The University of Dayton is not known for journalism in the same way it’s known for basketball, but that hasn’t stopped some graduates from becoming top editors at major metropolitan newspapers around the country.
Kevin Riley and Thom Fladung both graduated from UD in the 1980s and actually worked together for two years as members of the Flyer News staff. Now, Riley is the editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Fladung is the managing editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, two of the best daily newspapers in the nation.
Fladung served as editor-in-chief of the Flyer News during his junior year from 1980-1981. He decided to stay on the paper as a columnist his senior year, writing twice a week for his column, “A Little Night Music,” until he graduated in 1982.
He said, as editor, there were difficult times [Editor’s Note: a major understatement], but that he loved his opportunity to be editor and work with the staff he had at the time.
“It was challenging, not unlike you know the challenges you face in professional life,” said Fladung, a Canton, Ohio, native. “A lot of the challenges are the same, breaking news that you think a lot of people, a lot of readers will care about. Working with staffers, being organized
“At the time, we used to have to drive the paper to the Beavercreek Daily News in Beavercreek, Ohio, a newspaper I later worked for, which coincidently, I will emphasize, no longer exists. But we used to drive the paper out there twice a week. But it was a lot of the challenges … and the other thing it was though, was it was also the fun. That’s where I really started to get a feeling of how fun newspapering can be. We really pushed each other and we were competitive with each other, but we were also friends and a lot of the deadline nights I remember a lot of Milano’s subs and a lot of laughing.”
After graduation, Fladung said he stayed on for a year at the Beavercreek Daily News before working at the Columbia Record in Columbia, S.C., for several years.
He then worked his way up through the ranks at several newspapers, including a couple stints at the Detroit Free Press, eventually working up to managing editor, before moving to Minnesota to be editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 2005. In 2011, he left the Pioneer Press to become the managing editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Fladung said the education he received at UD, despite not going to a traditional journalism school, has been invaluable to his success in the newspaper industry.
“First of all, I was grounded in good fundamentals of journalism and just good fundamentals of what a solid, liberal arts education like UD gets you, just brooded in curiosity and hard work,” Fladung said. “UD students work very hard. They play hard, but they also work very hard.
“I think it also helped from a very early age that I thought it was fun. The people I worked with were fun. Honestly, I think you do, I know I did, you have a chip on your shoulder because you’re not a Mizzou grad and you’re not going to be and you’re not a KU grad and more of them are more likely, regardless of talent level, to skip ahead to a larger metro newspaper. Guys like me have to grind. … The Cleveland Plain Dealer isn’t necessarily going to reach into the University of Dayton and pluck somebody out. And that’s just a fact of life, but I wouldn’t change a damn thing. Not all those moves were easy and they weren’t easy on my family, for sure. But in terms of the professional development and what I learned and what I was able to carry forward from UD, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
While Fladung was running Flyer News as a junior, a freshman from Cleveland was starting out at UD and trying to figure out if he wanted to be a journalist. For a time, Kevin Riley didn’t want to be a journalist.
He started off as a staff writer for the news section of Flyer News, working his way up to news editor during his junior year. Riley said he stopped being involved with Flyer News during his senior year to focus on gaining internships or actual professional experience.
He was going to become a journalist.
Riley, who graduated in 1984, worked on the copy desk of the Dayton Daily News during his senior year. According to Riley, the copy desk was a good place to start after completing professor Larry Lain’s copyediting class in his sophomore year.
“In those days, things were very different because the university didn’t really have computers,” Riley said. “We used typewriters and stuff like that. But for copy editing, we had two computers, I think, that you could use. And so, you’d use them occasionally to learn how to edit on a computer and one of the things he would do was to have people take their final on a staggered schedule and have to do it on the computer and then he would meet with you and go over the final and how you did.
“You had to edit probably the equivalent of a day’s work, half day’s work for a copy editor and then grade you on headlines, trimming stories to an appropriate length, style, grammar, all that. So I’ll never forget, it was an early class for the whole semester even though my final was late in the day because of the schedule, he tells me, ‘You know, Kevin, I’ve been giving this test for years and you got the highest score on the final that anyone has ever gotten.’ Then he said, ‘You know, you missed class so many times that you’re still getting a ‘B.’’ I keep that with me and that’s something I’ve told him, again that’s something else that I’ve learned, a big part of being successful out there in the world is being on time, being where you’re supposed to be, having respect for people’s time and especially deadlines in this business. That’s the class I most remembered.”
