Four editors reflect on four decades of publication
By Paul Mayne
November 16, 2012
An award-winning weekly newspaper and electronic news service, Western News has served as the university’s newspaper of record for four decades. The publication traces its roots to The University of Western Ontario Newsletter, a one-page leaflet-style publication which debuted on Sept. 23, 1965. The first issue of the Western News, under founding editor Alan Johnston, was published on Nov. 16, 1972 replacing the UWO Times and Western Times.
Today, Western News continues to provide timely news, information and a forum for discussion of postsecondary issues. Western News reporters publish not only in the Thursday newspaper, but also on the Daily News Service on the homepage. Revenue from advertising has grown to cover the costs of design, printing and distributing 10,000 copies a week, 34 times a year.
In four decades, Western News has had only four editors – Alan Johnston, Jim Anderson, David Dauphinee and Jason Winders. Reporter Paul Mayne recently sat down with those editors to discuss the dawn of and changes to the university’s newspaper of record.
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What was it like in the earlier days - and subsequently as the decades changed - in dealing with those who felt the idea behind starting Western News was to have a soapbox for administration?
Johnston: I don’t think it’s totally true. There was the student press at the time and you have to remember this was a period when the students were striving for a little more emphatic voice, so they were trying to get on board. The idea was to combine the UWO News and Western Times and take it into a broader circulation tabloid.
The student press was pretty hard on the administration, so I think they looked around and they said, ‘Well, Waterloo has a tabloid.’ I think they wanted an objective voice and they saw that we would support that. We’d make our own decisions editorially, but they wanted it balanced; you can do any story and they wouldn’t look at it. I remember another colleague saying that everything probably went through the front office.
Anderson: I got it, too, when I was editor from some of the faculty – jokingly referring to it as Western’s Pravda – but I don’t really think that was the case. Like you said, some had the impression that all our copy was approved by the front office folks, and I used to tell them that we’d never get a paper out if that were the case. It would take too long. They read it when everyone else read it and sometimes we got negative feedback from administration, too.
There was a case when Paul Davenport was president, and I forget exactly what the story was that I wrote, it came up in Senate and people were questioning him about the story in Western News. I think it might have been about the possible closing of the dental faculty. They wanted to know what was going on and Davenport stood up and said ‘Look, I do not control what Western News writes.’
Dauphinee: I was given the same line about it being Pravda, but I think that slowly went away. What takes it away is a change in generation of faculty. A generation that has an opinion and hangs on to it no matter what the facts are. It’s not until they retire and new people come in with fresh perspectives do you get a more balanced perspective. The university pays the freight, so you follow the money and when it comes to a publication like this, you will find stuff in there that reflects the interest of the university, but there’s lots of room for other stories as well.
For a university publication, we were on a very long string. And you earned that string through trust, reporting fairly and in an even-handed manner. You always knew they could jerk it back.
Winders: I think I heard the Pravda line from a faculty member after I had been on the job about 10 minutes. Honestly, my first thought was, “Who makes Pravda references anymore?”
Anderson: We were never told not to do a story. We were told to be fair and tell both sides. When I took over after Alan retired, I think a lot of it was testament to Alan and what he built and his leadership, but the reputation of the paper had been established over those years. The greatest compliment I ever got was one faculty member who told me he read the paper every week, although he didn’t always agree what was in it. He knew what was going on in his own faculty, but not with the rest of the university, so it (Western News) was the only way he could find out. He made a point of reading it every week.
Johnston: My three key words in looking back are integrity, independence and quality, and I think those have stuck with the paper all along. Through my time, I had some five presidents and numerous senior administrators and open communication is what we upheld as an institution. They thought it should have more student stuff in it, even though there was the Gazette; faculty thought we should have more faculty biographies; staff thought all we wrote about was faculty.
Each of you led the paper at a different time – literally and figuratively. How did you see things change under each of your term as editor?
Johnston: There have been huge changes. One of the early changes I remember was the introduction of paid advertising in the 1980s. There were some hesitations and questions at first. I had some editors contacting me saying they’d never start advertising in their paper. We were doing it very well and it picked up momentum and it was paying for itself. It did create design issues.
Dauphinee: The design issues made the papers bigger. Sometimes you were driven in a particular week, not by what you planned in advance, but by the amount of space you were given.
Anderson: When I first joined as a reporter, I remember our basic papers, before advertising, were basically eight pages. Then it grew to 16 and sometimes 32. It became a space issue and we had to find ways to keep the paper under control.
Dauphinee: We used to do a piece on every PhD, right?
Johnston: Ya, that’s right. Weren’t we also giving free classifieds when you joined us, Jim?
Anderson: That was to get them hooked in and later we started charging them. (Laughs.)
