Paper Has Changed, But Focus Remains the Same

Posted June 9, 2005 at 2:54pm

The Roll Call of today is just a tad different than when it was born. In celebration of the paper’s 50th year, it’s time to take a look back at some of the ways it’s changed.

Roll Call founder Sid Yudain came to Capitol Hill in 1951 to work as a press secretary for then-Rep. Albert Morano (R-Conn.). A few years later, he saw the potential for a newspaper about Congress.

Even though a dozen or so newspapers and periodicals had been started within Congress and failed after two or three issues, Yudain had a different vision for his paper.

“My newspaper would be bright, peppy, informative, and entertaining, and would be exclusively for Congress and its people,” Yudain wrote in Roll Call’s 35th anniversary edition.

Yudain received a phone call from a New York Herald Tribune reporter in May 1955. The reporter asked Yudain when the first issue of his paper would be published. Yudain replied, “June 1,” which was just two weeks away. He then realized he might need a bit more time and told the reporter, “Let’s make it June 16.”

When started, Yudain ran the paper from Morano’s office, room 133 of what is now known as the Cannon House Office Building. With a circulation of 10,000, Roll Call was published biweekly and was free. Every other Thursday, those interested in the happenings of the Hill could pick up an issue of Roll Call and be on their merry way.

The ‘Little Paper’ That Could

Appearing on the editorial page of the July 28, 1955, issue was an editorial that said, “We came into this world on a policy that every Senator, Congressman and staff member was entitled to read ROLL CALL free of charge. … We rely on advertisements to keep your newspaper going.”

That was not long after the launch of Roll Call. But, almost three years later, Roll Call saw two big changes.

“The more frequent publication will permit this newspaper to keep a closer tab on Capitol Hill news, to bring up-to-the-minute happenings to our readers, and to better serve our advertisers,” a front page article in March 1958 read, announcing Roll Call’s graduation to a weekly newspaper.

The issue said that, as a biweekly, Roll Call had earned the title, “The most quoted little paper in the nation.” That little paper, in addition to upping its publication schedule in 1958, also started charging 10 cents per issue.

While an annual subscription to Roll Call was just $5 in 1958 and $12 in 1980, today a yearly subscription is nearly $400. Granted, Roll Call now comes out four times a week when Congress is in session, not just on Thursdays.

To try to put the price differences in perspective, a postage stamp cost 3 cents in 1955 compared to 37 cents today, and a gallon of gas cost 23 cents then, while today inside and around the Beltway, prices have held steady at more than $2 per gallon.

Some read Roll Call for the news, some read it for the gossip and perhaps some read it for the classified ads, which were free until the Jan. 12, 1956, issue when the paper began charging 15 cents per word. Poring over issues from its first year of publication, one finds advertisements for unfurnished apartments on the Hill with monthly rents as low as $65. Today, that amount of money likely would not make a dent in a Hillite’s rent expense, as it’s common to see rent prices start at $1,000 per month.

From Poetry to Politics

Likewise, Roll Call’s content has changed in the past 50 years. For instance, flipping through what was usually an 8-page issue, one could more often than not stumble upon a piece of poetry — and some poems were not at all relevant to Congress or Capitol Hill. However, one submission from a staffer in then-Rep. Warren Magnuson’s (D-Wash.) office was written to welcome “Spring On The Hill.” The poem was five stanzas, the first reading: “When legislators leave the floors / To seek a greener out-of-doors, / Abandoning debate and bill, / Then Spring is back upon the Hill.”

Speaking of debate, the infamous House Bean Soup served in the House Restaurant created quite a stir back in the day. The soup found its way onto the editorial page of Roll Call’s first issue beneath the headline, “Soup Law 51 Years Old Survives Repeal Threats.”

The story goes back to 1904, when then-Speaker Joe Cannon (R-Ill.) was “addicted” to bean soup, but there came a day when it wasn’t on the House Restaurant menu. The Roll Call editorial, which also included the recipe for the soup, said, “Cannon, noted for his explosive temper, shouted ‘thunderation,’ raced upstairs to the House floor and railroaded a resolution which required bean soup to be served each day.”

The topic was off Roll Call’s radar screen until almost a year later, when George Berg Jr., secretary to then-Rep. Robert Corbett (R-Pa.), wrote a Letter to the Editor saying he would “like very much to see the item ‘Bean Soup’ stricken from the menu in the new cafeteria” in what is now the Cannon Building. This led to a flood of letters to Roll Call from those who were outraged at the “brash suggestion” of abolishing bean soup. One letter said Berg’s suggestion of removing the soup from the menu was a “scurrilous, unwarranted, unfair and uninspired attack.” With so many letters, Roll Call could not print every one, but the paper did hold a straw vote to resolve the “bean soup controversy.”

