The gay and gusty world of the college press
From their ivy-covered strongholds, Canada’s liveliest newspapers aim a barrage of spoofs, puns and vitriol at a world that notices them only when they’re in hot water. Fortunately, they usually are
The twenty-three liveliest, zaniest, least inhibited newspapers in Canada are never seen on newsstands and their combined circulation of sixtyeight thousand is read by less than one percent of the population.
They are one of the last outposts of a flamboyant. crusading brand of journalism that once was identified with crusty old men in galluses and string neckties, yet their readers, writers and editors are all in their late teens or early twenties.
These twenty-three papers are the members of C anadian University Press, devoted to delivering the news to the hundred thousand university students from St. John’s to Vancouver. They range in size from the University of Toronto’s Varsity, a morning daily with 7.400 circulation, to the Muse of Memorial University, St. John's, which publishes 1,300 copies once every two weeks during the school year.
Of the others, one (McGill) is a daily, one (University of British Columbia) publishes three times a week, five appear twice a week, twelve are weeklies and two are printed fortnightly.
All but three are tabloid size, running between four and twelve pages an issue. Their publishing costs are a quarter of a million dollars annually, a hundred thousand dollars'of w hich comes from students—most university fees include about a dollar for subscriptions—and the rest from advertising.
Their pages crackle with enthusiasm and their headlines blare forth a wildly punning, opinionated style all their own. DIEFENBAKER AGAINST SIN, announced the McGill Daily when its editors decided the prime minister had failed to say anything new in a campus speech. SILENCE. ZONE D’HOPITAL, quipped the University of Montreal’s Quartier Latin when
work fizzled to a stop on a new' school-of-mcdicine hospital. THEY DUCKED, the Queen’s Journal decided when a last-minute place kick skimmed the goalposts and won a championship for the Golden Gaels. When Toronto's football team swamped London’s purple-sweatered University of Western Ontario Mustangs, the Varsity headline said PURPLE PEOPLE EATEN.
Creating headlines like these is only one of the joys that have made college editing a traditional training ground for novelists, journalists, humorists and statesmen.
Gérard Filion, editor of Montreal's battling Le Devoir, has called the college papers “the last bastions of a free press in Canada.” They are also one of the last rallying points for irreverent individualists in a university generation that is commonly accused of being incorrigibly respectable and dull. Their editorial pages stand fiercely for—or against—any issue from free love to high streetcar fares where they feci the students' voice should be heard.
Despite these few common tendencies, most of the papers are “loners” who close ranks only when faced wàth a major crisis such as the University of Ottawa’s decision last fall to suspend three student editors from further activity on its French-language paper, or when a joke originated on one campus reaches trans-continental proportions. On such occasions, in the grand tradition of free-wheeling journalism, they are quite capable of making their own news.
In October 1956. Sandy Ross, editor of British Columbia's Ubyssey. and three of his fellow “pubsters" (UBC’s traditional name for students under the Publications Board) attended Premier E. C. Manning's Sunday morning Back-to-thcBible radio broadcast while at the western conference of Canadian University Press in Edmonton. As the strains of the opening hymn swelled '’Trough the Paramount Theatre, Ross and his cohorts stealthily stole Manning’s white Stetson hat *rom the unguarded cloakroom. Immediately they wared Toronto: “You get Frost’s.”
The news spread across the network of Canadian University Press — CUP. Toronto's Varsity wired it east to the Queen’s Journal in Kingston and west to the University of Western Ontario Gazette. By this system a story can spread from
coast to coast without costing any paper more than the price of a collect telegram from the nearest university town.
Ross's challenge was accepted and, at CUP’s national conference in December, editors appeared with two hats stolen from Prime Minister St. Laurent and one from each of John Diefenbaker, Donald Fleming, Charlotte Whitton and Premiers Frost, Douglas, Campbell. Flemming, Stanfield and Smallwood. Notably missing from CUP's eventual donation to charity, though, was the hat of Premier Bennett of B. C., which eluded Ross and his pubsters in spite of three cunningly larcenous expeditions from Vancouver to Victoria.