Johnston: Can you imagine, we’d run two or more full pages of classifieds? We’d also run the entire Senate meeting notes, which was a nice offer to administration. In time we said, ‘Hallelujah, we got rid of it.’ Not that I had anything against Senate, but it took up a lot of space.
The influx of social media has changed the way news is collected and distributed to the masses. Instant news, if you will. How would this have affected your time as editor?
Dauphinee: It’s just another way to get the information to the readers. The objective of any paper, such as Western News, is to serve the readers first and foremost; not administration or special groups, but the reader, whatever person you think that is. And if the readers change and now want their news in a particular format then who cares, you’re still getting them the news.
I don’t have a cell phone, so I’m one of those who have a hard time shifting technology. I can’t personally see it changing the way the job is done. It’s the same job just presented slightly different.
Johnston: I don’t want to seem like an old fogie, but there are still people out there who still like the feel of paper.
Winders: There are many, in fact. I hear it all the time, “Please don’t stop printing the paper.” I think that’s why such a strong commitment has been made not only to the print product, but to a quality print product – one that looks good, feels substantial and reads well.
I am an audience guy, and short of reading it to them personally over their breakfast table, I’ll deliver content to them any way they want. We’re offering Western News to readers in at least a half dozen ways now, and I think each are exciting ways to get Western’s news and views out there.
With such a large turnaround in faculty, staff and students each year, did you find yourself having to reintroduce Western News all the time?
Johnston: If you’re talking about transitions, say from President (David) Williams to (George) Connell, for example, I don’t think it was that rough. It was relatively smooth. They were all different.
Anderson: Each president had a different personality they brought to the job, and a different approach to things. It didn’t really change the way we did things, however.
Was there that one big story or event either of you remember from your time at Western News?
Dauphinee: It was the year the Board of Governors office went to war with the President’s Office over (Henry) Morgentaler getting an honorary degree. You had the president saying ‘yes’ and the chair of the board saying ‘no,’ and you had everyone else with their opinions. The office was inundated with thousands of letters and phone calls, a lot of them fine with it and others expressing concerns.
That was an example when a newspaper can serve a community by putting out all of these opinions, showing that we’re open to all these opinions, and keep feeding them back to people and letting them make up their own minds.
Johnston: You won award for that coverage, didn’t you? (Western News was awarded a grand gold medal from the Council for Advancement for the Support of Education for its coverage of the awarding Morgentaler honorary degree.)
Dauphinee: That’s right. We had to decide how we were going to cover this. The first day, when we did the story about his getting the degree, Jim did a story about all the people responding and you had a Q&A with Morgentaler. I see that as an example of where we were useful to the readers.
Anderson: For me the most memorable, or controversial event, I remember covering was surrounding Philippe Rushton. (He reported in his research that East Asians and their descendants average a larger brain size, greater intelligence, more sexual restraint, slower rates of maturation, and greater law abidingness and social organization than do Europeans and their descendants who average higher scores on these dimensions than do Africans and their descendants).
A lot of people called on him to be fired, but the president said no and stood by behind the idea of academic freedom. The Premier of Ontario (David Peterson) demanded he be fired because he has so-called racist views, and the university refused. They said we don’t subscribe to his theory but he has the right to speak his views. Similarly to Morgentaler, we got tons of letters both ways.
Johnston: I remember they stole our animals. (Laughs.)
Looking back at your time at the paper, what was your overall experience like at Western?
Johnston: I would say it was the most exciting and interesting years of my life. There were plenty of days when things didn’t go the way I wanted, but they sure as hell were interesting. Administration, by and large, have always been supportive. Not necessarily in agreement (laughs), but supportive.
Winders: Well, it’s because of these guys, and particularly Alan, that my job is as fun as it is today. They laid the groundwork, and I get to piggyback on the stellar reputation they built.
Anderson: There were times when I wondered, ‘What have I taken on and am I crazy to be doing this?’ Just like Alan, I found my five years as editor, and a bit more than 20 years as a reporter, very rewarding overall. I felt we were doing something important for the university. We couldn’t afford to make too many mistakes because we had a lot of critics out there. You had to make sure that when it went in the paper it had to be right. Don’t think I’d want to relive it though. (Laughs.)
Dauphinee: I went out on a high two years ago. It was a great job where I could probably try anything new because there was enough trust in me to do so, and I really liked that about my employer. If things didn’t happen it was because I didn’t make them happen. I was pretty fortunate that way. I have a hard time ranking jobs, but I’m really pleased with that chance given to me.
Winders: I am still amazed by, and quite frankly proud of, an institution that would support such a publication for its community. To support an independently edited publication like Western News speaks volumes on the university’s commitment to an open community conversation. To be able to tell the stories of our people, as well as give them a window into the university’s operations and research expertise, well, I am a lucky guy to be a part of that. I consider Western News a 40-year-old experiment in community journalism, yielding results which are perhaps even more important tomorrow than they were yesterday.
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