“ROLL CALL asks that while we do not object to your stuffing yourself on bean soup, please do not stuff the ballot box,” said a paragraph in the vote announcement. Just a few weeks later, it was revealed that bean soup was favored on the Hill 5-to-1.

(May it also be noted that Senate Bean Soup has been on the Senate dining menu since 1903. Why it was not mentioned throughout this bean soup debacle is unknown, but our guess is because Yudain initially ran the paper from a House office.)

Roll Call also published a five-question “Congressional Quiz” every so often, which featured the answers on the following page or beneath the questions, upside-down. As an example, a question in the March 22, 1956, issue asked, “This year Easter Sunday falls on Apr. 1, April Fools Day. What Congress will be in session when this will happen again?” The answer: “After this year the next April Fools Easter will be 2040. The 126th Congress will be the one in session.” As we’ve still got some time to go before 2040, feel free to use that question as an interesting tidbit in any future conversations.

Roll Call Predictions

As a feature in the 1980 25th anniversary edition of Roll Call, political humor columnist Gary Grobman wrote a column titled “Roll Call at 50.” Not all of his predictions were that far off, either.

“It is likely that Roll Call will be publishing twenty-five years from today, and I imagine that it will report the following,” Grobman wrote, as he proceeded to his bulleted list of predictions. Excepts from a few are as follows:

• “Secretary of Energy James Flug announced today that the strategic oil reserve started in the 1970s now has enough oil to supply the needs of this nation in the event of a total supply interruption for three days. The three decade goal of a billion barrel reserve has finally been achieved under my administration, Flug announced. ‘Our next goal is to invent a system to get the oil out of the reserve should we need it,’ he added.”

• “Senate Majority Leader Elizabeth Holtzman (D-NY) announced that the United States should boycott the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Paris unless at least 200,000 Russian troops are withdrawn from that city. American athletes’ reaction was bitter. A spokesperson for one group of athletes said that politics should not play a part in the Games.”

• “The Congressional Staff Club, now with more than 300,000 members, is sponsoring a trip to the Washington Solons baseball game at the crumbling RFK Stadium. The Solons, in their first year, are at the bottom of the National League Middle Atlantic Division. Discount tickets are $8,000 for reserved seats.”

• “District of Columbia Delegate Pom Posity last week introduced a constitutional amendment resolution to allow D.C. citizens to elect a voting Congressman to the House of Representatives. ‘I am optimistic that D.C. will get some representation in Congress sometime this century,’ Posity said.”

Roll Call Staff

Within its first six months of publication, Roll Call was labeled “the hottest newspaper in Washington” by the “pocket news-magazine, ‘People Today.’” According to a front-page story (nothing like tooting our own horn), Roll Call was featured in the news magazine in a four-page, illustrated spread. The Roll Call article was written by then-Rep. Felix Edward Hébert (D-La.), who, beneath his byline, was labeled, “Rep.-Reporter of La.”

Members of Congress often acted as reporters for Roll Call when it was starting out. In fact, Yudain even sent Roll Call press cards to each Member within the paper’s first two months of existence.

That article written by Hébert read, “Mr. Yudain has enlisted all 531 members of Congress as his volunteer reporters — and, as ‘People Today’ puts it, ‘with the least-experienced but highest-paid staff of reporters in the history of journalism,’ how can [Yudain] go wrong?” Hébert then signs the article “from ‘one of them.’”

Covering “them” has always been Roll Call’s focus. While some Members currently are published in the paper through Letters to the Editor, submissions for Policy Briefings or op-ed pieces, the paper’s content is now all staff-generated. So it’s a good thing Roll Call’s staff has grown.

In 1955, Yudain started Roll Call with a budget of about $90 — which was the amount of a paycheck for him back then. And the staff consisted of Yudain … and that’s about it, aside from those who volunteered their editorial services.

The papers were usually eight pages, and Roll Call first exceeded its normal page count with its 12-page Christmas edition on Dec. 15, 1955. And, to mark its first anniversary, a 16-page paper was published June 28, 1956, which was the largest Roll Call had produced up to that point and “from available records, [wa]s the largest Capitol Hill newspaper ever published,” stated an article from the issue.

Roll Call has stepped it up over the years and the papers have gotten much larger (most likely the result of actually having a staff on the advertising/business side of things, which Yudain was lacking back in 1955). Today, it would be rare to see an issue less than 24 pages, and at least that many pages are necessary to house the work produced by the almost 20 staff writers that currently adorn the masthead.

The staff that started out as one has now grown to more than 50 (see the staff photo on page 37). While many things have changed in its 50 years of publication, one thing remains the same: Roll Call is still “The Newspaper of Capitol Hill.”

Happy 50th, Roll Call. Here’s to 50 more.