From 1914 to 2014: a century with Vassar’s weekly paper

Over the course of its 100 year history, The Miscellany News has changed staff and design. Its numerous alumnae/i attest to this growth. Photo By: Spencer Davis
Over the course of its 100 year history, The Miscellany News has changed staff and design. Its numerous alumnae/i attest to this growth. Photo By: Spencer Davis
Over the course of its 100 year history, The Miscellany News has
changed staff and design. Its numerous alumnae/i attest to this growth. Photo By: Spencer Davis

Though we proudly put the words “Since 1866” on the cover of every Misc we print, today still marks the 100th anniversary of an important beginning in our paper’s history. It is true that what we call The Miscellany News began as a yearbook-like publication, The Vassariana, in 1866, but any regular reader wouldn’t find much in common between The Vassariana of then and The Miscellany News of now. This is because it wasn’t until February 6, 1914—100 years to the day—that The Miscellany printed its first weekly news supplement. This supplement is what later became the publication we know today, and its 100th anniversary brings an opportune moment to look back and reflect on what brought The Miscellany News into existence, how it has existed as a weekly over the last century, and how it operates today.

The Misc actually began in 1866 with an entirely different name: The Vassariana. It came at the end of Vassar’s first year of classes, and was written by the students’ proto-yearbook. There’s actually a tall tale that Founder Matthew Vassar encouraged the students to create a publication to compete against the likes of Yale and Harvard, but it turns out to have been highly improbable.

“I don’t think he was giving advice of that sort,” said Dean Emeritus of The College and Vassar Historian Colton Johnson, adding that Vassar himself, a man with only a few weeks of night school as formal education, left the formation of college policy to its president and trustees. The Vassariana was instead a creation of the students, and likely funded completely by their own efforts, much as it is today.

Several years later, in 1872, the annual Vassariana became The Miscellany, a quarterly literary magazine to cover a variety of material, including poems, essays and other works. The change only came after the year 1871 saw no production of The Vassariana as an act of protest against faculty, who were at first against the idea of seeing a semi-annual or quarterly publication. This was done because, according to Johnson, “The students and alumnae had to communicate with each other. They needed a venue.” The Miscellany helped serve that purpose in a time before the Vassar Quarterly and other regular college publications even existed.

There was, however, still no appropriate outlet for current events, news and in-the-moment coverage of what went on around campus. In response to this, the editor-in-chief of The Miscellany approached the Students’ Association in 1913 with a plan for a weekly supplement to The Miscellany that would incorporate news, letters and current events. Although students were “enthusiastic,” according to an account of the event, faculty at first were hesitant to let students make such a dramatic change to an institution more than 50 years old. After a petition was forwarded to the faculty in favor of the change—along with some lengthy discussions—they ultimately agreed.

Thus, on February 6, 1914, a four-page news supplement to The Miscellany was published. Its front page featured the announcement of then-President Taylor’s retirement, changes in the faculty and a calendar of events. On the following page, the staff wrote an article, titled “An old need answered by a new opportunity,” explaining just why they chose to publish a weekly. They cited a number of reasons, including the desire to alleviate pressure from the monthly literary magazine, as well as to publish something more timely to which students, faculty, administrators and alumnae alike could contribute.

There was also, according to Johnson, a want to have a space for Vassar to express itself to the world, beyond its local sphere. A weekly newspaper would allow for commentary on movements such as women’s suffrage, and the arrival soon afterward of President MacCracken helped push Vassar into the national spotlight.

Over the next century, the Misc went through a number of evolutions as it sought to serve the campus as its newspaper of record. For example, between 1917 and 1943, the Misc wasn’t a weekly publication, but actually semi-weekly, publishing an edition on a varying schedule, though most often on Wednesdays and Saturdays. When the paper did return to a weekly schedule, the day of the week it published has shifted over the decades at the discretion of the editors, ranging from Fridays to Wednesday, and, like today, Thursdays.

Around the 1970s, the Misc began to take on a shape similar to many other newspapers and much like how our paper is currently formatted. It was around this time that the paper began to divide itself into distinct sections, including News, Leisure, Sports, Television, Opinions and Food. It was also around this time that the College Center was constructed and, soon afterward, the Misc moved right into the office it maintains to this day.

In 1994, the paper went online with its own news website, and today that space offers students the opportunity to get involved with journalism in an entirely new, 21st-century way. Whether it’s live blogging the moment-to-moment discussions at VSA meetings, giving parents and alumnae/i easy access to content or allowing students to share their experiences abroad, The Miscellany News website has given its publication room to evolve with the digital age.

Over the last century, more than 100 editors-in-chief and thousands of students have worked for the Misc. Dale Mezzacappa ’72 remembers her time as editor-in-chief in a very chaotic period for the paper.

“Those were the days of Vietnam, civil rights and general upheaval… It was hard for the Misc to maintain a staff—it was way too ‘establishment’ for the time.” Mezzacappa also recalled the conflict when then-President Alan Simpson proposed the creation of The Vassar Institute of Technology in collaboration with IBM, which students saw as part of the “war machine.” Still, it was this experience that she says brought her into a career as a journalist at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Lisa Feder-Feitel ’77 recalls the column “All Things Tempt Me,” she wrote, which covered great eateries for students to visit when exploring New York City, which was still only a short train ride away. The column ended up being forwarded to CNN & ABC food journalist Burt Wolf, who hired her on the spot as an assistant.

Nancy Schwalje Travis ’89 remembers her time as a photographer with the Misc back in 1986. She recalls personally photographing an assistant professor, Cynthia Fisher, at Vassar for an article that discussed her denial of tenure, which Fisher claimed was an act of discrimination. Fisher later sued the school, a case that was deliberated for more than a decade and eventually reached The United States Supreme Court before being declined by the court.

There were also alumnae/i from the late ’90s and turn of the milennium who their memories. Melissa Walker ’99 reminisced about her first edition as editor-in-chief, which “flew off the shelves,” from coverage about a record number of hospitalizations following a former, nationally known party at Vassar called the “Homo Hop,” which was shut down by administration later that year due to the harm it caused students. Joshunda Sanders ’00 remembers a Misc Office littered with papers and that  “we were all quirky writerly/reporter type…we were all really witty and passionate about putting out the paper.” Pulitzer Prize winner Alexandra Berzon ’01 recalls giw she felt after going to a meeting for the Misc: “It sounded like I found this perfect place for me at Vassar.” Berzon added that she really enjoyed the freedom the Misc gave its writers, letting them write on any subject in which they had interest. She won the Pulitzer in 2009 for her coverage of lax regulations and a high death rate among construction workers in Las Vegas.

More recent alumnae/i such as Brian Farkas ’10 and Anthony Marmer ’12 share their feelings about the Misc, now just a few years since leaving the publication. Farkas said, “Students love to complain [about the Misc], but at the end of the day, everyone secretly kind of likes it.” It’s a publication that “has soul,” he continued, unlike other peer collegiate publications. Marmer noted that his most memorable moment while at the Misc came from all the friendships he made during his time as as an editor.

Constantly evolving, the Misc as it is now looks a little different from how these past contributors remember it. And today, 100 years later, the four-page supplement that began in 1914 looks tiny compared to the 20-page publication seen each week here on campus. The process of creating such a paper from start to finish is one that spans a week of meetings, discussions, emails and endless elbow grease. The following is a look into what goes on with an average weekly production as not only an explanation to those interested, but also as an opportunity to record it for researchers of the future to see.

On the Wednesday before production, the Editorial Board of The Miscellany News meets. The Editorial Board consists of all editors listed in the masthead, excluding the crossword editor and assistant editors. At this meeting the board discusses any business the paper has, plans what each of the paper’s six sections (News, Features, Opinions, Humor & Satire, Arts and Sports) will be featuring, and decides what the front page of the paper will look like. The board also discusses specialty content, such as the staff editorial, Word on the Street and Excuse Me. All specialty content is voted on and approved by at least two-thirds of the Editorial Board.

Throughout the week, editors are constantly emailing their reporters, columnists and contributors, as well as write their own pieces, ensuring that everything is on track and will be ready when the paper is to be put into production. On Sunday, the entire staff meets at paper critique in the Rose Parlor to talk about last week’s edition, as well as to check in on the progress of upcoming issue, and to make any final plans. The next few days, editors upload articles onto computers in the Misc’s office, editing them or sending them back for the author to make changes.

This process continues until Tuesday: Production night. From as early as 3 or 4 p.m. until the early hours of the morning, the entire staff comes together to turn thousands of words alongside many headlines and photos into an edition of The Miscellany News. Everything is gone over with a fine-tooth comb, double-checking facts and other information for veracity, as well as finalizing material such as the staff editorial. The senior editors and editor-in-chief will also meet on Wednesday for one last check before the paper, now completed, is sent off to the printer.

On Wednesday evening, the staff comes together once again. They recap how production went, and then the whole cycle starts all over. But this arduous process is the way the Miscellany best works; the product of several dozen staff members can be seen all over campus Thursday morning, as students grab their copies on the way to class.

As for what the Misc will be, that’s up to the coming classes of Vassar. Vassar Historian Johnson said, “It’s a resource for the future,” given its importance over the last century. Whether that means The Miscellany News might become a daily, weekly or all-digital publication is, for now, a mystery. Still, almost all the alumnae/i believe the future certainly is not just digital, but also bright.

Despite being a school that lacks a journalism or similar pre-professional program, Vassar’s Miscellany News has continued to not just survive over the past century, but, we would say, thrive. One can only imagine what the next 100 years hold for the publication, but we’re hoping for the best.

When asked about the Misc’s future outlook, Melissa Walker ’99 said, “I have no doubt that the stories will keep getting told. The news never stops!”

 

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