Dan Visits The Daily Pennsylvanian, Part 1: An Audit or an Audition
On a sunny afternoon in early April, I stood near the corner of 40th and Walnut streets in Philadelphia, staring at the home base of what is possibly the best college newspaper in America: The Daily Pennsylvanian at the University of Pennsylvania.
It’s windy, but warm, warmer at least than it has been in months. A stream of cars scoot steadily down Walnut’s two-lane, one-way thoroughfare. A bunch of bicyclists and pedestrians join them — some sporting backpacks and branded jackets subtly or overtly revealing their Penn bona fides.
This intersection and surrounding area used to be on the fringes of Penn’s campus. As the university has expanded and the city has evolved, it’s become a much more central location — geographically and economically. The multi-block strip now operates as the school’s unofficial retail corridor.
Attached to the Daily Pennsylvanian newsroom building (left) that I’ve traveled by train, taxi and two feet to see is a behemoth parking garage and a Fresh Grocer supermarket. On the next corner, maybe 200 steps away, is a McDonald’s. And next to that is a Hummus Grill and a CVS pharmacy. On one corner across the street is a branch of the Philadelphia Free Library. Very close by, just across 40th, is a Harvest Seasonal Grill & Wine Bar and a Cinemark movie theater — both surprisingly busy in the middle of a workday.
Sporting shades and reveling in the first sustained Philly sunlight I’ve experienced in 2015, I smile at the Cinemark theater’s “Now Showing” film posters. The way they are situated, it appears stars like Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart are glancing curiously in the Daily Pennsylvanian’s general direction. (For the record, in his poster, Sean Penn has his back turned.)
Directly across the street from the DP is a community center and arts hub known as The Rotunda. And the newsroom building itself sports a Metropolitan Bakery in one of the first-floor storefronts — the other one sits empty.
While most of the nearby enterprises have prominent external signs, posters and window displays touting their brand and latest offerings, the Daily Pennsylvanian HQ sports only a simple silver nameplate to the right of the main entrance. It is so tiny and unassuming, I am almost positive I’ve walked by it — and the building on which it’s affixed — numerous times before without noticing it or realizing as a College Media Geek the treasure it touts as being just inside.
Interestingly, the Daily Pennsylvanian is a treasure older than all of the neighboring businesses and operations I just named. The 131-year-old paper is even older than the faux-Greek, beige building it currently calls home.
As a book on the pub’s history presented by The Daily Pennsylvanian Alumni Association shares:
“When The Daily Pennsylvanian was born in 1885, Grover Cleveland was president of the United States, the university awarded its first Ph.D. and the California Gold Rush was about to begin.”
The rush and rhythms of the surrounding streets on the day of my visit — which marks the 39th issue the paper has printed this semester — is a mix of purring car engines and harried footsteps. A young man holding a cigarette indulges in some freestyle rapping outside the Cinemark, while a buddy caught in the secondhand smoke’s path provides the faintest hint of a background beat. He delivers a fairly eloquent, 45-second, rhyme-heavy rundown that touches on current events like the Germanwings crash before pausing and then shouting into the wind, “Ahhhhh! I got it. I’m getting it. Here we go.”
Nearby, a parking enforcement officer stares at a parked car’s license plate while digitally tapping out a ticket on a device the size of an Amazon Kindle. An older couple, the vehicle’s owners, argue with him. A gray-haired woman, obviously the alpha of the pair, throws her hands in the air at one point in frustration. Calmly, without making eye contact, the officer responds with what sounds like a continuation of the young rapper’s exclamation: “Please understand, once I start, I have to finish.”
I smile, glad I relied on public transportation. I then illegally jet across the street, snaking between two parked cars and avoiding an oncoming one. I open the newsroom building’s front door — and immediately think of Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Sean Penn is ignoring the DP in the Cinemark poster, but at the recent Oscars he stared straight into the camera when awarding the Best Picture prize to Iñárritu’s “Birdman.”
Maybe it was only because I’d finally gotten around to seeing the film, but the DP’s first-floor hallway greatly reminds me of a theater backstage area — much like the one Michael Keaton’s character walks-and-talks his way through multiple times.
Once the front door closes, the sunlight and freestyling of the outside world vanishes. The overhead lighting, surrounding walls and floor tiles are antiseptically white or off-white. The only splashes of color are the ads on the four DP newsstands placed side-by-side-by-side-by-side midway down the corridor.
It’s quiet, imposingly quiet. The tall columns and specks of stained-glass-ish design on the building’s exterior scream government. Inside, by comparison, there’s initially a bowels-of-the-playhouse vibe. Bottom line, as I cruise down the corridor, I feel like I am heading for either an audit or an audition.
A few seconds later, I trundle up one flight of stairs to the main offices and newsroom, holding my iPhone, a reporter’s notebook, a pen, a digital voice recorder, my sunglasses and a copy of that day’s DP.
The main debate on the Opinion page revolves around news that the minimum wage is rising. So is my heart rate.
I have officially arrived.
To Be Continued…
[Part 2: All Good Things are Wild & Free]