Some ol the escapades of the college papers have a more serious purpose. In 1954 the editors of the Manitoban and the University of Saskatchewan Sheaf conspired to publicize a Hollywood starlet’s visit to the Saskatoon campus in aid of a Red Cross blood drive. More than a thousand tickets for a date with the starlet were sold for a pint of blood each before it was joyfully revealed that she was a Manitoba co-ed named Merle Anne Meyers. Toronto's Varsity repeated this stunt two years later, with a French-Canadian girl Iront the University of Montreal being passed oil as a French actress on her way to Hollywood. Before her real identity was revealed “Michelle Boudet” was interviewed on the CBC and wined and dined by the Toronto Telegram, whose reporter hoped she didn't mind the Canadian wine.
The sharp edge of their satire also serves to slice at red tape or to prick at what they decide are balloons of presumption.
A headline in the University of Alberta's Gateway cried “EUREKA GAS!' The story, accompanied by pictures ol a soil-testing rig and a ditch for the pipeline, explained gleefully that natural gas had been discovered smack in the middle of the campus. The story was picked up and repeated by an Edmonton radio station. But before too many students could badger the university to sell them preferred stock at six and a quarter cents a share, the Gateway announced it was all a lampoon of the administration’s failure to finish construction work that had scattered gaping holes throughout the campus.
In 1927. T. R Brophcy, The Queen’s Journal sponsored a tag day to end tag days— its staff dined on the profits
author of The Bunk, a weekly humor column in the Queen’s Journal, resolved to rid the world of tag days. He distributed through Kingston tags reading "Succour a Starving Poet" and, even though the words 'The Bunk” were printed prominently on each, hundreds of tags were sold. Brophey announced in his column that he had spent the money "as recklessly, ridiculously and irresponsibly as possible’’—on a sumptuous banquet for himself and other starving poets. But in the next issue of the Journal he conceded his point was made; the proceeds from the tag day to end tag days were donated to the Kingston General Hospital and Brophey, who later served a brief term as mayor of Windsor, Ont., paid for the banquet himself.
Like most of the papers, Toronto’s Varsity publishes an annual gag issue. In 1952, under editor Barbara Browne, now married to a professor of English at Queen’s, the Varsity announced that “Remedial Sex” would be compulsory at U. of T. The story was a reprint of the report of President Sidney Smith's thenfamous speech announcing remedial English classes for freshmen—except that the word “sex” had been substituted for “English.” ‘The Department of Sex at University College recently gave a simple examination to students in all three years of the pass course," the Varsity reported. “The examination was designed to test the students’ knowledge, range and ability. The results were alarming." The gag issue was seized by officials of the students’ council shortly after it appeared on campus, but a few copies managed to reach student hands. By the end of the day they were selling for a dollar each. Miss Browne was fired.
Incidents like the firing of Miss Browne are rare. Most college editors are appointed by their student councils and arc responsible to them. In general, the councils maintain a hands-off policy and —with only a few exceptions—university administrations let the student governments rule their own publishing roosts.
Two papers that are not members of CUP. the Purple and White of Assumption University, Windsor. Ont., and the Campus, of Bishop’s University. I ennoxville. Que., have complained about censorship. In 1950 the University of Montreal’s outspoken Quartier Latin grew so critical of the administration that its editors were made to submit their copy to the faculty before publication; but that issue was soon cleared up and this year's editor, Gilles Tessier, is convinced he can write exactly what he thinks.
So can most editors. In 1955. editor Gordon Vichert of the McMaster Silhouette, at the request of CUP's national conference, listed the twenty-three papers in order of their freedom. Vichert found in his study that the top twenty were almost equal in their privileges and the only three members of CUP suffering any significant degree of outside interference were the Purple and White, which has since withdrawn from the union, and the two papers (one in French, one English) at the University of Ot*awa where a crisis over faculty control developed this winter.
Topping Vichert’s list was British Columbia’s Ubyssey, where pubsters still rejoice in an Assumption professor’s description of their paper as “a vile rag” after the ratings were announced.
The Ubyssey, which takes itself the least seriously, enjoys a reputation as the most rambunctious of college papers. When the Far East crisis reached an early peak in the fall of 1956, a frontpage headline in the B. C. paper promoted the "Inside Story of Red China.” complete in one issue. The inside story turned out to be three quarters of a page printed in Chinese characters, which editor Sandy Ross still maintains was a list of laundry prices.
