By Paul E. Kostyu, Associate Professor of journalism at Ohio Wesleyan University, updated and edited by Pete Lawrence ’99, online editor.
During the 1998-99 school year, The Transcript celebrated its 131st year of continuous publication last year, making it the oldest independent student newspaper in the nation. In that time span, the newspaper has had 155 editors and saw almost just as many changes in content and format as it did in editors.
“We thought it was pretty good,” said Charles J. Farran ’27 before his death in 1992. He was the editor of The Transcript in 1926-27. “I thought it was good because I was the editor. We were proud of it.”
The newspaper’s history dates to 1867 when it carried the name Western Collegian, which was begun as an individual enterprise by Joseph B. Battelle (1868). Battelle would later become a prominent journalist with the Toledo (Ohio) Blade.
From the beginning, the newspaper, which was based at the all-male University, served both a literary and journalistic function, though it was dominated by poetry, essays, reviews and scientific and philosophical articles. There was news of local interest, which included “communications on any living subject respecting the University and the [Ohio Wesleyan Female] college.” Published on alternate Saturdays, The Transcript sold for 10 cents per copy, 50 cents per term or $1.50 for a year’s subscription. Today, it costs 30 cents per copy or $18 for a year’s subscription.
After Battelle’s one year as editor, control of the Collegian passed to the senior class. “Now students,” the Oct. 7, 1868, edition stated, “it is in your hands, and dependent upon you for its success.” Editors were assigned in the spring of their junior year to serve into the spring of their senior year, usually March or April, when the next class would take over. The spring appointments, which were highly competitive, allowed outgoing editors to serve as a resource for the new editor.
With the transfer of power from Battelle, the new editors said the paper was intended to serve “the interests, not of any mere party, or organization of any kind, but of the whole body of students.” It has tried to keep its independent status ever since.
There were times when the newspaper admitted its voice was not quite so independent. A controversy erupted in 1869 when the newspaper awarded its publishing contract to the Delaware Herald, a supporter of the Democratic Party. The Delaware Gazette, a newspaper firmly in the Republican camp, had the contract, but the Herald offer was $200 cheaper.
“We have always deprecated the liberal course pursued by the Democratic Party,” the paper wrote in an editorial defending its action. It accused the Democrats of “trampling on the rights of students and crippled soldiers.” The paper said it could take care of Democratic legislators by voting them out of office and sending them to their “homes, where they would better have been their whole term listening to temperance lectures.”
But the editors justified the Herald contract saying, “for us to have paid the Gazette man that amount more than the Herald because he is a Republican would have proved us to be simply political fanatics… The [editorial] committee has an unimpeachable political record and an unvarying sympathy and identity with the Republican Party, but fail to discover any quality in their relation to that party requiring them to pay more to Republican than to a Democrat for the same services.” Publishers of the newspaper varied over its history from among companies in Delaware and Columbus, but now, once again, it resides with the Delaware Gazette.
Among other changes over the newspaper’s history was its name. It became known as The College Transcript, according to the Sept. 26, 1874, edition, because it was a “more euphonious, appropriate, and distinctive title.” It would not be the last name change. In 1902, it switched to the Ohio Wesleyan Transcript; and in 1972 it changed to its present monogram The Transcript.
With the first name change in 1874, the paper also lost some of its literary nature and moved toward becoming a more journalistic collegiate newspaper “in tone, coverage and format,” according to Henry Clyde Hubbart’s history of the University, Ohio Wesleyan’s First Hundred Years.
The switch to a true newspaper became complete when The Transcript faced fierce competition from The Practical Student, an alternative publication that remained on campus from 1888-1895. Literary material found a new home in a new publication, The Owl, which continues to be the literary publication at the school today. The Transcript is not without its competitors still. In 1988, The Righteous Times began publishing for the purpose of providing the campus and community with “a biased, subjective and otherwise twisted view of the Universe(ity).” In 1996, The Clean Pipe began publication on a seemingly bimonthly schedule to present alternative and somewhat less believable sides to campus news stories. It has since ceased publication.
The Transcript was also once threatened by another publication claiming to be The Transcript. In 1991, then editor John Wareck took the newspaper off campus. However, the original on-campus Transcript continued to publish under a new editor. The two Transcripts battled for advertisers and student readership, but both papers ended up suffering from the split. The sporadically-published off-campus Transcript eventually folded after two years due to financial losses.
