Student newspapers continue telling stories important to campus community amid political, technological changes

By Ben Pickman

Every Sunday night, in a windowless corner of Vilas Hall, a group of University of Wisconsin-Madison students sneak in through doors perched open by multiple folded newspapers. They enter for the purposes of writing, editing and laying out the following day’s edition of The Daily Cardinal, UW-Madison’s independent student newspaper for the last 125 years.

The Cardinal’s office looks like it’s from another era. Dirt stains are caked onto its floors. Paper stacks from as early as 2008 still sit around tightly packed, waiting to be read. Lights are broken and holes the size of softballs are scattered throughout its ceiling. The few chairs and couches in the office are in almost as bad of shape as the office’s ventilation. Of course, the Cardinal today uses computers, but staffers complain so much about their technology that a near-full jar sits atop one editor’s desk, collecting quarters for every complaint.

But the Cardinal is not the only student newspaper on UW-Madison’s campus. Ten minutes away, just off of raucous State Street, one can find the office of The Badger Herald, the Cardinal’s chief competitor since 1969.

The Herald was first founded as a conservative alternative to the liberal Cardinal, but both paper’s political leanings have since subsided. Each outlet’s printing schedule has changed drastically since the 1960s as well. UW-Madison, once the only college campus in the United States to have two daily independent student newspapers, now has none. The Cardinal prints twice a week. The Herald prints only once.

Yet amid such changes the role of each newspaper has remained the same. Whether in print or online, both continue to educate UW-Madison’s student body and spread information that is critical to students’ lives.

“I think the Cardinal and Herald serve that purpose, to kind of educate or inform students,” said Jim Dayton, the Cardinal’s Editor-in-Chief in 2015-16.

Founded in 1892 by William Wesley Young, the Cardinal was modeled after the student newspaper at Cornell University. The independent newspaper was UW-Madison’s lone student outlet until 1912, when a group of students dissatisfied with its coverage founded the Wisconsin Daily News.

The original front-page of the Daily Cardinal in 1892 was in the Cardinal office until just last year when Cardinal staffers and UW-Madison archivists agreed it should be framed and stored.

But the Daily News didn’t last very long. In fall 1913, the financial impact of publishing everyday took hold on the Cardinal’s competitor and the Daily News was forced to shut down. At the time, UW-Madison’s 4,500-student population was too small to support two dailies.

In the decades leading up to World War II, the Cardinal had grown to prominence both on campus and across Wisconsin. But, according to Allison Hantschel, the author of It Doesn’t End With Us: The History of the Daily Cardinal, the Cardinal’s increased notoriety came at a price.

Hantschel writes that by the late 1920s, the newspaper was largely considered to be the voice of the university, but that many of the Cardinal’s strident opinions were too brash for readers to take. University of Wisconsin alumni who ascended to political office used the paper as an example of the problems they saw in local youth. In 1926, a group of Wisconsin state senators threatened to investigate the paper after the Cardinal ran a story entitled, “Prohibition — An Injustice to Youth.”

Countless other interactions and run-ins with officials occurred, mostly as a result of the Cardinal’s editorial independence confusing many of its readers.

But the Cardinal continued to print even amid tense times across the country. Its headline on the day after the bombings of Pearl Harbor, simply stated, “WE ARE AT WAR.” In 1944, as a result of World War II shipping thousands of students overseas, the Cardinal staff was levied from 50 people to only 14. According to Hantschel, the entire staff consisted of women, except for one male, a 15-year old student named Jack Geiger, who was affectionately referred to as “Young Jack.”

“[The women] genuinely felt that if they could be loud enough to be heard, that people would listen and [the war] could stop,” Hantschel told me. “They felt that this was part of their war service.”

The Cardinal continued to insist that speakers, even ones with communist beliefs, should be allowed to speak on campus. Its editorial staff was littered with activists, and in 1965, it even sent a reporter to Montgomery, Alabama to report on the march from Selma to the state’s capitol.

But, according to Hantschel, it was not until the Vietnam War that the Cardinal truly spread its leftist wings. In fall 1968, the Cardinal ran a wire story from the Students for Democratic Society convention in Boulder, Colorado in which a leader of The Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers party, was quoted saying: “The fucking society won’t let you smoke your dope, ball your woman, wear your hair the way you want to. All of that shit is living, dig, and we want to live, that’s our thing.”

Two days later, the Cardinal’s front-page story was about Milwaukee draft resisters, in which a man quoted said he was “teaching souls to touch each other rather than fucking with minds.”

“The Cardinal, while it tried to remain objective and keep a third-party perspective, did give a lot of coverage to the protest movement, and then as now, reporting bad news leads to charges of liberal bias,” Greg Graze, the Cardinal’s Editor-in-Chief  in 1968-9, said in It Doesn’t End With Us. “Anger at the Cardinal had been building for years and this was what finally tipped the balance.”

An editorial weeks later titled “Up Against the Wall, Re—ts,” was so polarizing that its contents were quoted on the news pages of the Washington Post. While the university tried to impose punishments on the Cardinal, according to Hantschel, the war controversy brought near record revenue and subscriptions to the paper; it seemingly could not be stopped.  

