Western Herald celebrates 70 years as a student-run newspaper
By Shawntai Brown
The Herald has incurred a lot of fine tuning, going from being completely influenced by faculty, to gaining independence from the university.
The first version of WMU’s newspaper was printed June 28, 1916 before the school had even become a university and mostly served as college for women going into education. Then called The Western Normal Herald, the paper was headed by Editor Ralph M. Ralston, faculty Dr. William McCracken, and advisor Miss Lavina Spindler.
The paper was available once a week to students for five cents per copy or $1 for a one-year subscription at a time when Lew Hubbard advertised bathing suits for under $5. Less than 20 years later, the name changed to The Teachers College Herald, but it wasn’t until 1938 that the big change was made.
That year the headline read, “Students begin editing own school paper.” Editor-in-chief Willis Bullard headed the production of the four-page paper while Paul Sangren resided as Western’s president.
The Herald didn’t just respond to the news on campus, but became the proclamation for the college’s opinion in the heart of World War II. Dec. 11, 1941, then Editor-in-chief, Robert Harvey, wrote in the “Our Position” editorial section, “War was declared by the President Monday at noon … and we are whole heartedly behind President Roosevelt.”
Advertisements for more financial support to produce war arms flooded the paper, but didn’t seem to put a damper on the coverage of the little number of sports that Western offered or the announcements of various musical artists making their way to Kalamazoo. The following year the paper renamed itself The Western Herald, a name that, with the exception of one word, stuck through the years.
Western officially became a university in 1958 and not too long after the atmosphere on campus and the United States as a whole became more controversial. “Up until the 1960s faculty ran the Herald,” said Richard Junger, Ph.D., a journalism professor and member of the Herald Board of Directors over the last 10 years. “It was really more of PR (public relations) for the university and not a public voice for students.”
While the University of Michigan was hosting the first “teach-in,” a series of non-violent protests against the U.S. government’s involvement in Vietnam, the need for diversity of opinion in the editorial section became a growing concern. Bruce Carmen, tired of being the sole person to express his opinion in the Herald, lobbied for the first editorial board. “Very simply the problem with the editorial policy of the Herald is that it is nonexistent … Therefore, I appeal to you, members of the student body, to help me in this endeavor,” Carmen wrote Dec. 8, 1965.
The 60s brought the erection of Sprau Tower, eight pages of university coverage, phones in every dorm room, and the changing attitudes about race and war.
This attitude adjustment was prevalent in one letter to the editor when an ex-marine who fought in WWII expressed his opinion. “The intellectual rejects the concept of war, relegates it to the primitive – refutes it. He rebels against death – the useless squandering of human pawns in military games,” wrote Werner O. Fenner Nov. 17, 1965.
The 60s also included more blacks attending schools and the voice for the educated black community came forth as the Civil Rights Movement progressed. The assassination of John F. Kennedy nearly halted university activities Nov. 22 in 1963, as students gathered for a memorial. Nearly a month later, 2,000 students and faculty gathered once again when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the university.
“The score of segregation will become malignant and the cancer will totally destroy the soul of the nation,” King was quoted in an article by 1963 Editor-in-chief Judy Bell. James Farmer covered the “Negro attitude changing” in the Jan. 14, 1966 issue, writing “[negroes] are no longer afraid to sit in jail for a just cause.”
Besides race and war, debates over birth control and women’s rights invaded the minds of students. As countless college-age Americans went to fight overseas, student writers began raising the question, if an 18-year-old can bear arms and die for his country, shouldn’t he be able to vote for his president? At the time the legal voting age was 21.
Rent was as little as $45 per month for an apartment and Bronco Transit replaced Eddies Powless bus at the end of the 60s.
The 1970s brought a more defined sports section, featuring the Broncos, previously known as the Hilltopers. The tensions of war and rallies for peace cooled down to a slow simmer and the university found itself struggling in the early 1980s.
“It was a time of economic depression in Michigan when a lot of people were leaving to go to places like Texas. Enrollment was down at the university,” said O’Ryan Rickard. Rickard spent 24 years at the Herald, serving as general manager and advisor while he and his wife, Joan, taught communication students. “[The paper] was quite a bit smaller. It was a tabloid, three times a week. Most of the time it was twelve pages,” said Rickard.
Prior to the Herald getting computers in the late 80s, the paper was made on a compu-graphic machine, the intermediate computer of its time. The information was typed into the machine and saved to a floppy disk. The floppy was then given to Printing Services, where the type was printed to photographic paper and then pasted onto grid paper.
“The year before I got there the editors had taken [the finished papers] around to certain spots on campus,” said Rickard. Rickard created the circulation department, hiring a number of people to relieve the editors of delivering papers around campus.
The late 80s included the birth of The Weekend Scene. Shirley Clemons played a big role in the start of the Weekend Scene, an entertainment tabloid that predated the Kalamazoo Gazette’s “Ticket.” The idea came from students and the staff originally considered making The Scene a Friday newspaper, but opted against it in the end. “Student’s at Western don’t do much going to class on Friday,” Rickard said.