Both Riley and Fladung credit Flyer News with teaching them how to manage people, something that has helped them climb through the ranks in the newspaper business.
“When I was at Flyer News, practically everyone on staff was a volunteer,” Riley said. “My style of leadership, which was forming at that time, was not being about bossing people around because you couldn’t. It was about learning how to lead by example and persuading people of a good way to do things and the value of working together on something and kind of creating the sense that we were all in this together to accomplish something important.
“And that’s very much how I try to lead at this newspaper because when you lead journalists in a newsroom, I believe you only get so far by ordering people around. These are smart people who are very articulate and who are motivated to a higher purpose than just making money or that kind of thing. They care about doing things that are important. So that was something that the Flyer News experience gave me that has been the most important thing I keep with me.”
Fladung said Flyer News helped him at making decisions quickly. Something that is critical for being successful in a newsroom.
“I think one of the worst things for a newsroom is to think the editors are nervous, or insecure, or are unsure about exactly what to do,” Fladung said. “You simply can’t portray that in a newsroom because journalists are like German Shepherds, right? If they sense fear, they’ll go for the throat.
“I think you have to be decisive and you have some idea of what you want and you can clearly talk about that and then go after it. So yeah, I’m a big believer in making quick decisions. I’m also a big believer in gathering information. … And, at some point, a decision needs to be made, and I’m happy to make it with input from you and everyone else I work with, but when it comes time, I’m happy to make that decision and I will make it quickly.”
Both men said they enjoyed reporting while at the Flyer News, but were also glad to be columnists, although Riley is slightly apprehensive to go back and read some of his columns from his UD days.
Lain, a professor of communication for 30 years at UD and the Flyer News adviser for 25 years who retired at the end of the 2011-2012 academic year, said when Riley was named editor-in-chief of the Dayton Daily News in 2007, he emailed Riley a note of congratulations.
“I said, ‘One thing I think I should tell you now that you’ve got all these people working under you, I’ve still got my old grade books, so I’ll be looking for a check in the mail,’” Lain joked over the phone last week. “He emailed back, ‘I don’t care. My grades were what they were, but for God sake’s don’t dig out any of my old columns from the Flyer News and pass those around.’”
Fladung said Riley was just being modest.
“I’m sure you could trot out columns from those big books that you guys still have up there that would make me wince,” Fladung said. “But you know, not all of them. Not all of them. You’ve got to put it in context. You were a young journalist and a college student, and I bet you I could read Riley’s and not wince as well. I bet you I could find some columns Kevin did that stand up, and that I could still enjoy.”
Riley said one of the stories he enjoyed writing the most for his column “Backstreets” was about early registration and how athletes benefitted from the policy.
“This was before everything was electronic or online,” he said. “You had to go there and stand in line and everything was on paper. At the time, I had a friend who had a friend who told him about it and was trying to get into some classes. He was a double major in engineering, and he forged the coach’s initials and he got in and he registered for his classes early. I wrote a column about that and people got real angry. People who benefitted from that system.”
Fladung’s shining moment as a columnist came when he wrote a column about the Dayton police breaking up keg parties on campus, back when kegs were actually allowed on campus.
“They did periodic crackdowns on underage drinking,” Fladung said. “I wrote a kind of parody column about it and about how these big cops busted a keg party. And the next day, my phone rang on my desk and I picked it up and it was Sgt. Whatever of the Dayton police.
“He kind of started grilling me and then he laughed and said, ‘You know, actually, we really liked that column. We cut it out and put it up in the department.’ That felt good. It’s those kind of things that keep you going after all the long nights and the things that don’t go right and the picture caption that’s wrong and everything else.”
Mistakes happen in the newspaper business, and Fladung and Riley said they have had their share of gaffes.
Fladung, without any hesitation, remembers running a story as editor that, to this day, still baffles him.
“’Small fire does little damage,’” he said. “That was the exact headline of it. We were so hurting for news that day that it was on the front page. And when I think about stories that are just inflated beyond their worth and stories that just shouldn’t be on the front page, I often think of ‘Small fire does little damage.’ … So we were all thinking, it was one of those late deadline nights and we were kind of desperate, and the headline is accurate. Then the Flyer News comes out and we’re all looking at each other like, ‘What the hell were we thinking?’ Small fire does little damage isn’t even a story, much less a front page story. But, you know, it’s all relative. It was that day. So, obviously that stays with me.”
But, they said, you have to learn from your mistakes and move forward.
Both have families with strong UD ties as Riley’s oldest daughter, Anne, graduated from UD last May with a degree in education. He said his other daughter, Erin, is currently a sophomore at Dayton. He said his son, Colin, is in high school and has narrowed his college search down to two schools, one of them being Dayton.
Fladung’s daughter, Kayleigh, is a junior communication major at UD and is the assistant news editor at Flyer News. The Fladung father-child combo is one of only a few to happen in the history of Flyer News.
Fladung promises that he did not push his daughter to attend UD or write for Flyer News, but is proud that she decided to do so.
“Honestly, I swear to you, I didn’t force her to go there,” Fladung said. “I was really happy when she chose UD. I didn’t even go on the trip with her because I didn’t want it to seem like, ‘You have to go to the school where dad went.’ Now, my wife will tell you, ‘Yeah, you back off then. You just spent 18 years selling the school.’ But I was really proud when she went there, and I didn’t choose journalism for her or communications and didn’t say she had to work on the Flyer News, but I’m glad she did.
“It was weird her freshman year when we dropped her off at Marycrest, obviously I hadn’t been to Marycrest in many, many years and at the time I went there Marycrest was all women, so just dropping her off at Marycrest was kind of mind-blowing. It’s almost surreal. It’s almost not real that’s she’s at UD and working on the Flyer News. The first time I saw her byline in the Flyer News, yeah, I was very proud. Equal with that, I’m glad she’s getting that experience because I know how valuable it is. No one can know better than me about how valuable it can be to work at the Flyer News and how much fun it can be. And what a headache it can be sometimes, too. But, I don’t remember that. I remember the fun times and what I got out of it.”
When asked if they had any advice for new student entering the university, Riley said to take advantage of the four, or sometimes five, years students get to spend at UD because it never happens again in life.
Fladung agreed, to a point.
“I’ll trot out all the things UD would want me to say and I have to say which would be study hard and represent the university and all those larger things, but you have to go to Flanagan’s for St. Patrick’s Day,” Fladung said. “Also, in my time, Xavier was not very good at men’s basketball, and our big rival was Notre Dame, so you have to go to a game in which UD beats its big rival.
“I think that’s the one thing you should experience is being inside the Arena when the Flyers are beating a big rival, a hated opponent and the place is shaking. You never forget it.”
UD isn’t the first place young, prospective journalists think of when choosing a college, but Lain said Dayton and the Flyer News have a storied history of success that can stack up with most journalism schools around the country.
“We’ve had people go through our journalism program and do very well,” Lain said. “… We’ve had people, in fact, we had a person who was on the fast track at the Wall Street Journal, and she decided to step back and go back to graduate school and go into social work of all things. We’ve had people do very nicely for themselves. UD is not known as being a journalism school, but folks have been able to get good experiences at UD, both in the classroom and because of the way Flyer News has been able to do things over the years and the good relationship we’ve had with the commercial newspapers in town.”
Fladung agreed, saying if he had the chance to choose colleges all over again, Dayton would still be his choice.
“No one mentions UD when you talk about Mizzou, or you talk about Kansas, Northwestern, but you get together at professional conventions and there are UD people and we are well-represented,” Fladung said. “I think it speaks, in part, to what Dr. Lain did. He really was one of the leaders of establishing journalism at the University of Dayton, and he was a pro. And he was tough. We all learned copyediting from Larry Lain.
“It’s not technically a J-school. I don’t have a J-school degree, but you don’t have to, to go do journalism. I’m very proud to say that many of the people I worked with at the Flyer News went on to be damned good journalists.”