By Wayne Newton
Take some 1970s student activism, add a trusting university administration committed to excellence, stir in skilled professional journalists and you’ve created what might be the most uncommon community newspaper in Canada.
Western News, which published its first edition on Nov. 16, 1972, was born out of a desire, by what was then the new Department of University Relations and Information, to beef up on-campus communications through a weekly newspaper covering Western as if it were a small city.
“It didn’t mean what was done before wasn’t good, but I think there was an interest in becoming better and, of course, internal communications was laid largely at the feet of the new newspaper, Western News,” said Alan Johnston, the newspaper’s founding editor, who was recruited from the Kingston Whig-Standard for the job by Larry Moore, director of the new department, now known as Communications and Public Affairs.
The publication had a short pre-history. The University of Western Ontario Newsletter, a one-page leaflet-style publication, debuted on Sept. 23, 1965. That eventually evolved into UWO News. Western Times started in 1971. Between university Senate meetings, the Times published the minutes of the previous meeting. It lasted just a year.
Enter Western News.
Johnston said student activism, particularly in the way stories were approached in the student-run Western Gazette at the time, was one of the reasons Moore was able to convince university administration to create a professional journalistic voice for Western’s students, staff and faculty.
“One of the significant factors in establishing Western News was the ever-lively, student-focused Gazette and what the university administration saw as a need for wider, more balanced coverage of university community news and Canadian university issues in general,” he said.
While other universities, such as Waterloo funded administration newspapers, Western’s was to be given full journalistic independence with no vetting or pre-publication approvals of content from the president’s office.
“Western has always tried to do things a little bit better, regardless of what it is,” said Johnston, who was editor until 2000. “I don’t think overall it was a tough sell. The university officials were enthusiastic about the idea.”
Western News soon started generating revenue through on-campus and off-campus advertising and, in an innovative move before anyone had heard of Kijiji, built readership loyalty by offering free classified ads.
While Waterloo’s publication, the Waterloo Gazette, ceased publication in 2004, Western News remains a well-read source of news and information both with its weekly Thursday print edition and, since the late 1990s, online.
Given a mandate to report objectively on newsworthy people and events, faculty, staff and students, with a special focus on research, teaching and community service and encourage an exchange of ideas and opinions through guest columns and letters, Western News and its editors have been tested on several occasions.
For Johnston, the first was when he decided to publish a story about people donating their bodies for medical research, a topic at least one medical school professor wanted to keep out of the public eye. Despite objections, the story was published with the professor conceding Western News’ reporting was fair, balanced and insightful.
That was only a warmup for the storm of controversy in 1989 when Psychology professor Philippe Rushton presented a research paper at a major conference in San Francisco. Rushton linked penis size to intelligence and race to crime, prompting then-Ontario premier David Peterson to call him a racist. The issue, which included explanations of academic freedom, dominated the pages of Western News.
Jim Anderson was a reporter during the Rushton controversy and later served as editor from 2000-04.
“That generated a lot of heat, claims of racism and racial comments from various groups and even some faculty – even within his own faculty – where it didn’t sit well. I interviewed Rushton myself. He always claimed he was not a racist at heart,” Anderson said. “But there’s no doubt it was a very controversial story, probably the most controversial in the university’s history.”
While some faculty would refer to Western News as Pravda, the official publication of the former Soviet Union, more common was the feedback from a Law professor who once told Anderson that paper was his only source of information about the university and its affiliates beyond his own faculty.
Anderson, who arrived after a career with community and daily newspapers, said Western News also provided experience for faculty in dealing with the outside media both in terms of expressing their research in layman’s terms and respecting the professionalism of journalists. A common request from faculty was to vet or read stories before publication.
The answer always was – and still is – NO.
“It was a good training ground for them in dealing with the rest of the media, because when the outside media comes in you’re not going to get that chance, they’re not going to let you see what they’re going to write,” said Anderson, who wrote mystery novels in retirement before passing away in 2015.
David Dauphinee arrived at the helm of Western News in 2004 after a career at the London Free Press and a stint in marketing. It was just in time to see a changing landscape.
Waterloo killed its administration-supported newspaper in favour of expanded use of the Internet. Dauphinee knew moves he made would “probably determine if Western News would continue.”
“We needed to ride that wave without getting too far ahead of our readers,” said Dauphinee, who was editor from 2004-10.