Other factors changed the face of the Herald, eventually contributing to it becoming a more independent paper. The expense of using the university’s Printing Services was questioned. “The amount of money we were being charged by the university for printing was not competitive with other places,” said Rickard. Not to mention the university had a small press. The Herald decided to move to a commercial printer, significantly lowering the cost for printing. Around that same time, the financial support by the university was headed towards a stop; however, once that funding did end, the Herald managed to hold its own and even pay its writers and editors above minimum wage. By the mid 90s the Herald had revenue of $600,000 with about 100 students on the payroll.
“I think we always wanted to be financially stable. We wanted to have resources for students and we wanted it to be a good workshop table that would compliment class training,” said Rickard. The Herald team was striving for a community paper that was both responsible and unbiased. The 80s and 90s held a number of stories that battled with justice and earned the Herald clout as a student paper.
“There was a bar in town called Froggy’s that was trying to eliminate the attendance of minority and foreign students,” said Rickard. The bar would inflict a cover charge only to minority and foreign students, allowing Caucasian students free entry. The Herald, determined to see if the rumor of discrimination was true, sent teams of students, one minority and one white, to the bar.
“They wrote a story on it and it created an investigation by the state,” said Rickard. “Eventually the bar closed.” While some of the editors received threats for their actions, the story won the National Collegiate Media Association’s story of the year.
Being independent of the university meant less censorship and a commitment to delivering unbiased news. The Herald came head-to-head with the university when the university tried to cut back programs and departments with Priorities Project. “They were going to eliminate things they didn’t think were priority,” Rickard said. A number of faculty were also going to be let go and the news would come as a shock to many.
“The Vice President of Academic Affairs had not told the people who were going to be cut about this,” Rickard said. The university wanted to prevent the students from running the story, but Rickard said he refused to let that happen. In the end, Priority Project was stopped.
Perhaps the most tension-filled story came in the late 80s after one of the many riots that happened on Lafayette Street at the beginning of every school year. “One year I think some cars were burned and police wanted to get the photos [from the Western Herald staff] to prosecute the students involved … it was kind of a tense moment,” Rickard said.
Threats were made to take the paper to court over the photos and Rickard said that it was a tough situation to handle. “Eventually we allowed the university to see the pictures, but not the police.” Rickard said the Herald was comfortable with that decision.
“You are never going to please everybody. In my opinion, we were unbiased and ethically fair,” said Rickard of the coverage the Herald had. “We never considered our job is to make everybody happy. We were there to tell the truth.”
The paper also had a chance to learn some lessons along the way. When three students were arrested on campus that year, the Herald ran the photo of just one. The issue was of the three students just one of them was black. He was also a football player and the Herald already had a photo of him on file, which they decided to use. This outraged a number of minority students, but Rickard said it made a valid point in terms of staffing.
“If you would have had more minority editors there, they would have caught that and not let that happen,” Rickard said he told the staff.
Staffing had always been an interesting factor for the paper, and despite previous run-ins with diversity, the paper has produced a number of notable individuals. “I think if you go back over the last 10 years, a good number of editors are working in the field,” said Junger.
Back in 1980, James Jones became the first black editor at the Herald and also wrote for the arts and entertainment section. He eventually went on to write for the Detroit Free Press.
Another success story is cartoonist John Fountain. He worked for the Herald in the 90s and his cartoons often turned heads. “He even included the president of the university in his cartoon strips. He was not always very nice,” Rickard said. Dieter Haenike was president at the time and stood up for Fountain. Rickard said the two actually became friends. “John became a kind of legend on campus,” Rickard said. Fountain went on to become a cartoonist for the controversial show “South Park.”
Rickard also recalls cartoonist Wes Garmond who did a strip called “Oz” and talented graphic artist Paul Fiezer. “They made the Herald very interesting pages to read.”
In celebrating the Herald’s anniversary of being a student-run paper, it’s important to explain what that means today. “A lot of universities, they add to the student fee a little extra for the run of the newspaper and in return students get a free paper,” Junger explained. The Herald, however, does not depend on student or university support at all. In fact, starting around 2001 the university charged the paper about $19,000 to rent the office space in Faunce.
“I’ve always been very proud of the way the students have handled the paper financially,” said Rickard. He said business students have been a great asset to the paper in recent years since the paper depends on advertising revenue to finance production and pay the staff.
“I think we can hold our head up high compared to Michigan State’s paper,” said Junger. “I would have to say in the last 10 years the Western Herald has evolved from a club.”
While the paper offers a starting point for journalism students, it has become more competitive in hiring reporters. “This is now something you can put on your resume,” said Junger who also pointed out that having a good student paper helps in attracting students to the journalism department.
“I think it gives students a voice that they wouldn’t otherwise have. I want you guys to have your own voice,” said Junger. “We want the Herald to be independent.”