The Wheel Keeps on Turning

By Kimber Williams

WHEEL

Bryan Meltz

Members of the current Wheel staff on a recent production night. If not for the laptops, any of their alumni predecessors could step right back into the familiar scene, grab a cup of coffee, and start editing.

After all these years, they still recall the smell of a deadline. The acrid stench of the waxer, the toner—all the chemicals that went into assembling a newspaper in the days before digital production. The pungent scent of panicky human exertion. The ghostly aroma of someone’s leftover chicken wings.

It all played out amid late, late nights fueled by enormous quantities of coffee and stale doughnuts, choreographed to the hum of electric typewriters and the thudding mixtapes of bands whose names would ebb and flow with the decades.

But over the years, the echoes of impassioned debate and laughter would remain—the human soundtrack of young people learning by doing, in search of a byline and what was often their first real taste of community journalism.

On production nights, the Emory Wheel offices on the fifth floor of the Dobbs University Center are still warmed by the glare of fluorescent lights and computer screens, of too many bodies crammed into one place, and the earnest push toward a shared goal: producing a campus newspaper.

For nearly 100 years, a parade of young people have stepped up to lead Emory’s student newspaper, which to this day remains financially and editorially independent from the University. Founded in 1919, the paper was named after an emery wheel, a tool used for grinding and polishing. And indeed, an inaugural editorial in the paper’s first issue pledges to sharpen the intellect of the University community—or at least to attempt it.

But to the generations of Emory students who would serve as its top editors, the Wheel is both a laboratory to test fledgling skills and a de facto classroom—a proving ground and a place of belonging, where students learned from one another and cut their teeth on civic engagement.

Even as Emory’s formal journalism programs would come and go, the Wheel would endure, powered by youth and curiosity and sheer optimism—a yearning to give back, the desire to make a difference.

In this issue, we caught up with former Wheel editors to reflect upon their experience and see where it led them.

Megerian

CHRIS MEGERIAN 08C

Politics and statehouse reporter, Los Angeles Times

Driving across the flat, snowy plains of Iowa to cover the 2016 presidential race this winter, Chris Megerian had to smile. Not exactly glamorous work. But in such a volatile campaign cycle, the experience has still been a thrill.

“There is nothing better than going places you wouldn’t otherwise get to go and talking to people you otherwise wouldn’t get to talk to,” he says. “It’s a great year, because it’s been so unpredictable, so many assumptions about voters have been proven wrong.”

Megerian came to Emory with an interest in journalism. Writing for the Wheel was a natural step. “For me, there was no other organization on campus that allowed a group of people to work toward the same goal so often,” he says. “Twice a week you were in a room with people who were all passionate about the same thing, trying to crank it out.”

“It was like being in a workshop, in the sense that you are constantly coming up with ideas and immediately putting them into action,” he adds. “You quickly understood that you were writing for a community, which ingrains in you a certain sense of responsibility to be fair in what you’re doing.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in international studies and journalism, Megerian had several newspaper internships before landing at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey, covering law enforcement, prisons, and politics.

In 2012, Megerian was hired by the Los Angeles Times to cover California politics and the state budget crisis. In January, he was tapped to help cover the presidential primary. “It’s been a little like trying to solve a puzzle, and I enjoy that,” he says.

MIKE SAGER 78C

Writer-at-large, Esquire magazine

Editor and publisher, the Sager Group

In pursuit of a story, Mike Sager has lived with a crack gang in Los Angeles, Aryan Nations troopers in Idaho, and heroin addicts on the Lower East Side.

Immersive journalism—some call it literary anthropology—is his stock-in-trade, and Sager has built a reputation for diving deep into his subject matter, wherever the story leads.

As a former Washington Post staff writer and Rolling Stone contributing editor, Sager has amassed sturdy credentials, with work that has appeared in such magazines as GQ, Playboy, Men’s Health, and InStyle, to name a few. He’s also authored and edited a dozen books and now runs his own multimedia consortium and publishing enterprise, the Sager Group.