Though both the Collegian and The Transcript included female writers on their staffs from the beginning, the editor’s slot was the male domain. The Collegian extended a formal invitation in 1871 to the women’s college to participate in the newspaper to provide “regular and systematic support” for the female college students. With the Oct. 4, 1873, edition, Emma Gray and Carrie Downs were recognized in the masthead as the editors representing the women’s college.
But the male editor bastion wasn’t breached until 1918 when Mary M. Morrison (’19), was named to temporarily lead The Transcript for a six-week span. Hubbart’s official history of Ohio Wesleyan recognizes Morrison’s brief stint as editor, but credits Jacquelyn Staats ’45 as the first full-time female editor during the 1944-45 academic year. In fact, Hubbart overlooked Morrison’s return as full-time editor during the 1918-19 year, when she replaced Charles B. Mills, who was editor but joined the military to fight in World War I. Morrison was likely to have been one of the first if not the first woman in the country to direct a college publication. Twenty-three other women would follow her lead to direct The Transcript.
Staats, now Mrs. William G. Cobbledick, led a female-dominated staff, including a female sports editor, Mildred Mooney, when there were few sports activities for women and long before women were allowed into male residence halls nonetheless male locker rooms.
Cobbledick, 72, parlayed her experience at The Transcript into a journalism career at newspapers in Cleveland, Ashtabula (Ohio) and Tucson, and in public relations and journalism teaching at the University of Arizona. “I probably deserved to be editor,” she said, explaining that issue editors actually did more work than the editor-in-chief.
Issue editors were responsible for a specific issue from cover to cover. “I feel I did a lot more work as a junior when I was an issue editor,” she said, noting that it was a natural step to go from issue editor to editor. In fact, an issue editor under Cobbledick, Grace Putnam, became in 1945-46 The Transcript’s third female editor.
“There was a lot of journalism background in my family,” Cobbledick said. “I really liked it and still do. I learned a lot [at The Transcript].” Though retired, Cobbledick works part-time as a copy editor for the Arizona Daily Star.
Cobbledick recalled that she was “too young to have the fire in the belly” attitude about being aggressive in her pursuit of stories. “Our stories were pretty soft,” she said, recalling that even the discovery of bedbugs leading to the closing of a couple of rooms in Monnett Hall did not generate a story.
If the “fire in the belly” ever existed among journalists on the OWU campus, it may have shown itself best during the 1960s and 1970s when campuses around the country were erupting with anti-Vietnam War fervor. Student journalists felt invigorated to challenge administrative authority.
Verne Edwards, who served as advisor to The Transcript during his 33-year tenure as a journalism professor, recalled stories that showed the OWU Bookstore as a delinquent taxpayer and others that demonstrated that Monnett Hall was dangerous place to live because fire escape doors were nailed shut.
“The administration used to be scared to death of the paper,” Edwards said. “But I think our paper showed more responsibility than most student papers of that period.”
Gary K. Shorts ’73, recalled that when he was editor, “we still had chapel, no coed dorms, no alcohol and still had hours. Then all of a sudden we were protesting, marching in Washington and growing hair.”
Campus-wide, students were more challenging of authority, “and the paper reflected that student aggressiveness,” Shorts said, but admitted he was less politically active than other editors.
“I remember distinctly going on an interview[of an administrator] with the academic affairs editor and afterward she said, ‘You didn’t go after him.’ I said, ‘Why should I?’ She felt like I had let him off the hook..”
But Shorts said he saw himself more as publisher than editor and left it up to the other editors and reporters to tackle the hot issues of the era. Shorts said his role was to try to save The Transcript financially.
“We were in trouble,” he said, explaining that the paper lost a substantial amount of its alumni subscriptions and local advertising because the newspaper’s political activism had alienated people. “we were very close to losing our independence by having subsidization from the University.”
Joseph M. “Chip” Visci ’75 also valued the independence of the newspaper. “There is no doubt Verne had a lot of influence on us,” said Visci, now working for Knight Ridder Newspapers in Florida, “but he didn’t put his hands on our stuff before the publication. Verne set the standards for us and we didn’t always live up to them each week.”
