September 7, 2017

Sarah Holcomb, staff writer and former managing editor, explores the past, present and future of The Wheaton Record.

Near midnight, a sleepiness falls across the Beamer Center. Downstairs, two Sam’s employees empty salads out of a glass case while students satisfy their late-night ice cream cravings. Janitors go about cleaning in dimly-lit hallways.

Meanwhile, in the Record office above Coray Gym, indie music mixes with the sounds of Wednesday night rituals: clicking keyboards and caffeine-fueled conversations. It’s publication night — time to send another issue of The Wheaton Record off to print.

Since its beginnings as a six-page literary monthly in the post-Civil War era, The Record has provided student reporting and a campus forum for Wheaton College. Now 127 years later, staff continue to navigate changes, controversies and the challenges of practicing journalism in a Christian community.

Following a formal review of The Record conducted last year, the publication may be turning a new page. This issue, we’re sharing a glimpse into the present, past and the uncharted future of Wheaton College’s official student newspaper.

 

Putting it to press

Throughout a Wednesday evening, Record designers trickle in and out of the office to arrange page layouts. In the center of the room sits the night’s stash of half-eaten Papa John’s pizza. By now, the slices are cold and a tad rubbery, yet one or two still disappear by the hour.

A couple of editors lounge on couches, their eyes reflecting the glow of laptop screens as they scan articles line by line. Junior Emily Fromke, The Record’s editor-in-chief, edits through thick-framed, yellow-tinted glasses, which soften the computer’s blue light.

Though work on each week’s issue begins ten days in advance, Fromke and the other three editorial board members often spend ten or twelve hours in the office on a Wednesday night.

Someone requests headline ideas for an article on Taylor Swift’s new single. Staff laugh as they volunteer suggestions — some clever, edgy or ridiculous — and a friendly debate ensues to select the right one. Then it’s back to typing.

While The Record has changed over time, late nights seem to have remained constant across decades. Rich Bard ‘68, former editor-in-chief of The Record, remembered editing the paper until 12 or 2 a.m. some nights, sitting alone in what was then the Record office, the single lit window of the Memorial Student Center.

During the early 1930s, Record staff manually set type and printed the paper in a Chicago basement. “The job of putting each issue to bed was horrendous,” wrote Edward J. Matson ‘33 of his time editing The Record. “At 2 a.m. we would read proof upside down and backward under the lights glaring on the shiny galleys of type.”

Today, the process is more convenient, thanks in part to Google platforms that streamline the editing process. While the process still requires hours of patience and more than a few cups of coffee, staff generally don’t mind the late nights.

“Wednesday nights are pretty fun!” said senior and managing editor Maddy Preston.

Photo by Sarah Holcomb

By students, for students

Surveying the Record office, you won’t find anyone over the age 22 or 23. Yet when the first iteration of The Wheaton Record — then called the College Record — was published in 1890, the paper wasn’t run by students. Its editor: Wheaton College President Charles Blanchard himself.

Published 30 years after the founding of Wheaton College, the College Record featured Blanchard’s passionate editorials on subjects like Christian reform, education, social issues and economic affairs during the post-Civil War era, along with news of College Church and requests for contributions. The paper — which began as small, book-sized publication — was read by alumni, faculty and the college’s 40 students.

Yet Wheaton students wanted a space of their own. And in 1900, the publication announced a major change: It would be a 10-page semi-monthly newspaper, entirely in the hands of students. The Wheaton Record was born.

“The paper is yours, alumni and students, and on you depends its success,” wrote the paper’s first student editor, John S. Congdon ‘00, in the student-run The Record’s debut issue on Oct. 15, 1900. “Will you help us give to Wheaton College a paper of which it may be proud?”

With students at the helm, a new emphasis on student life and ideas replaced Blanchard’s lengthy columns and faculty lectures.

As American journalism began to take shape during the early to mid-twentieth century, The Record shifted away from literary features like short stories and poetry, adapting to a newspaper format and focusing on current events. Eventually, it became a weekly publication.

Changes swept the college and the country over the next century. Throughout World Wars, civil rights movements, the Cold War and countless global events, Record staff circulated news and ideas on Wheaton’s campus. Editorials and “Letters to the Editor” dealt with issues shaping each era, from war efforts in the ‘40s to race relations in the ‘70s.

Still, most articles in The Record focused on the world of Wheaton. Stories on concerts and music ensembles often dominated the front page, along with administrative and student government news, sports coverage and student life.

Student opinions frequently lamented sub-par cafeteria food or Wheaton social life, which a student opinion article in 1950 likened to “a Methodist church gathering … [with] the men on one side and the women on the other.” Opinions on topics like Christian conduct, evangelism and, of course, dating culture, continue to reappear today.

As the world became increasingly globalized within the last half-century, The Record gradually shifted with the times, adding more coverage about national and foreign affairs. Since arriving at Wheaton in 2004, journalism professor and former Record advisor Tim Morgan has noticed this trend continue even into the last decade.

“There’s this desire to show the broader canvas on which Wheaton College exists,” Morgan said. “We’re living in a much more complex and transparent society because of not only technology and social media, for example, but also because people … like to know what’s going on in other parts of the world.”

 

Controversy and criticism

Student journalism isn’t all concert news and dating columns. Editors have followed significant controversies throughout The Record’s history, sometimes receiving administrative reprimands or campus-wide backlash in the process.

Under Wheaton’s present college constitution for student publications, the college grants The Record “a lot of freedom,” according to Vice President of Student Development Paul Chelsen.

While the board of trustees appoints the College Committee of Student Publications (CCSP) to oversee official student publications, students decide which stories to cover and how to cover them, without outside input.

Yet The Record’s history with Wheaton College has involved tensions. Bard, who edited The Record in fall of 1967, recalls pressure from the college administration when The Record covered a large peaceful protest of the Vietnam war outside Edman Chapel.

“I remember receiving a call from the president of the college, Dr. Hudson Armerding, who was concerned about coverage of the anti-war demonstration. He was a former naval officer,” Bard explained. “Looking back on it, with much more experience as a newspaper editor, I would have put that story on the front page of The Record, but I complied and put it inside … it was a sensitive topic at the time.”

In the 1930s, “There was no such thing as freedom of the college press,” said Webster C. Muck ‘36 in a reflection published in 1991. After The Record covered when President J. Oliver Buswell Jr. was defrocked from the Presbyterian ministry, Muck received a threatening phone call from the trustee board chairman. (The chairman apologized the next day.)

Today, The Record functions with an independence generally not seen during its earlier history. Trustees still own The Record — and Wheaton College — but do not exercise direct oversight. The CCSP does not view articles prior to publication, but later addresses concerns with The Record’s coverage when they arise. Beginning this year, The Record’s faculty advisor will no longer view articles prior to publication to provide advice.

Recent years have seen plenty of high-profile controversies, including the debate surrounding Larycia Hawkins, a professor who was placed on paid administrative leave following a personal Facebook post in late 2015.

As Morgan observed Record staff during the time, he was “impressed with the level of student debate and dialogue and how carefully they weighed all the different aspects of a controversial story before publication.”

Though The Record won a second-place award for its in-depth reporting during 2016 from the Illinois College Press Association, it’s also received criticism in recent years.

A front-page interview in 2015 with Alex Lim, a student who was arrested and later convicted for filming female Wheaton students in their bathroom, sparked a backlash against The Record. Some students and faculty denounced the staff’s decision to publish a front-page interview with Lim within days of his arrest as insensitive.

The then editor-in-chief, Abigail Reese ‘15, responded through an editorial, in which she explained the decision, apologized for any pain inflicted by the article and stated the article would not be online.

As The Record navigates the challenges of student journalism, Professor of Anthropology Brian Howell sees its role as multifaceted. “I think The Record has an opportunity to represent voices that are oftentimes not as heard,” Howell said. “The role of The Record, like all journalism, is to hold power accountable.”

Photo by Sarah Holcomb

The Christian reporter

Reporting on a college campus — particularly when dealing with controversy — grows more complex in the context of Wheaton College’s strong Christian community. “I think The Record is in a challenging position because it’s trying to tell the truth but also the people writing the stories are also a part of our community,” Chelsen said.