According to Sager, it all began at Emory, where he arrived on campus as a jock and left a journalist. “The Wheel gave me my sense of myself,” he explains.

“Who I am started there. It set me on a course I’ve followed for the rest of my life.” On the wall of his study in La Jolla, California, hangs a black-and-white photograph of Sager—then the Wheel’s executive editor—sprawled across the lap of Henry Schuster, then editor-in-chief of the Wheel and now a producer at CBS’s 60 Minutes.

It was their final Wheel deadline, and they’d just opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate. Both wear goofy grins and the exuberance of youth. It was Schuster, he recalls, who actually gave him his first shot at writing a column. “He remains one of my closest friends,” says Sager. To this day, Sager still keeps a scrapbook with his Wheel clippings along with an abiding respect for where it all began.

“When I go back to Emory, I have a feeling that the ghosts of everything that happened are still animating that spot,” he says. “I feel that strongly when I visit the Wheel offices.”

HENRY SCHUSTER 78C

Producer, 60 Minutes

On a cold, sunny January in 1977, Henry Schuster found himself standing amid throngs of people in Washington, D.C., watching as Jimmy Carter was sworn in as the 39th president of the United States.

Later that night, he would attend the presidential inaugural ball, mingling among the nation’s political elite—all told, a heady experience for a college junior.

Only a few months earlier, Schuster had stood in Atlanta’s World Congress Center to cover Carter’s election night amid a crowd that included Saturday Night Live alumni John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd. The victory announcement didn’t come until around 4:00 a.m., but Schuster was used to it—he often worked that late putting the Wheel to bed, then driving to Decatur to deliver the pages to the printer.

His point of entry to both events? His Emory Wheel press credentials, which he still has. “Both opportunities were amazing and fun and made me realize how journalism gives you a front row seat to history,” Schuster says.

Schuster had always been interested in journalism. After spending his first year at Emory participating in debate, he was ready for something different. “One day, I stopped by the Wheel offices, and they assigned me a story,” he recalls.

By his senior year, Schuster was editor-in-chief. After graduating from Emory with bachelor’s degrees in economics and history, Schuster spent two years at the University of Cambridge earning a master’s degree in modern history. Soon afterward, he took a job at CNN, a new cable news network that was gathering steam.

For 25 years, the Georgia native worked at CNN, both as an executive and senior producer, directing an investigative unit that came to specialize in coverage of terrorism, including high-profile stories ranging from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. In 2007, Schuster joined CBS as a producer for 60 Minutes. “I’m always learning,” he says. “Every day still brings a new lesson.”

Tanzman

MITCHELL TANZMAN 81C

Founding partner, co-chief executive officer and co-chief investment officer, Central Park Group; Emory trustee, Investment Committee chair

Mitchell Tanzman wasn’t interested in journalism when he arrived at Emory. He’d already written for his high school newspaper back on Long Island.

But when a fraternity brother asked him to tag along to the Wheel offices one day, he soon found himself brainstorming headlines. The brother was Mike Sager, the executive editor. And it happened to be a production night.

What started with a few headlines and some copyediting turned into an all-nighter. Within weeks, Tanzman was in the thick of it, first as a copy editor, then managing editor, and eventually editor-in-chief. “As I sorted out my student involvement, all of a sudden the Wheel became the thing—my primary student activity,” he says. “On a week-to-week basis, it wasn’t like we were changing the world, but occasionally you felt you were doing something impactful, really enhancing the campus conversation.”

Looking back, Tanzman credits the Wheel for teaching him how to run a small business. “There was an advertising group, a business office, and we had to figure how to manage a budget,” he recalls. “It also taught you how to deal with a diverse group of people—we all had the newspaper in common, but it was a great way to learn how to work collaboratively with an interesting cross-section of people.”

The experience also found him working with campus leadership—relationships that would eventually ripen into friendships.

