Jack Backer · 2011
Jack Backer arrived in Bloomington in 1969 to lead a new kind of Indiana University campus newspaper – one run by the students, not by the journalism department. They, not the faculty, would be responsible for what was printed.
Sporting a flat top and horn-rimmed glasses and possessing a reservoir of newspaper savvy, intelligence and charisma, the 35-year-old Backer had been chosen to be the first publisher of the Indiana Daily Student.
It was a responsibility that Backer relished. And he was definitely the man for the job.
It is for good reason a generation of top-flight journalists fondly recalls the “Backer Era.”
“From the beginning, he was hard-working, energetic and inspiring,” said Don Cross, Backer’s first IDS advertising manager and later an IDS associate publisher.
Energetic is putting it mildly. Backer effervesced. He was always upbeat. His chipper demeanor was as contagious as his enthusiasm for high-quality journalism.
At the end – which came much too soon, on Dec. 5, 1976, when Backer died of cancer at 42 in Bloomington – current and former students mourned the loss of their mentor.
In a tribute to him after his death, 1975 IU graduate Victor Bracht wrote: “With the untimely death of Jack Backer, the Indiana Daily Student has lost more than a publisher. … Staffs came and went, but Backer always seemed to be there, lending continuity, almost becoming Mr. IDS, a man who knew what he wanted in the newspaper but had enough sense to let the students do it their own way.”
Now, 34 years later, those from the Backer Era have little trouble remembering him.
“We loved the guy,” said Ed Spivey, art director of Sojourners Magazine, “and he never steered us in the wrong direction.”
Rick Lyman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Deputy National Editor, recalls the time the IDS staff learned of “some new, weird fad that was just beginning to emerge. It was called ‘streaking.’”
After discussing how to play it, Lyman continues, “we were ready to slide the story onto a deep, inside page when Jack Backer caught wind of it.
“He came into our little meeting room, arms waving, glasses slightly akimbo, giddy with delight over what he realized – and we did not – was a sure-thing to make the AP state wire and perhaps even go out on the A-wire. When we finally ran the story, on the front page, it earned not merely one but about a half-dozen ‘Gee Whiz!’ stamps from Jack. And sure enough, he was right.”
Nancy Waclawek, St. Petersburg Times Fund director, writes that Backer, who gave her a scholarship, “respected us and treated us as adults and journalists. He recognized our abilities and our potential. He helped us learn through our mistakes. … He helped us grow up, in the business of journalism and in life.”
Paul Tash, editor, CEO and chairman at the St. Petersburg Times, writes: “Jack had a wonderful demeanor that guided editors without pushing them, using questions rather than declarative sentences to shape a conversation or decision. Looking back, I am certain that some of my best ideas for the Daily Student actually germinated from seeds carried on the warm breeze of Jack’s gentle coaching.”
Steve Jacob, IDS editor in 1973, recalls: “His singularly infectious energy successfully penetrated the hip, rebellious facades of the Vietnam War era students. His awkward 1950s attempt at being hip – he liked to greet his charges with ‘Hey, Big Dad!’ – was a prelude to offering encouragement, advice or a story idea.
“His enthusiasm was renewed every semester whenever a new editor was appointed. Each had a distinctive personality, and Jack adapted his mentoring approach superbly every time.”
Former students recall Backer’s daily red-inked critiques of IDS issues, his “Us Last Week” newsletters and one of his favorite sayings: “Progress is crisis-oriented.”
Backer met the challenges of the transition to an independent, student-run campus newspaper head-on.
Tim Harmon, managing editor of The South Bend Tribune, remembers Backer slamming the phone down after an IU official tried to tell him what to do. “Can you believe it? He thought he could bully me into killing a story,” Harmon recalls Baker saying.
“Four decades later, I still use lessons I learned from him. I still quote him. I still tell stories about him,” Harmon says. “And as the very landscape of journalism has rocked and shifted around us, I often ask myself how Jack would have prepared to meet those challenges. Somehow, I think he would have found a way.”
The oldest of six siblings, Backer was born in Britt, Iowa, on Feb. 15, 1934, with severe club feet. For the next 13 years, he spent six months each year in casts at the children’s hospital at the University of Iowa. His nurses became his teachers.
Later, his high school English teacher encouraged his writing, ultimately helping him enroll at Iowa State University and work at the Ames newspaper. But even with a scholarship and a job, he could not afford to stay at ISU.
In 1958, he transferred to Wayne State Teachers College, Nebraska, and joined the Wayne Daily Herald, where he “learned about all phases of newspapering, including the newsroom, advertising and circulation departments as well as back shop and production departments,” said his long-time friend and Kansas State University co-worker Del Brinkman. “He could operate a linotype machine and understood all aspects of printing that are important in producing newspapers. That served him well as he later became an expert on newspaper layout and design.”
Backer also became editor of the Wayne State student newspaper, The Goldenrod.
Upon graduation, Backer taught journalism for the next 10 years – at Bloomfield (Neb.) High School, where he created the program; Fort Hays State College in Kansas; and KSU, where he became director of student publications. He earned a master’s degree in journalism at Iowa along the way.
In 1968, he left academia to become general manager and editor of the Niles (Mich.) Star, but he “missed the contact with students and the stimulation of working at a university,” Brinkman said. “His dream was fulfilled when he accepted the publisher position at Indiana University.”
During his short seven years at the IDS, he became nationally known for his consultation work with newspaper staffs and at industry conferences, especially concerning his cutting-edge modular newspaper design concepts.
He was financial adviser to the Arbutus, the campus yearbook, which also became a model for other universities.
He predicted computers would be part of the newspaper industry long before they were.
A scholarship in his memory annually goes to an IDS staffer. It is maintained by the Backer family – widow, Carolyn Backer Brinkman (they met at Wayne State), of Bloomington; children, Debra Baker, 51, of Lawrence, Kan.; Cynthia Cummings, 49, of Bloomington; and Jeffrey Backer, 40, of Cincinnati; five grandchildren and one great grandchild. His children, all IU graduates, work in finance, and his oldest grandchild works on the business side of the Topeka (Kansas) Daily Capital. Jeff’s son, Jack Eugene Backer, is named for his grandfather.
In addition to his family, “Jack’s lasting legacy is all he did to establish the Daily Student as the best college newspaper in the nation, and the Arbutus as one of the best college yearbooks,” said Nancy Comiskey, an IDS staffer during the Backer Era and now an IU School of Journalism lecturer.
“He believed in students and expected a lot of them,” she said. “Publishers who followed him have lived up to those ideals.”
Another IU Backer acolyte, Rick Musser, spent his career in the journalism department at the University of Kansas because “I wanted to be like Jack Backer when I grew up.”
Most of Musser’s students at the University Daily Kansan “never heard of Jack Backer. But we were
all standing on his shoulders,” he writes. “His brand of collegiate journalism is now in its third generation, as students of students of Jack Backer tackle the tough job of running big college news operations. And in so doing we have grown up to be just like Jack.”
By Sarah O. Wilson, publisher, The Rochester Sentinel