Visci credits his term as editor of The Transcript in 1974-75 as the best training he could have had to prepare for a journalism career. “I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything,” he said. “It was the single most important thing in my professional life.”
Visci said the experiences he had at the college paper parallel those he had when he worked as editor of local news at the Detroit Free Press. He recalled an editorial a Transcript columnist wrote that poked fun at a major advertiser. The columnist changed the reference to avoid losing the advertiser. “That was an ethical dilemma,” Visci said. “I’m not exaggerating when I say stories we have written here have cost us $1 million in lost advertising.”
Edwards admitted that The Transcript’s effectiveness as a journalistic enterprise fluctuated with the editors who led it. “Sometimes, we wouldn’t get as good an editor as I would have liked,” he said.
At other times, The Transcript found itself on the verge of not having any editor at all. Over the six-year span from the fall of 1984 to the spring of 1990, The Transcript had 10 editors.
Jody Chatalas, editor in 1987 and 1988, decided to make the paper free to students on the OWU campus in the Spring of 1987. Prior to that, students who didn’t have subscriptions (which were placed in their mailboxes weekly) had to search around the campus for a copy to buy. After crunching numbers Chatalas felt on-campus revenue was so low anyway that going free wouldn’t make that big a difference, and that perhaps a larger circulation would encourage more advertisers.
Kris Adamo ’91 did not want the job when she was appointed in the fall of 1989.
“The previous editor quit because she couldn’t get a staff together,” Adamo said. “There was no staff. My goal was to bring some semblance of order, to establish a standard.” She noted that the paper had few ads, was $3,000 in debt, was mostly filled with pictures and was only being published sporadically.
“No one wanted to be editor because it was a mess,” Adamo said.
Adamo said she believed she had some success. “I got some good people around me and Melissa Jones [who followed her as editor] was excellent.”
Throughout its history, Transcript editors have been proud of the paper’s independence, though the claim has been disparaged because it has been housed in campus buildings. In the 1950s, The Transcript was located in a Quonset hut where Bigelow-Rice Hall now stands; it moved to offices in the natatorium in the mid-1950s, before going to the Memorial Union Building. Its fourth home was in a building where Mowry Alumni Center now stands. Then the paper moved to the first floor of Slocum Hall, before moving to its current location in an office on the third floor of Slocum.
“I believe the independence was crucial to making The Transcript a good educational tool,” said Edwards, now assistant to the publisher of the Delaware Gazette. “Editors made their own decisions and lived with the consequences. Most were incredibly responsible, I found.”
Fast Facts About The Transcript:
- Advertising was a key element of even early issues. Ads were devoted to photographers, silversmiths, clothing shops, fine art stores, shoes, engraving, barbers, watchmakers, tailors, publishers, boats, meat, lumber, fancy goods, groceries, druggists, hardware, livery, hoops skirts and Van Sickle & Wyker’s “Best Coal in the City.”
- In the early years, the Western Collegian and The Transcript were published every other week on Saturday. By 1891 it became a weekly, but in the 1930s was published twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. It reverted to a weekly publication in the 1940s and is now published every Wednesday when school is in session.
- Edward W. Hamill was the only person to serve for two consecutive years as editor in 1900-01 and in 1901-02. Family names reappeared in the list of editors. Two Havinghurst editors served the paper: Robert J. in 1920-21 and James W. in 1929-30; there were two editors with Morrison as a last name: Wallace in 1914-15 and Mary in 1918-19; there were three Merwin editors: Fred E. in 1928-29, Charles L. in 1933-34, and Paul H. in 1936-37; there were two Diem editors: Bill in 1946-47 and William in 1968-69; and two Miller editors: John L. in 1953-54 and David J. in 1955-56.
- One of The Transcript’s most famous associate editors was Normal Vincent Peale, who held the position under editor Gardner H. Townsley in the 1919-20 academic year.
- Gilson Wright in 1929 became the “first man in the history of the college semi-weekly to fill at one time every major editorial position on the paper”—editor, managing editor and sports editor.
- The paper switched from a broadsheet format to tabloid size in 1944-45.
- Typesetting of The Transcript’s stories went from hot lead to cold type in 1972-73.