According to Morgan, “Readers [of The Record] want coverage that has another level of sensitivity. The journalist is adding this layer of care for the reader that you don’t usually see in a secular newspaper.”

At the same time, a shared Christian faith can serve as a point of agreement. In an article he wrote as Record editor-in-chief in 1991, Frank Tanner ‘91 pointed out, “Because we are a Christian community, we must base our decisions on biblical thinking … it provides a common ground.”

As editor-in-chief, Fromke views The Record itself as a service to the college; writers dedicate time to find information and share it with the rest of the community. It’s a “ministry on campus for sharing information.”

 

Humans of the Record

While The Record’s “ministry” demands time and responsibility, it’s also an incubator for friendships. The office whiteboard not only serves to keep the publication process on track, but to memorialize the staff’s ever-growing list of inside jokes.

Every Wednesday, senior Max Planamenta sits at a computer in the corner, rapidly writing the ever-entertaining “gray box,” his wildly unpredictable flash-fiction section, which an editor dramatically reads at the end of the night.

Staff light up when they recall the Feb. 23 issue last spring following a chapel prank involving chickens, when they hid images of chickens and chicken-related puns throughout The Record’s pages.

While different personalities shape the culture of The Record each year, former editor-in-chief Sarah Pulliam Bailey ‘07, now a religion reporter at the Washington Post, remembers her staff as always up for a spirited debate and challenging the status quo.

“What really stands out [about my time at The Record],” Bard said, “are the remarkable friends that I made.” Fifty years after his editorship, Bard has reconnected with other former Record staff and editors at annual meet-ups. Next year, the group will be hosted by a former editor in Oxford, England.

Photo by Sarah Holcomb

The digital dilemma

Today, it’s not uncommon for students to shuffle past a stack of Record newspapers while reading a news report on Twitter or Facebook. It’s no longer 1890, and The Record exists in a different media context.

Dr. Clinton Shaffer, associate professor of German and former Record advisor, said The Record was “close to a decade behind other colleges” when it received approval to publish some articles online in the fall of 2012.

Currently, the CCSP is contemplating changes to The Record’s official constitution to match the modern digital landscape. The present constitution limits The Record’s ability to use social media, requires articles to first be published in print before online and does not allow Opinion or Arts and Entertainment articles to be published online.

In spring 2017, a review team that included journalism experts from outside Wheaton College, assessed The Record through surveys and focus groups. Some recommendations pertain to the paper’s online presence.

“They would like to see The Record have the freedom to report news online first and then follow up with a print edition,” Chelsen said. “That’s a whole other way of functioning.”

Chelsen said it will take at least a year for the CCSP to deliberate. They’ll deal with questions about implementation strategies, creating a timeline and considering potential negative impacts. Because Wheaton College “tends to attract the attention of the national media,” he foresees concerns about allowing digital-first reporting and student opinion pieces to be published online.

“It’s going to test how serious the college is about journalism,” Chelsen said. “The college sees the need for Christians to be in the media so we’re going to take that recommendation very seriously.”

Since these changes would not be implemented until after Fromke’s term as editor-in-chief, she’s focusing on The Record’s present function: continuing to providing news and a platform for conversation — primarily in print.

 

End of an issue

At 12:10 a.m., Fromke picks up the phone. After the team finished inspecting printed copies to catch any stray Oxford commas, it’s time to call the publisher. Preston, along with sophomore Katherine Baylis and junior Ashley Klein, gather up their things and survey the room.

“Do you want to take these back to Smaber?” Fromke asks Baylis, pointing at the three stiff pieces of cheese pizza and two of pepperoni, which have laid in their cardboard coffin for just over five hours. “Maybe a lobby couple will want it!”

With the pages sent off to be printed, the four sling their backpacks and file out of the room.

It’s another night for the presses. The light above Coray gym switches off, and Wheaton’s quiet campus becomes a speck darker.

But after 117 years of student reporting, it’s clear that this small, Christian liberal arts college isn’t as sleepy as it may seem.