“That connectivity was part of how I ended up staying involved with Emory,” says Tanzman, who chaired the New York–area Annual Fund in 1997–1998 and served on the Emory Alumni Board before being elected to the Emory Board of Trustees in 2013, where he now chairs the Investment Committee.

After graduating from Emory with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and political science, Tanzman earned a juris doctor degree from the University of Chicago School of Law, taking a job with a law firm in Manhattan that worked closely with mutual funds and asset management, which would become his area of expertise.

Nearly 10 years ago, Tanzman cofounded Central Park Group, which serves the growing demand for alternative investments.

Epstein

REID EPSTEIN 01C

Political reporter and chief Washington wire writer, Wall Street Journal

As a political reporter covering the 2016 presidential campaign for the Wall Street Journal, Reid Epstein finds himself in the field constantly facing snap decisions.

With a race that’s proven to be both bizarre and fascinating, much of his work is dominated by logistical problem solving. “There are days you will wake up in the morning and not know what city you’ll go to bed in,” Epstein explains.

Working on the Wheel laid a foundation for the kinds of daily problem solving he now faces, providing “templates for issues you’ll have to deal with, coming up with the answers in real time,” he says. “It was a crash course in management and leadership. I don’t think you realize in the moment that you are making a difference. But you are just trying to put the newspaper out—not all that different than what I do now.”

Epstein grew up around newspapers. His father, Shelley Epstein, was deputy editorial page editor for the Peoria Journal Star, which Reid grew up delivering. Yet, he didn’t arrive at Emory intent on pursuing journalism. Somehow, it just happened.

“I went to an organizational meeting, and the sports editor asked me if I wanted to write a column about baseball for the Wheel,” he recalls. His sports column would evolve into a news column; by his senior year, he was editor-in-chief. “I still think it was the most fun of anything that I’ve done,” he says. “I’ve never had quite so much responsibility and probably never will again.”

After graduating from Emory with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, Epstein earned a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University, followed by jobs at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and Newsday, before becoming a White House reporter for Politico, where he covered the 2012 presidential campaign.

ANDREW ACKERMAN 04C

Reporter, Wall Street Journal

As a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Ackerman covers financial regulatory policy out of the paper’s Washington, D.C., bureau, with a focus on the Securities and Exchange Commission.

After the financial crisis of 2007, “there was a lot of lax regulation,” he says. “There is a lot at stake in almost everything I write about, a lot of corporate governance issues. Essentially, there is this whole industry being regulated, and it’s been fun to watch how regulators do that or don’t do that.”

As a history major at Emory and Wheel editor-in-chief, Ackerman could never have predicted that he would wind up immersed in the world of financial regulatory policy. Following graduation, he headed to Washington, D.C., for an internship at the Nation magazine. After stints with a trade journal called the Bond Buyer and as an SEC reporter with the Dow Jones Newswire, he made the leap to the Wall Street Journal in 2013 and never looked back.

“It’s been a great platform,” he says. “My mother kept urging me to go to law school until she saw my byline in the Journal and decided maybe there is something to this journalism thing.”

ROBBIE BROWN 07C

Consultant, the Boston Consulting Group

Before Robbie Brown arrived at Emory, he was already writing letters in hopes of joining the Wheel.

"Yes, I was that super-nerdy go-getter,” says Brown. “I started as soon as I got there—it totally consumed my Emory experience. The Wheel was synonymous with college for me. They were one and the same.” Highlights include covering a visit by His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama and an interview with former President Jimmy Carter.

The Wheel was a safe place to practice journalism “with training wheels,” Brown says. “It was a living laboratory, and I don’t think there is any substitute for it. All of a sudden, the stakes are immediate.”

Before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history and journalism, Brown was named a Bobby Jones Scholar, earning a fully funded year of study at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where he indulged in some freelance travel writing.

Returning home, he spent five years as a junior reporter for the New York Times, a time of rapid change for the newspaper industry. “What that experience ended up teaching me was that I cared tremendously about the business realities and economic pressures that determine what news organizations survive and which ones don’t,” he says. “It also made me realize that I was more interested in what business opportunities existed amid all of the turmoil. I wanted to get in a position where I could think creatively about the business-side challenges of journalism.”

