Campus newspaper continues to evolve

When the first issue of The Tar Heel fell into the hands of students, it was a far cry from what it is today. On the front page of the tabloid-sized paper were church listings, news briefs and the mission statement of the newspaper: to serve as the premier source of information for the University community. On the 113th anniversary of The Daily Tar Heel's publication, it not only strives to remain loyal to that mantra but it also works to expand its boundaries. On this date in 1893, the newspaper's founding editors charged future staff to enable its readers to participate in reasoned and informed discourse. "You need to make it a conversation piece," said Peter Wallsten, DTH editor from 1992-93. "People need to know (that) in order to participate in those conversations they need to read the newspaper." But many of the DTH editors who have overseen the newspaper have worked to go beyond informing the University community. They have used the pages of the DTH to provoke and challenge the status quo. "Participating in that debate or at least initiating it is the role of the newspaper," said Elyse Ashburn, editor in 2003-04. And as the newspaper has grown - from a seven-member editorial staff to a newsroom with more that 150 student journalists - it has sought to expand both its own limits and the boundaries of opinion and thought. In its formative years the staff produced a weekly paper - then called The Tar Heel - with funds provided by the Athletics Association. Over time the ambitious experiment flourished. Within three decades it was a semiweekly publication, and in the 1920s it was hitting the stands three times a week. In 1929, under the oversight of Walter Spearman, the newspaper began publishing six days a week, making it the first college daily in the South. Except for cutbacks during wartime, the paper maintained consistent growth, and in 1972 it adopted the five-day publication schedule seen today. As the paper grew, editors became more aware that its dependence on the University for financial backing threatened the DTH's editorial freedom. In 1919, editor Thomas Wolfe established the newspaper's role in the political scene when he began endorsing political candidates. The decision brought into jeopardy the newspaper's financial backing. That backlash was one of many motivations that led the newspaper to seek independence from UNC. In 1990, DTH leaders decided to wean the newspaper from student fees, and in 1993 the staff celebrated both the paper's centennial and its first year of self-reliance. "The Tar Heel is an example of a college newspaper that has worked to expand its independence from the University and truly be an independent voice for students on campus," said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, an advocate for student free-press rights. The DTH still works today to fulfill the mission established in 1893. As with any newspaper, the DTH's editors aim to inform readers, keep leaders in check and advocate for community interests. But in the atmosphere of discourse and debate found on campus, the DTH has a history of involvement in the discussion, Ashburn said. "Challenging ideas is the role of the press in a lot of ways - specifically on the editorial board - and I think that's particularly true of student newspapers," she said. It's critical for a college newspaper to moderate and at times incite campus debate, Goodman said. "I would be much more concerned about a campus newspaper that always makes everyone happy . than with one that offends people and prompts them to speak out," he said. A college newspaper has the ability to spark debate more often than most publications because no other forum reaches such a large percentage of the community, he said. In that pronounced role, the DTH often finds itself at the center of debate and controversy, Ashburn said. "The DTH causing controversy is nothing new," Ashburn said. "In my time I can't think of a year that went by that we didn't publish something controversial." In 1955, under the leadership of Charles Kuralt, the DTH supported progressive reforms, most notably integration, that were considered too liberal and that prompted the state legislature to found a committee to "investigate quality and circulation problems at the DTH." In the 1980s the DTH printed Friedrich Nietzsche's argument that "God is dead." The editorial decision incited protests from offended students. This month the newspaper has come under fire after printing a cartoon depicting Muhammad - which is blasphemous according to an Islamic hadith. The publication resulted in protests from offended students, but it also sparked discussion. Students hosted a forum intended to educate the community. Engagement with readers is what keeps the DTH running, Wallsten said, and editors must nourish that relationship with vital and compelling information. And building a strong readership among community members lays a foundation that will sustain the newspaper industry long after students graduate, he said. "The time they're reading The Tar Heel is the time they'll become addicted to reading a newspaper," he said. "They learn to enjoy it, and they learned to benefit from it in college." Contact the University Editor at

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