Our Weekly Reader
A few days before the conclusion of the 1894-95 school year, a new student newspaper made its debut at the University of Kansas. It was called the Kansas University Weekly and promised its readers a paper that would “treat University affairs in a liberal and fair-minded way, considering always the interests of the institution as a whole, and refusing to be bound by any clique or ring.” This was no idle promise, though, because before the Weekly’s emergence, student journalism at KU was a clique- and ring-dominated enterprise.
According to KU historian Clifford Griffin, after the 1876 demise of the University’s first student-run publication, the Observer of Nature, “rivalry, knavery, and high- and low-mindedness brought forth a succession of periodicals and newspapers.” First to emerge were the Kansas Collegiate and the Courier, two journals published by the Oread and Orophilian literary societies, respectively. Next, responding to the popularity of athletics at KU, a group of students launched the University Pastime in 1878. Lasting a mere seven months, it advertised itself as a paper that featured “various amusements and recreations which tend to rest the brains and invigorate the bodies of University students.”
Although the original Courier had fizzled soon after its launch, it reemerged in 1884 to lead an anti-fraternity crusade. Fraternities, its editors believed, were poisoning the “youthful, pure, innocent, fresh minds” of the student body, and its motto became: “Fraternity rule must be broken.” “The natural result,” wrote Griffin, “was that several fraternities advanced on and captured the Courier” through some sort of editorial coup.
Indeed, the 1880s and early ‘90s saw a great many publications rise and fall, reemerge under different names, and fold yet again. Editorial staffs regularly fought amongst themselves, broke up, infiltrated other newspapers, changed their contents, alienated their readerships, and the destructive cycle began anew. By 1895, as Griffin has noted, four separate newspapers were operating on campus, “each of them slandering the others and all of them serving mainly as objects of political intrigue.”
To put an end to this editorial pandemonium, the University Council’s Committee on University Journalism announced on February 3, 1895, its recommendation in favor of establishing a new student newspaper that enjoyed the “official approval and support of the University.” In the spring of that year, the new paper was incorporated as the Kansas University Weekly Publishing Company. “Any student or ex-student, any member of the faculty, or any employee of the University” could purchase one share of “stock” in the company for a dollar, which would entitle the owner to receive the Weekly “free of charge” for two full years, after which the share and subscription expired.
Through this mechanism the Weekly intended that “no faction labors under the embarrassment of yielding to a rival, no one can complain of unfairness and no one in the University has a valid excuse for refusing support.” KU Chancellor Francis H. Snow publicly asserted that the Weekly’s “plan of organization guarantees a clean, creditable and representative KU Journal,” and further accentuated his tacit collaboration with the new paper by noting, “any other undertaking in the field will be discouraged.”
With this degree of official backing, the first issue of The Kansas University Weekly appeared on June 3, 1895, just days before semester’s end. It described itself as the KU paper “in which all interests are united and which has the support of the whole University, students and faculty alike.” Shrewdly, it also reminded prospective advertisers that an ad “placed in this paper will be read by everyone connected with the University,” something for which local businessmen “have long been asking.”
In its early years, the Weekly tried to appeal to a broad audience. It contained University and community news, short stories and essays, and detailed coverage of sporting events. The first edition set the tone for this inclusive approach. It contained an editorial requesting input from alumni on a wide range of issues, a pitch for student literary and artistic submissions, and a straightforward encouragement of criticism and suggestions for improvement from the student body. “Come to us at once” with your comments, “and don’t be afraid of hurting our feelings, for we have none to be hurt.”
Other content in the premiere issue was, at the very least, wide-ranging. There was a melodramatic short story about a young woman who dies while mountain climbing in Colorado written by the Weekly’s literary editor, Grace Brewster. The sports section featured coverage of a recent baseball game between KU and Haskell Institute.
And the final four pages consisted of a collection of light gossip, local news, and general happenings at the University ranging from the major to the mundane. In the former category were brief items about that year’s commencement speaker and program, a donation of 39 volumes to the library by the King of Siam (now Thailand), and the Senior Play. Among the latter was a mention of two graduating seniors who would soon be forming a company that would “engage in the manufacture of all sorts of hooks” and a note that “instrument cases in the physical lecture room and laboratory are being cleaned.”
Although the Kansas University Weekly evolved from a newsletter type of format into a more traditional broadsheet printed on newsprint, the paper failed to mature in other ways. Eventually, it succumbed to the petty rivalries and infighting that had put the journalistic kibosh on so many of its predecessors. According to Griffin, “the hopes of a high-toned newspaper came to nothing,” and by 1902, the Weekly’s contents were so “biased and inaccurate, … so wretched” that “the University Council withdrew its official recognition.” In its final issue, on May 28, 1904, the Weekly vowed not to “use a column of valuable space to enumerate the things we have done.” It admitted, however, “after considerable thought upon our weekly performances, we have a sneaking doubt as to whether we could fill a ‘stick’ upon the subject.”
Yet this was hardly the death knell for student journalism at KU, and the Weekly’s editors, in their final issue, predicted that indeed the best days were ahead. Even as the Weekly’s run was at an end, a new crop of student journalists was poised to take up the reigns in the fall of 1904.
Led by Wirt G. McCarthy, whom the Weekly described as having done “probably twice as much actual newspaper work as any man in school,” the campus would soon be seeing “the best paper K.U. ever had.” That paper, the oddly named Semi-Weekly Kansan, made its debut in September 1904, and would become the forerunner of today’s University Daily Kansan.
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas