The First Kansan
The paper that would eventually evolve into the University Daily Kansan first appeared on campus on September 17, 1904. Its first headline was screaming and self-referential. “GREAT MASS MEETING” it proclaimed on the front page. “Students of K.U. Demand a Semi-Weekly – Faculty in Too – Every One Pledged to Support it.”
Indeed, the rather oddly named Semi-Weekly Kansan was launched just days following a gathering of students, faculty, and administrators who exhibited great “enthusiasm and interest” for the new student-run newspaper. At the end of the meeting, the new publication reported, “all who would pledge their support to the paper and do all they could for it and above all patronize the Kansan’s advertisers were asked to raise their hands. The crowd arose to the man and held up their hands.”
The Semi-Weekly Kansan emerged from the remains of its predecessor, the Kansas University Weekly, which withered away in May 1904 after declining revenues and decreasing journalistic standards caused it to become a paper that the “University was ashamed of.”
That publication, “and all that was connected with it, are now part of … the past,” the Semi-Weekly Kansan announced in its premiere issue, a four-page broadsheet.
The editors then called upon the entire KU community to embrace their new paper. “In unity there is strength,” they told their readers, “and if this was ever true or will ever be true, it is when a college paper starts and depends solely upon the members of the institution to support it.” (One aspect of the paper that apparently did not enjoy mass support was the bizarre Semi-Weekly moniker. A week after its debut, the paper simply became known as the Kansan.)
Considering that lack of revenue had been a severe limitation on all its predecessors, the Kansan made a concerted pitch for advertising. “The Kansan hopes to accumulate sufficient funds to keep the business manager and editor out of the poor house and penitentiary and make the printer wear a smile on the first day of each month.” But to accomplish this, students had to patronize those local merchants who advertised in the paper and shun those who refused.
“There were a few merchants,” the Kansan said, “who ‘roasted’ us when we went around and asked for an advertisement. These very same men would be boodlers or paupers within two months if the University was to be moved from Lawrence.” Buy from businessmen who support the Kansan and they “will think you are a patriotic American, as well as give us a bigger ad next month and pay [their] bill without a grumble.”
This call to action seems to have been effective. The support the Kansan would come to enjoy from its advertisers truly set it apart from its predecessors. The pitch was simple but effective. Advertise in the Kansan, counseled the paper’s supporters, because it reached the most students and appeared on campus the most often. It was a mutually satisfying arrangement that helps explain the Kansan’s enduring success.
In addition, as the University moved closer and closer to a formal Department of Journalism, there were fewer reasons for small groups of journalism students to go it alone and more incentives to band together to produce a single, high-quality newspaper.
The twice-weekly Kansan was printed every Thursday morning and Saturday evening and was available by subscription only, for one dollar a year. It differed from its predecessor in that there was no literary section, though all other aspects were fairly typical of a college newspaper.
The first issue, for example, carried front-page coverage of KU’s first ever inter-fraternity debates that were then being organized, plus a sneak preview of the upcoming Jayhawk football season. The Kansan expected a solid team that year, “especially when one considers that these men will average in weight upwards of 163 pounds and have nearly all had experience. They are a husky lot and an exceptional bunch of good material.”
There was also a report about five KU women who had spent 10 days at a YWCA conference in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, learning from prominent “Bible teachers, missionaries and public speakers.” The experience, the paper concluded, was “a preparation of inestimable value to every young lady who attend[ed].”
A final important aspect of the new paper, something that would become a mainstay in KU student journalism from then on, was its use of beat reporters. Under the headline “Reporters Wanted,” it announced “the Kansan will have a new system for getting the news this year. Assignment work will be given. This is patterned after a city paper. There will be tryouts for places on the reportorial staff and any students, girls and boys, wanting to try their hand at pushing the pencil” were encouraged to apply.
As KU historian Clifford Griffin has said, “Though never perfect, the Kansan easily outclassed its predecessor and would continue in existence – becoming a tri-weekly in 1908 and a daily in 1912 – for the rest of the University’s first century and beyond.”
And in a statement foretelling the serious journalistic standards that would characterize the paper in the decades ahead, the editors informed their readers that, “If the Kansan says something that doesn’t suit you, take your medicine if the shoe fits. It’s the truth that hurts.” However, “If there is a mistake let us know, and all will be made right, right away.”
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas