Over the past year, dozens of publications have focused on Donald Trump’s finances, his business dealings and his rhetoric on the campaign trail.
But there’s only one publication covering the angle that the University of Pennsylvania’s student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, has taken for more than a year: Trump’s time in college.
Trump, who transferred to Penn’s business school after spending two years at Fordham, frequently talks about his time at Penn on the campaign trail. In a July speech in Arizona, he said “I went to the Wharton School of Business…I’m, like, a really smart person.”
Last year The Daily Pennsylvanian, which is called the DP on campus, assigned a reporter to reach out to Trump’s college classmates, many of whom didn’t remember him. A month later, they started combing through archival editions of the DP to chart Trump’s ongoing relationship with his alma mater.
In recent months, they’ve interviewed alums who decry the candidate, reported on Jon Huntsman Jr. calling for the candidate to drop out, talked about the effect of Trump’s campaign comments on college sexual assault, and profiled several students who continue to support Trump.
Two weeks ago, the student paper co-endorsed Hillary Clinton alongside her alma mater’s student newspaper, the Wellesley News.
The DP’s dozens of stories on Trump are rigorous and well-reported enough that they could be in any national publication. But owning to their focus on Trump’s university years, Penn’s student journalists bring a fresh perspective not seen elsewhere in the hyper-competitive world of national political reporting.
I reached out to the DP’s current editor in chief, Lauren Feiner, to learn more about how they approached their coverage this campaign season. Feiner has spent four years at the paper and wrote the DP’s first piece about Trump exploring a run for President in 2015.
I’ve noticed that you’ve devoted a lot of resources to covering the presidential election. You have a story or two coming out every week. How has your strategy for covering it evolved over the course of the election?
We have two politics reporters who cover the election as their beat, but they’re not the only ones doing politics coverage because Trump is such a big topic. So we have a lot of reporters getting involved from different angles. For example, today we have someone writing about his student debt plan. We’re having a lot of reporters getting involved when it crosses their beat.
I should note that it’s not just reporters — we also have people from our graphics team, video team and photography team involved in creating coverage around the campaign. Obviously when Trump entered the race, we knew this had to be something we were following closely because he is a Wharton grad. So we really decided early on to cover him.
When he launched his exploratory committee, we wrote a brief article on it, and then the campaign just kept growing and growing. Soon, we realized we really did have to amp up our efforts and cover the story as best we as we could.
What I’m enjoying about your coverage is that you take a different angle than other publications. You’re really covering Trump as it relates to the student population at Penn. How did you decide what to cover in relation to him?
With Trump entering the presidential race, we realized this was such a big moment for Penn. It was the first time in a long time that a Penn grad was running for president, and it was particularly notable because Trump often cites his Wharton degree. That provides us with the Penn angle that we always look for in our stories.
Covering politics for a college paper is difficult because a lot of our reporters want to write about politics and a lot of people are interested in politics, but at the end of the day most people are going to go to the New York Times for their political news and not the Daily Pennsylvanian.
We really had to think hard about how to cover Trump in a way that only we could as the college paper of his alma mater. We thought: What can we do that the Times can’t? Who do we have access to that they don’t? And that was digging into his time here at Penn, his ties to it now, and this disconnect between how campus views him and how he leverages his Penn degree.
There’s a very obvious attitude on campus that students by and large oppose Trump and yet he really ties himself to the school so strongly so it’s definitely interesting to cover those viewpoints.
Have you looked into the Daily Pennsylvanian archives to see whether there’s material from his time there or in the decades afterwards that might be newsworthy?
That’s not an angle we’ve covered yet, but that’s something I’d want us to look into in the next few weeks. We have looked into whether he has donated to the school. It’s interesting: As someone with a lot of money who really cites his degree, he doesn’t have his names on any buildings here…
When I was a columnist at the Daily Pennsylvanian, we wrote about the election a lot. How has the opinion section covered the campaign?
The opinion columns (cover) the election a lot, and the opinion editor eventually said ‘You can only write about Trump or the election X number of times because it can get to be overkill.’
He really provokes so many opinions because he’s an easy topic, but I think we really try to be selective of what we are putting out there that’s different and unique to the perspective of a college student and a student at Penn. The opinion editor looks for columns that speak to that and not just ones that add another voice in the growing crowd of voices. It can vary.
The Daily Pennsylvanian’s Opinion Board recently co-endorsed Hillary Clinton alongside her student newspaper, the Wellesley News Editorial Board. I haven’t seen a co-endorsement like that from two colleges. How did that come about?
It was interesting. It came out of an idea from one of our copy editors, Lucien Wang. He came into my office one day and said “What if we did this collaboratively with her student paper?” and I said, “That sounds cool, I don’t know if they’ll do it.” And then the Opinion Board just made it happen. Wellesley was interested, and it blew up as soon as we put it up.
It was a lot bigger than us putting out an editorial because I think all of campus thinks that we would do that, but to say the student papers of both candidates’ alma maters backs a single candidate sends a stronger message.
The Daily Pennsylvanian recently cut a day of print, and covering a presidential campaign is expensive for major news organizations. How are you balancing the costs of covering the campaign when deciding what is newsworthy?
We did do some travel during the primaries and devoted some funds from our travel budget for that. The alums have been really great in ensuring we have great experiences, but we conserve where we can.
We plan on sending some reporters to New York City for Election Day, and they’ll be staying at my apartment with my parents. And we definitely send them to whatever political things that are happening in Philly since it’s so accessible and there’s no reason not to.
We spent a lot of time sending people to the DNC this summer because it was in Philly. Something like that doesn’t cost us a lot because people stay in their own houses or stay with friends. You have more leeway when you’re working with college students because we can stay at our own houses or stay at our families houses or crash with friends. We do as much as we can with what we have.