The same year, when Marilyn Bell was making headlines around the world by swimming the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Ubyssey ran a parallel campaign to have its features editor, Carol Gregory, swim the campus lily pond, twenty feet wide and one foot deep. For two weeks the paper recorded in detail Carol’s training program—and topped its reporting with a gigantic “SHE MAKES IT!" Picture coverage, which took two full pages of the paper, included a shot of a rowboat full of pubsters serving Carol beer through a straw while she rested halfway across the pond.
A merry touch alone does not make a college editor. Dealing with matters it considers serious, the undergraduate press can pontificate like a Greek oracle.
Such an occasion arises annually on Nov. II, when most of the papers join in a chorus of eulogy honoring the soldier dead of two wars. But even this solemn event is not held sacred.
In 1938, Cleo Mowers, now a Calgary newspaperman, was fired from the editorship of the University of Saskatchewan’s Sheaf after he chose Memorial Day as
an apt time to publish an editorial calling the men who died in World War I “dupes and fools.”
CUP was quick to take umbrage—not at the thought expressed by the editorial, for during the Dirty Thirties of the west few college papers were not radical in their approach to current affairs—but at the Saskatchewan student council’s action in firing Mowers. For college editors, who seldom agree as a body with what a single one of their numbers says, are prepared to defend, with the zeal of outraged evangelists, his right to say it.
It was this code that brought a salvo of editorial wrath on the University of Ottawa last year. The crisis at Ottawa began in February when editors Jean David and Normand Lacharité published the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of La Rotonde, the bilingual university's French paper. Scattered through the special edition were seventeen short editorial comments charging the Oblate fathers who run the university with treating the undergraduates as children. (At U. of O., for instance, students must present notes to explain their absence from lectures.) After a dressing down, David and Lacharité were forgiven. But the university’s alumni bulletin criticized La Rotonde’s charges. La Rotonde responded — with some heat. Then David and Lacharité were told by the administration they would not be readmitted to classes in the fall.
In its first edition when school reopened last September, La Rotonde, under new editors Louis Cliche, Pierre Trudel, and Roger Roy. printed a report on the dismissals written by Lacharité, now at Laval University in Quebec City. The editors were told by the Rev. Leon-
ard Ducharme, dean of students, that they would no longer be allowed to work on the paper.
The editorial columns of other university papers leaped to condemn the Oblates. “Administrations are reaching out like giant octopi, grasping and eventually strangling all efforts to present ftee, unbiased news to students.” charged the weekly paper of Carleton University, also in Ottawa. CUP president John Gray of Toronto wrote the U. of O. administration. quoting the motto of the Varsity: “Suffer yourselves to be blamed, imprisoned, condemned . . . hanged; but publish your opinions . . .” So strong was the reaction of the student press that Louis Cliche, one of the deposed editors, is sure that it alone saved him from outright expulsion. But editors who bait their administrations are seldom expelled.
In the fall of 1957 the McGill Daily published an editorial called The Shame of English Canada, which charged that “the English press appears to be editorially untrustworthy in provincial affairs.” “Let us not think,” charged the Daily, “that this does not concern us at McGill. It is a fact that the publisher of the (Montreal) Star is also senior governor of this university and it is very likely political pressure from Quebec City on McGill that is keeping those desperately needed federal grants from McGill . . . There is a complex web of tremendous wealth and power that runs this university and few of the men in the web are to be congratulated for their political wisdom and integrity.” Though it was mistaken in calling him the Star’s publisher (he has been replaced by his son) the Daily was referring o J. W. McConnell who in his lifetime has given McGill more than any other benefactor and for whom the university has just created the post of governor emeritus. But the only consequence of the Daily’s bite at the hand that fed it was an apology, requested by President Cyril James, in which the paper managed to repeat its charges in full for any students who had missed the original editorial. That editorial was part of a month-long campaign by the student newspapers of Quebec, whose results dramatically illustrate the power of the college papers when they do take an issue between their teeth. To show the depth of student desire for a hearing by Premier Duplessis on education policy, the undergraduate presidents of six universities decided to seek a oneday boycott of classes.