But shortly before dawn on Aug. 24, 1970, less than three blocks from the Cardinal’s offices, a group of antiwar radicals calling themselves the New Year’s Gang, set off a bomb next to Sterling Hall, the building that housed the university’s controversial Army Math Research Center. The bomb killed one researcher and injured four others.

The Cardinal’s Welcome Back Edition in Fall 1970 displayed the remains of Sterling Hall.

The New Year’s Gang consisted of four members, two of which, David Fine and Leo Burt, had been Cardinal staff members. But, the effects of the attack rippled far beyond the Madison-area.

The Cardinal was forced to respond to the attack, but many viewed its editorial response as merely a defense of its former colleagues. “In the aftermath of an act of sabotage which shook this society to its foundations, we are left with victory and defeat, failure and success,” it began.

An excerpt from a reader responding to the Cardinal’s editorial was published in the New York Times. The Capital Times, a longtime defender of the Cardinal, according to Hantschel, published a front-page editorial calling the paper a supporter of “terrorism.” The FBI interviewed Cardinal staffers for its investigation and its  Editor-in-Chief at the time, Rena Steinzor, even appeared on the Today Show to discuss the incident.

Prior to the fall 1970 registration issue, Steinzor later recalled to Hantschel, that the paper had aspirations of expanding its circulation beyond the campus and becoming a city daily. After the bombing, Steinzor said that her dream was dead.

One year before the bombing occurred, in fall 1969, a group of students who were fed up with the Cardinal’s antiwar rhetoric, created The Badger Herald, to restore “newspaper sensibility,” and challenge the common ideology on campus. “A Monopoly Ends,” the Herald’s debut front-page story was headlined.

Founded by a group of conservative students, the Herald’s goal was not to overtake, but instead to compete with the Cardinal. Unlike the Wisconsin Daily News or the Wisconsin Herald — another attempt at a student publication that came and went in 1957 — The Badger Herald was initially a weekly publication as it recognized the need to first connect with the UW-Madison campus before expanding to daily.

According to Hantschel, the Herald took advantage of the campus’ yearning for a counterpoint. Advertisers flocked to print in its pages. Yet it was not until 1986 that the Herald made the decision to become a daily newspaper.

“Publishing a daily paper is surely the greatest challenge any of us has ever undertaken,” the Herald’s editorial board wrote on Nov. 10, 1986. “It is a challenge made doubly difficult by the discriminating nature of a university audience. We think we’re up to it.”

But, while the rivalry between the papers has continued, the political affiliations that the papers were once famous for has slowly evaporated.

“I wouldn’t consider any part of their paper to be overly conservative now,” Dayton said. “Both papers have just changed.”

By 1995, the Cardinal was in financial trouble. For a brief seven-month period, starting in the spring of that year, it was forced to shut off its presses and stop printing. “’Daily Cardinal’ ceases publication,” the Herald’s headline read on Feb. 8, 1995. And while the Cardinal returned the next fall without missing a “Welcome Back” issue, the newspaper that once reigned supreme on campus was locked into a readership war. The Herald had overtaken the Cardinal in terms of circulation.

But during the beginning of the 2000s, it was the Herald that faced intense backlash for questionable decisions. In 2001, after the paper ran an advertisement opposing reparations for slavery, UW-Madison students protested outside the Herald office asking for an apology, which did not come. Years later, an online ad from a holocaust denier sparked a similar controversy.

But in recent years, similar incidents involving either paper have been few and far between. Both have also altered their printing schedules. In fall 2013, the Herald announced it was cutting back on its printing from five days to four days.

“In short, we’ll keep doing the things we do best — covering the news that matters most to students, without bullshit — on our new website every single day,” Katherine Kruger, the Herald’s Editor-in-Chief in 2013-14, wrote in an online announcement. “We’re a daily student publication; we’re just not slaves to print.”

That spring the Herald modernized its website and worked to amp up its digital presence. Since then it has cut back its printing even more and now only publishes one print copy per week.

The Cardinal has also made similar changes of late. Once a daily paper, it now prints only twice a week and just last January, upon its latest cutback from four days to two days, revamped its website to create a larger digital footprint.

“It’s something you’ve got to do to stay relevant and stay afloat,” Dayton said. “You can’t just hunker down and hope that you’re going to get through it the way you’ve always done it, because the status quo might just become obsolete.”

As a result, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday nights at the Cardinal office are not nearly as busy as they once were.

The Herald’s office has a different feel on Monday nights, the night of its weekly print preparation, than it does any other night of the week.

Both paper’s changes in many ways are merely cosmetic. No matter the paper, the day or the medium, the mission of both papers has remained the same: provide critical information to UW-Madison’s student body.
“A student newspaper’s role has not changed one bit,” Hantschel said. “It is still to get information that is critical to students’ lives into their hands and into the hands of most people, the fastest. And however you gotta do that, then that’s what you do.”