An increased presence on the web meant stories were not necessarily held for the print edition. “We started thinking of the web page as a different beast,” he said.
Visuals, including podcasts and video news, became part of the presentation and to further connect with the Western community, photos taken by Western News journalists were made available free of charge to other departments. All available content, including PDFs of print edition pages, were posted online in what seems routine now, but was innovative at the time.
“It really expanded what Western News was,” Dauphinee said.
He decided to adopt a community newspaper model, which saw Western as a city similar in size to neighbouring Woodstock or St. Thomas.
“We couldn’t be tough and hardnosed,” Dauphinee said. “But we could be helpful. We could introduce people to one another. My philosophy was, ‘We’re writing about you. You are our neighbours. We’re not out to get you.’”
Still, as always when covering news, controversy arose. For Dauphinee, it was the university senate’s decision to confer an honorary Doctor of Laws degree upon Dr. Henry Morgentaler for his pro-choice dedication.
It was Morgentaler’s first honorary degree and was soon followed by other awards, including the Order of Canada.
But it predictably caused controversy within the university and across Canada. Dauphinee noted the Board of Governors feared it would damage Western’s reputation and ability to fundraise, while pro-life organizations gathered a petition with thousands of signatures and multiple protest rallies in a bid to have Western reverse its decision. A counter petition supported Western’s decision.
“In retrospect, Western was ahead of its time,” Dauphinee said. “He was recognized for his role in society and benefit to women.”
For its Morgentaler coverage, Western News received a gold medal from the Council for Advancement for the Support of Education in New York City.
Just like the university itself, Western News continues to evolve to the point where it now distributes campus news on eight different platforms, including the familiar print edition available in boxes on campus, free of charge in London public libraries, and distributed to larger, outside news organizations which use it as a generator of story ideas.
“The role of the paper on campus has changed fairly dramatically,” said current editor Jason Winders. “Over its course, it’s been a bit of an instigator, to more of a partner, to occasionally, it’s the forum where some of the larger discussions on campus take place. It serves as a community meeting post, it serves as a trading post, it serves as a place for entertainment. The role has kind of changed over the years because it reflects what the campus needs at that time.
“Now, we’ve become a partner in showcasing what a university does for the world, reflecting the expertise and excellence not just in our faculty, but in the staff and students and their roles of ambassadors for the university.”
On the web, Western News gets eternal life. Through social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, its stories are a “backdoor pitch” for coverage from outside media, ranging from community newspapers to major dailies.
“We’ll do pretty much anything short of coming to your house and reading it out loud to you. And if you ask, we might even do that,” Winders said.
The heart of the operation remains the print edition, which in contrast to outside print media, is seeing growth in ad revenue.
“We’re a small town newspaper and our town just happens to be a university, so we cover campus that way,” Winders said. “Our advertisers see that on our pages, see that we’re telling those local stories and we’re delivering an audience to them they want.”
Eventually, Winders wants to see all back issues of Western News digitized and available for public perusal online. Currently, the digital library goes back about 10 years.
The demand to revisit archived stories is stronger at Western News than it ever was at any of the American daily newspapers where Winders worked before arriving at Western. That’s a testament to Purple Pride.
Of course, there’s the other side of the coin where some story subjects have asked Western News stories be removed from the easily accessible Google searches, Winders noted.
To cement its relevance and place in the university community, Western News searches out ‘people stories’ involving not just professors, but staff, students, even alumni, from the main campus and the affiliated college. For Winders, the best content is a “gee whiz” story from an obscure corner of the campus.
“It takes a different kind of journalist to work for Western News as opposed to say a London Free Press or a Toronto Star,” Winders said. “When you work at a giant metro newspaper, there’s an insulation you have wrapped around you and your coverage and the people you’re covering. You can say things a little more boldly, you can say things a little more pointed and you’re pretty safe, you’re not going to get called out on it too much.
“There’s a more personal connection to what you’re covering at a university newspaper like this. There’s also more of a commitment to having a fuller story told … You’re going to see a little more attention paid to getting both sides of the story in, to getting a deeper understanding of the issue sometimes, because it affects the lives of our readers more, how they go about their work.
“It takes a different kind of (journalist) to understand that kind of balance and that kind of attention to a different kind of storytelling.”