Switching gears, Brown went to Columbia Business School, earning a master’s of business administration in the school’s media program. Now he’s a “journalist turned management consultant” with the Boston Consulting Group, focused on media, technology, and digital advertising working with large media companies.

Lee

MICHELLE YE HEE LEE 10C

Reporter for Fact Checker, Washington Post

As a contributing reporter for the Washington Post’s popular Fact Checker blog, Michelle Ye Hee Lee digs for the truth beyond political rhetoric—and the 2016 presidential campaign is keeping her busy. But Lee is used to dealing with conflicting opinions and making tough calls.

Working at the Wheel as a reporter, news editor, and editor-in-chief during the economic recession of 2007–2010, Lee witnessed the financial pressures that would strike most American newspapers. At the same time, she was struggling to give the campus paper a social media presence.

“We were in the red for a couple of years and had to start making tough cuts,” Lee recalls. “It was a hard time for newspapers in general.”

But there were also moments that underscored the important role that newspapers can play in driving public dialogue. Following the Tuesday election of Barack Obama in 2008, the following Friday edition of the Wheel offered a news analysis of what it meant for him to become president.

“Some students felt that we had glossed over a historical moment,” she recalls. “We had public meetings to explain how the news cycle worked, held First-Amendment forums and invited in speakers to talk about news coverage and judgment. It really made me feel passionately about being an editor and wanting to help open campus communication. I was able to have discussions with campus leaders and have student voices heard—a very formative experience for me.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in international studies and English, Lee pursued a series of newspaper internships before being selected for a Pulliam Journalism Fellowship at the Arizona Republic, where she became a government accountability and politics reporter.

“It helped me see the importance of accountability reporting, of holding the powerful accountable, really digging in and finding the truth,” she says. “When I got the job writing for the Fact Checker, I was so excited to have a chance to continue digging deeper—and what better time to do it than a presidential election?”

Mah

EVAN MAH 13C

Food editor and restaurant critic, Atlanta Magazine

Evan Mah considers himself Chinese by heritage but Southern at heart. He grew up working in the restaurants his parents ran in Olive Branch and Horn Lake, Mississippi, immersed in a world of down-home Southern cooking.

He was scrubbing pots as soon as he was old enough to stand on an upside-down egg crate. “I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything,” he says. “I learned a lot about restaurants and a lot about hard work. Now when I write about restaurants, it’s something I keep in mind—these people are working incredibly hard and many times they don’t get a lot of recognition for what they do. In some cases a good article can change their business and their lives.”

Mah came to Emory to major in journalism and sociology. But he had already dabbled in journalism; while still a junior in high school, he launched a food blog, the Patagonian Toothfish, with a focus on reviewing restaurants around Atlanta and Memphis, Tennessee, his hometown.

At the first Wheel planning meeting of the year, he approached the editor to talk about the possibility of restaurant reviews. During his freshman year, Mah visited 40 restaurants without a car, dragging his friends to high-end tables like Bacchanalia and Rathbun Steak.

“I was very dedicated to learning about the city and eating as much as I could.”

As a senior, he took the reins as the Wheel’s editor-in-chief. It was a tumultuous time for campus news. After every production night, Mah would return home and just lie on the floor. “On top of schoolwork, I was putting in at least 40 hours a week,” he says. “But we didn’t do it because we got paid a ton of money. We did it because we loved it—your school, the work, the truth.”

After graduation, Mah joined the staff of Atlanta Magazine in November 2013, following a summer internship there. Five months later, his boss left, and Mah stepped into the role of food editor.

“I love the work that I do,” he says. “Dining is the cultural currency of the day. In many ways, that is how you define a great city, by its food. Getting to cover that journey—study and analyze it and have a platform to affect that growth—is so special.”

Email the editor