sachs, but also Carl Hiaasen, several Pulitzer Prize winners and many, many other journalists at this country’s finest newspapers and magazines. A lot of these journalists have said working at the Alligator was critical to instilling their passion for the field and launching their careers. There is no reason to doubt them.

Ed had an amazing career at The Independent Florida Alligator. He wrote for the paper. He labored to produce each edition. When times got tough, he helped to save it. He kept the paper sound financially, enabling its editors and reporters to do their jobs. Through myriad controversies and setbacks, he stuck with the Alligator and its staff, covering the news and shaping the lives of hundreds of young journalists.

Under Ed, the Alligator roared.

If there’s any feat worthy of a Distinguished Alumnus award, this is it.

Mr. Ed Barber, in recognition of your distinguished and honorable career in journalism, your dedication to the highest and most ethical journalistic standards, and your long-standing commitment to The Independent Florida Alligator, ensuring that student journalists at the University of Florida have a well-recognized and respected newspaper at which they can learn their craft, it is my honor to present you with the University of Florida Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Bernie Machen

Comments are currently closed.