Immediately the editors took up the cry, and for a month their papers ran carefully planned campaigns, culminating in the McGill Daily's: “Which of you could cause the downfall of your brother? . . . Surely no student worthy of the name will fail at this moment of truth.” On the day of the strike, March 6, nineteen thousand of Quebec’s twenty-one thousand students stayed away from classes. The strike's organizers gave the papers credit for the fact that there were no pranks or demonstrations to detract from the serious purpose of the walkout. The night before the strike, the staffs of the Laval Carabin, the McGill Daily, the University of Montreal Quartier Latin. the Sherbrooke Campus Estrien, the Bishop’s Campus and the Sir George Williams Georgian combined to turn out one hundred thousand copies of a bilingual tabloid paper called The Quebec Student which explained the strikers’ purposes.
The full impact of the strike was realized late last fall when Duplessis, after months of ignoring the students' demands, gave a hearing to three of their representatives.
Student strikes inspired by the papers are not new. A University of Toronto boycott during the 1890s involved William Lyon Mackenzie King, then a student at Toronto's school of law.
King worked on the Varsity in 1895 under James Tucker, a crusading editor with some strong convictions about freedom of the press. The first editor of that year, James Montgomery, had blasted the administration for refusing to allow two prominent Laborites to address the university's political-science association. Asked to apologize, he resigned and fucker, who had been editor the year before, again took over the paper.
Happy to be back in a good steamy controversy. Tucker pointedly did not apologize for Montgomery's offense. He was suspended from classes. The students rallied. Urged on by undergraduate oratory, mostly Mackenzie King’s, they stayed out of classes for four days. The administration agreed to hear the students’ grievances. But King, whose father chaired the committee that first organized the Varsity as a literary magazine, had turned from a hero into a villain: losing interest in the cause before the strike was over, he went back to lectures. So strong did anti-King feeling become that five years later a group of Toronto graduates walked out of a banquet in Aylmer, Que., that King, as deputy minister of labor, was to address.
King's background of college journalism was shared by many who have risen to eminence as authors, critics or statesmen. Among the first writers for the University of New Brunswick’s Brunswickan were Bliss Carman. Charles CL D. Roberts and Theodore Goodridge Roberts: its first editor was George Foster. later knighted for his work as a senior minister in the Abbott. Bowell and Borden Conservative cabinets. Even in his undergraduate days. Sir George was developing the flowery style of rhetoric that made him a renowned orator: in the Brunswickan he described a St. John River paddle-wheeler as a “palatial floating palace." W. E. Gladstone Murray, first general manager of the CBC. founded the McGill Daily in 1911. and one of the CBCs most controversial figures, critic and moderator. Nathan Cohen, developed his skill on the Argosy Weekly of Mount Allison University. New Brunswick. Charlotte Whitton. first woman mayor of Ottawa, was also—in 1917—the first woman to edit the Queen’s Journal. Pierre Berton. author-columnist-panelist and former managing editor of Maclean’s, was senior editor of the Ubyssey in 1940-41. Matthew Halton, the late BBC-CBC news commentator, edited Alberta's Gateway in 1928-29. the year following Max Wershof who became ambassador to the UN in Europe. The late Lionel Shapiro, who became an outstanding novelist and Maclean's European correspondent. had been managing editor of the McGill Daily. Poet Earle Birney and playwright Lister Sinclair wrote for the
Ubyssey. Stephen Leacock contributed to the Varsity as an undergraduate.
In Canadian universities where there is no school of journalism—all but London's Western Ontario. King's College and St. Mary's in Nova Scotia and Ottawa's Carleton — the student paper serves as an important training ground. One of the most famous journalists to have learned his trade there was Harry Hindmarsh. wdio used picture techniques he experimented with on the Varsity in helping to make the Toronto Star the largest newspaper in Canada.
And some of our most famous humorists have been bred in the waggish tradition of the college press. The Varsity's tradition-rich Champús Cat—named, legend has it. by a printer's spoonerism more than thirty years ago and running ever since—appeared frequently in the late 1930s over the bylines of Umlauf Wiregarters and Hank Rooster. After considering a newspaper career. Wiregarters and Rooster accepted a job in radio which has led them to international fame as Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster.
British Columbia humorist Eric Nicol
was another to begin his writing career on a college paper. Like all who have graduated. Nicol is sure that the present generation couldn’t possibly live up to the traditions of college newspapering.
Nobody, all former editors arc sure, could get in as much hot water, could induce as many belly laughs or gore as many sacred cows as they did. As Nicol says. “Kids now are taught the technique of being stuffy before they even reach university. Anybody who is familiar with the laws of libel is going to make an emasculated college editor." ^