Birth Of A Notion
The publication of a daily paper had long been the goal of KU journalism students and faculty, but it only became physically practical after 1911. In that year, Professor Merle Thorpe, incoming head of the KU Journalism Department, arranged to purchase new printing presses for the exclusive use of his students. (Prior to 1911, the publishers of the University Kansan had been producing their tri-weekly paper on the Graduate Magazine’s press in the basement of Fraser Hall.) By 1912, the Journalism Department had both the means and the desire to finally put out a daily paper – something many members of the campus community believed was long overdue.
“For a number of years,” noted the first University Daily Kansan editorial, “the state University of Kansas has been recognized as one of the big and efficient educational centers in this country, and the establishing of a daily paper will not only augment the influence of the University within the state, but also will convince every college in the land that in journalism, as well as in other things educational, Kansas is well toward the front.”
Indeed, many people associated with the University made this strong correlation between publishing a daily student newspaper and enabling KU (not to mention Kansas as a whole) to achieve its due degree of academic respectability. This was especially true in December 1911 when the editors of the Kansan were trying to decide whether to go to daily publication. “The University Kansan should be a daily,” they wrote on December 5. “At present it compares favorably only with other Kansas college papers, and is not in a class with student dailies of other universities. There is not a university in the country of the rank of Kansas that has not a student daily. Our neighbors on every side boast daily papers. There is Nebraska, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Chicago [and] Missouri.”
KU Chancellor Frank Strong weighed in two days later, saying, “A university as large and important as the University of Kansas needs a daily paper. It would ensure a better news service for the whole institution, a better knowledge of what the University is doing, and a more accurate reflection of the best spirit of the institution.”
The launch of a daily was not without controversy, though. The Kansan now had its own “printing laboratory” in the basement of Medical Hall, a building the journalism students affectionately called “the Shack,” with they themselves known as “Shack Rats.” (In 1952, the journalists moved into Flint Hall and “the Shack” was razed ten years later to make room for the Watson Library extension.) The Kansan also had a motivated body of 110 journalism students and capable faculty leadership.
However, as editor Louis LaCoss admitted, “Some students have expressed a fear that the Daily Kansan will cease to be a student publication and will now become a faculty organ in which the department of journalism will be the dominating factor. Such a fear,” he assured students, “is groundless.” To remove any conflicts of interest, LaCoss reminded his readers that, while the Kansan will use the journalism department’s equipment, “it will pay in full for this service.” And, furthermore, “the editorial and business departments will be strictly under student control…. The policy of the Daily Kansan is entrusted to the editor-in-chief and he is responsible for whatever appears on the editorial page.”
Louis LaCoss would later become editor and vice-president of the St. Louis Globe Democrat and win a Pulitzer Prize for “distinguished editorial writing” for his column on the 1951 West Point cheating scandal. Yet before he attained national prominence, he devoted his energies into making the Kansan truly a campus-wide paper by inviting students from all university departments to apply for staff positions, stressing the need for reporters “from every school.” In addition, the paper would show no preference for applicants from the journalism department since all “appointments will be made strictly on the merit basis.”
With these words, the University Daily Kansan premiered on January 16, 1912. Its stated purpose was “to picture the undergraduate life of the University of Kansas; to go further than merely printing the news by standing for the ideals the University holds; to play no favorites; to be clean; to be cheerful; to be charitable; to be courageous; to leave more serious problems to wiser heads; in all, to serve to the best of its ability the students of the University.”
In addition to reporting general university news, sporting events, and student activities, the Kansan had the opportunity to cover a number of distinguished visitors to KU in 1912, such as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jane Addams, Booker T. Washington, and Kansas Governor Arthur Capper.
The Kansan also followed the activities of KU’s Debating Society that was formed in 1912, reported on the University’s first intercollegiate wrestling tournament, and covered the 20th annual meeting of the State Editorial Association of Kansas that convened on campus. A special edition of the Kansan appeared on April 26, when, for the first time, the newspaper was solely a product of KU’s 15 female journalism students. Also newsworthy was the enrollment of the first female engineering student, Marion Manley (who failed to graduate, though) and the first blaring of the power plant whistle to mark the end of each hour’s classes: Of KU professors, the Kansan asked, “Will they ever learn to ‘stop on the toot?’”
Also in 1912, the Kansan began to feature news from high schools across the state in order to “keep the University informed on the important events at the sources from which come the great majority of its students.” Although the practice lasted only one year, the paper recruited then-current high school students to serve as special Kansan “correspondents” and offered cash prizes to those who did the best work. In 1912, John Gleissner of Abilene, who would later attend KU and work on the Kansan staff, won the coveted $25 prize for outstanding high school reporting.
The Kansan also featured short stories that periodically appeared on the editorial page, plus the work of cartoonist extraordinaire, Henry “Hank” Maloy, who, “whenever things got dull, would furnish the front page with humorous cartoons of KU life.” Maloy is probably best known, though, for having been the original creator of the first Jayhawk caricature, which made its debut in the Kansan on October 28, 1912.
Looking back, as KU historian Robert Taft has acknowledged, “we are all indebted … to the Kansan and its numerous predecessors for a detailed and interesting account of University life. It is the most important single source of information on University history” and will surely remain so. Yet the Kansan’s role as a training ground for professional journalists is at least as important as its role in chronicling and preserving University history. Besides the Pulitzer Prize-winning LaCoss (’12), the Kansan can also boast of Ben Hibbs, a long-time editor of the Saturday Evening Post; Chet Shaw (’24), for many years the editor of Newsweek; Richard Harkness (’28), and Bill Downs (’37), commentators for NBC and CBS, respectively; Joy M. Miller (’44), women’s editor of the Associated Press; and Earl Johnson (’22), general news manager of United Press International.
As the Kansan recalled in its 50th anniversary edition published on January 16, 1962, “a roll call of present-day Kansas publishers would be liberally sprinkled with Kansan alumni.” It went on to list scores of former KU reporters, editors and staffers who took the training and experience gained on the Kansan to make their respective marks in the professional journalism world. An updated list compiled in 2001 demonstrates the Kansan’s continuing status as a journalist generator, with alumni working at the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Associated Press, and the Kansas City Star, as well as such Kansas papers as the Lawrence Journal-World, the Wichita Eagle, the Emporia Gazette, the Leavenworth Times, the Miami County Republic, the Hays Daily News, the Ottawa Herald, and the Hutchinson News.
To gauge the journalistic quality of the University Daily Kansan, one only has to start counting the awards that its staffs have collected over its nearly hundred-year history. It is difficult to determine exactly when the first national journalism competitions began, but the Kansan won its first All-American rating by the Associated College Press in 1949 and from then on has been consistently rated as one of the best college newspapers in the country. In fact, in 1971 the Associated College Press named the Kansan the best student paper in the nation in a competition that included newspapers from nearly 500 other schools.
Over the years, its reporters and editors have won dozens of prestigious William Randolph Hearst Foundation journalism awards, often called “the Pulitzer Prizes of college journalism.” More recently, the College Newspaper Business and Advertising Managers, Inc. (CNBAM) awarded its highest honor, 1997’s Best Overall Newspaper in the over 40,000-circulation category, to the Kansan. And finally, but by no means completely, the Society of Professional Journalists named the Kansan Best All-Around Daily Student Newspaper for three years in a row, from 1996 to 1998.
And to think it was all started back in 1912 by a group of students who called themselves the “Shack Rats.”
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas