Publishing the Student Newspaper from Scratch... and Nearly Dying in the Process

Clark Perks ‘90

24 years ago, I published a newspaper at Bennington College for only four months, and it almost killed me.

I published the paper when I was twenty-one. It was 1988, the fall term of my junior year at Bennington. I was president of Student Council that semester, and putting out a newspaper was one of my sweeping reforms. The previous year, one of the students, John McManus, had published two issues of a newspaper called The Commons. At that time we did not have a consistent newspaper like the Free Press.

Our plan was to use the name Commons again, but greatly expand the scope of the project. In the first week of that term, the student government heads met with the new freshmen in one of VAPA theaters. We sat in a row of folding chairs facing the new students. They seemed pretty bored while we explained when Student Council met, how house chairs were elected, the functions of recreation committee, etc.

I discussed some of the reforms I wanted to make to the student judicial system. Yawns. I mentioned we were going to publish a weekly student newspaper. More yawns. A friend of mine, Jonathan Staufer, sensed the room needed a kick. “And that newspaper will run Doonesbury, Bloom County, the Far Side, and Calvin and Hobbes each week!” he said. The room erupted in applause.

I was a little mortified. I had discussed with Jon my plans to run those comics, but at that time I hadn’t looked into that possibility at all. What if we couldn’t deliver? I contacted the syndicates for the comics the next day. All of them came from Universal syndicate, except for Bloom County which came from the Washington Post Writers group.

The people I spoke with were enormously helpful. As it turns out, costs for comics were based on circulation. Since there were fewer than five-hundred students on campus at the time, our circulation would be well under a thousand, meaning we would get the minimum price.

We received the first shipment of comics the next week. Back then comics were sent out about two weeks in advance and they included a week’s worth on a sheet. This, in itself, was magic. I no longer had to wait for the next Doonesbury to be published in the local paper. I was reading the Doonesbury of the future.

However, this got a little creepy during the 1988 presidential campaign. All of Doonesbury’s strips had George H.W. Bush being elected president. Sure, Bush was ahead in the polls, but was it really that much of a done deal? We planned to publish The Commons on Fridays. The comics came in blocks of six, the last strip being Saturday’s.

Though the enclosed agreements warned against printing strips before their release date, we felt we were small enough to get away with it. The rest of the students would get to read comics one day in the future. With the comics connection secured, we needed a printing press. For this we turned to the local weekly shopper, The Pennysaver. They had offices in downtown Bennington and they did commercial printing. We met with their manager who gave us a tour and explained the various options.

It was going to cost $400 per issue to print. Yikes.

The manager explained the production process, all of it new to us. He gave us some paste-up sheets, marked with blue lines that would not reproduce. He explained that photographs would have to be converted to “halftones” to print. “Just give us the photographs, indicate where they go and tell us how you want them sized and cropped,” he said. “Give us the size in percentage.”

I stared at the man blankly. “How do we figure out the percentage?’

“With a reduction wheel.”

More blank stares.

“You don’t have a reduction wheel?” he said. I shook my head.

“Here,” he said. “You can have this one.” And he explained how it worked. I would use that same reduction wheel for the next six years, until desktop publishing rendered them obsolete.

Over the previous summer I had developed a nameplate for The Commons. It looked old. I noticed all respectable newspapers used old fashioned Gothic fonts for the nameplates. I wanted the paper to have that “We have been publishing since the 1800s” feel, so I painstakingly created a nameplate for The Commons using letters from a press and rub kit.

We had a nameplate. We had four pages worth of comics. All we had to figure out was what to put in the rest of the paper, how to produce it, and how to pay for it. Seemed simple enough. We solved the first problem by adopting a strict “anarchist” editorial principle: We would print anything anyone gave us. Stories, poems, photos, insane rants, etc. Our masthead listed everyone who worked on or contributed to the paper in alphabetical order.

Producing the paper was much more difficult than filling it with content. This was at the dawn of desktop publishing. PageMaker, which created the whole concept of desktop publishing, had just been introduced. We output the first issue on my 72dpi dot-matrix printer. It took forever.

For the second issue, we started using the computer lab’s laser printer. The problem was, the computer lab only had one Mac at the time. Every Wednesday night we had to input, layout, and output the whole paper, and one Mac was not nearly enough. To solve this problem, every Wednesday night we would go around campus with a hand truck and visit all our friends who had Macs so we could borrow them. We would wheel all these Macs up to the computer room, set them up, input all the text, save the text to floppy disks, transfer the text to the only Mac that had PageMaker, and layout the paper. This process would generally take all night.

The following morning, we’d deliver the pasted up pages to the Pennysaver for printing. We’d pick up the printed papers in bundles later the following afternoon and distribute them to people’s mailboxes that evening.

You know the New York Times’ motto “All the news that’s fit to print?” Our motto was “Where Wednesday Night Is Synonymous With Thursday Morning.”

When I left Bennington in 1989, I had hoped The Commons would survive my departure. It did, though very briefly. They produced two more issues in the spring semester after I left. I am so very glad that the Bennington Free Press has found a way to make journalism thrive at Bennington College.

I never lost my love of publishing. I worked 16 years for Gannett, publisher of USA Today and the largest newspaper company in America.

I started working for Gannett in 1992 at a newspaper in South Jersey called the Courier-Post. I did just about everything at the paper short of running the press or delivering the papers. I wrote and edited stories, shot and edited photos, designed pages, created graphics and illustrations and created ads. I built the newspaper’s website in 1998 and helped produce more than 300 videos for that website. I even sold advertising. At one point I was the paper’s assistant managing editor – the third highest ranking person in the newsroom, with supervisory capacity for a hundred journalists.

I still write and edit, but for paying clients of the consulting firm I work for. In my opinion, still journalism, just for a smaller, paying audience. At heart I will remain a newspaperman until I die.

Malia Guyer-StevensComment