I have so many good memories from my days at the Wildcat, but one of my favorites was when a bunch of shaggy-haired college kids had the temerity to sue their own university for access to public records pertaining to an athletic department slush fund. (The idiots were stupid enough to keep receipts of their illegal activities). We couldn’t afford attorneys, but somehow our editor, Judy Nichols, talked the fledgling Arizona First Amendment Coalition into taking our case.
It was an amazing feeling when we won, but we were crushed when we realized that the deadline the judge set for the release was after the start of winter break, when we were in publishing hiatus, meaning every other news outlet would get our story before we did.
Then someone, I don’t remember who, came up with the idea of printing an extra. When the UA finally coughed up the records, a handful of us who were still in town –Judy and Tom Nichols, Phil Matier, Sam Stanton, Drez Jennings and I (I hope I haven’t left anyone out) — called everyone we knew – our parents, our professors, even journalists at the grown-up newspapers — and hit them up for $20 so we could raise the $1,000 to print a four-page extra edition.
In a matter of hours we had the money. We raced to analyze the records, wrote and edited our stories late into the night on our Christmas break, and got it to the printer by deadline. I’ve worked on a lot of huge stories in the last 30 years, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as proud of anything as I am of that extra. Most students, faculty and staff never saw it, but UA President John P. Schaefer sure did. We know because we hand-delivered copies to his office.
Someone else who saw it was the judge in our case. A few days after we printed, we had a hearing on whether the university would have to pay our attorney fees. The judge gaveled the hearing to order, then proceeded to read the section cover to cover. When he finally spoke, he said he was happy that the future of journalism was in such good hands, and then he ruled in our favor once again.
That episode taught me so many lessons that have served me for my entire career. Among them: Never bow down to authority – it’s our job to hold them accountable, and if we don’t do it, no one will; Never underestimate a small group of committed underdogs who are convinced they’re doing the Lord’s work; When someone throws up a roadblock, go around it. Or over it. Or through it; Never give in, even when you think you’re beaten — your passion and creativity will see you through.
John D’Anna (pronounced D’Anna) is a Page 1 editor at The Arizona Republic, where he polishes A1 prose, tries to cadge more headline space from page designers, and exhorts the paper’s top reporters and editors to remember that deadlines are not merely suggestions.
In addition to all that editing, he also writes a weekly column that has its finger on the pulse of the City of Wide Streets and Narrow Minds© (a.k.a. Mesa), and he occasionally bangs out an A1 story just to show he’s still got it.
Before his current assignment, he was a humble Mesa community editor, where he edited school lunch menus and exhorted his team of watchdog reporters to afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted and bring him donuts. Before that assignment, he was a senior platform manager, which is what they inexplicably decided to call the metro editor three or four reorgs back.
In 20 years at the Republic, he has served as a deputy managing editor, senior editor for metro, projects editor, deputy city editor and assistant city editor, but not all at once. He directed a number of award-winning investigative projects, oversaw the Republic’s Millennial redesign and was named one of Gannett’s top 16 newsroom supervisors nationwide in 2003. He was a member of the editing team that covered the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Tucson. That work was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.
D’Anna was also the point person for two significant Republic First Amendment cases: a successful mandamus action before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stemming from coverage of the criminal trial of Gov. Fife Symington; and a successful public records suit against the state Education Department over the release of standardized test questions. Frankly, he doesn’t remember a whole lot of the details, but both efforts were honored with freedom of information awards, and he enjoyed the banquets very much, even if they didn’t serve donuts.
Before coming to the Republic, D’Anna was an editor and reporter at The Mesa Tribune, escaping just in time to keep from getting his 10-year pin; and a reporter at The Oakland Tribune, where he once interviewed Morris the Cat and the governor of California on the same day. It was the first time he can ever recall preferring the company of a cat.
When not toiling in the newsroom, D’Anna is an adjunct instructor at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Stuff, where he exhorts his students to get the facts right, get the right facts and bring him donuts. He also frequently guest lectures on media law and journalism, which he does for free so he can rationalize not donating to his alumni association.
Speaking of which, D’Anna received his B.A. in journalism from The University of Arizona in 1983, graduating magna cum lucky, and he proudly serves on the UA Journalism School Advisory Council, which is the least he can do without having to cough up dough.
D’Anna also serves as vice president of the Arizona First Amendment Coalition, which serves him right for missing the meeting where they elected officers. He also volunteers as a crisis care minister through his church and serves on the national board of a non-profit that works with at-risk youth.
In his spare time, he plays ice hockey and is a fourth-degree black belt and the 2012 world sparring champion in taekwondo (yeah, at his age) so you all better be on your best behavior.
D’Anna is married to Melanie D’Anna, a first-grade teacher and recovering photojournalist. They have a daughter, Natalie, a third-generation Wildcat and aspiring journalist; and son, Jack, a high school senior who plans to apply to UA as his “safety school.” They also have a dog named Hachi who can’t make up his mind whether he wants to go in or out, but at least he’s not a cat.