Documenting history: the ‘voice of the students’ for 90 years

The end of 2023 marked the 90th year of The Western Carolinian. The first edition of the student-run newspaper was published Feb. 15, 1933. A lot has changed since then but one thing remains the same: The Western Carolinian seeks to report the truth and inform the public on WCU’s ever-changing campus and the surrounding areas. 

The same year The Western Carolinian published its first edition, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn into his first term as president, Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany and the first ever drive-in movie theater opened in New Jersey.  

Western Carolina University, as we now know it, was founded in 1889 and received a charter as Cullowhee High School in 1891. For years, the purpose of the school was to train teachers. In 1929 it became a four-year institution known as Western Carolina Teachers College. Finally, in 1967 WCU adopted its current name. 

In its first year of coverage, The Western Carolinian reported that there were 366 students enrolled in Western Carolina Teaching College. The campus then consisted of about 25 acres. The main buildings were Joyner which housed administration; Madison which housed the gymnasium; and the Moore dormitory where students and some faculty lived.  

History on the pages of The Western Carolinian 

The campus published its first newspaper in 1924 called The Cullowhee Yodel. The Yodel was a collaboration between students and faculty. In 1933 it rebranded as The Western Carolinian and became a student-led organization.

Jason Brady is a university library specialist in Special and Digital Collections at the Hunter Library. Brady recognizes The Western Carolinian as a reputable and trusted reference.  

“We get reference questions all the time about the history of the university – when this happened, when this department began, you know all sorts of stuff – but chances are it’s in The Western Carolinian, almost always,” Brady said.   

The Hunter Library’s Special and Digital Collections has a huge database of campus publications including The Cullowhee Yodel, campus yearbooks and The West

ern Carolinian dating back almost a century. These publications can be accessed by anyone on the second floor of Hunter Library. The Special Collection’s reading room is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., or by appointment Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The collection can also be accessed on the Southern Appalachian Digital Collections website 

Looking through the old, yellowed pages of The Western Carolinian is a walk back in time. While the 1920s may feel far removed, the issues then were not very different from the issues covered today. The front page of The Cullowhee Yodel’s first edition boasted the headline “Educators favor better highway.” 

The article covered the motion to surface the road between Cullowhee and Sylva. According to the paper, “the institution’s future growth would be greatly hindered unless the school is made more accessible at all times of the year.” At the time the road to Sylva from Cullowhee was a dirt road, often impassable in rainy weather.    

This coverage is reminiscent of the Highway 107 expansion stories being published today. The road expansion promises to bring heightened safety and growth to the area. 

The Western Carolinian has published a variety of content throughout the years, from cigarette ads to reports of students having appendicitis surgery.  

In the early 1940s The Western Carolinian’s coverage had a change of tune. Full pages were dedicated to World War II coverage. Many students were drafted to serve overseas. There was coverage of alumni and students dying in the war. Advertisers bought full pages encouraging readers to buy war bonds and support the war effort.  

The Western Carolinian has always provided a personal take on things happening in Cullowhee. According to Brady, university records, minutes and history books sterilize the school’s rich history. He references old editions of The Western Carolinian to understand the culture of the area throughout past decades.   

“It’s a little bit more unvarnished version of the university’s history that you just don’t get from books or board minutes,” Brady said.  

Carolinian Reporter Marrah Ste. Marie knows how important it is to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s happening.   

“The Western Carolinian is just like any other news publication. We hold people accountable, keep students informed and we keep an account of history for WCU. Through The Western Carolinian students can see the truth of our university, the good and the bad” Ste. Marie said.  

 What does it mean for a newspaper to be student-run?  

According to the Pew Research Center 62% of Americans ages 18-29 say they have some or a lot of trust in local news outlets. Within this same age bracket, 56% trust national news organizations. These numbers have been on the decline in the last decade.  

The beauty of a student-run paper is there are no powerful players dictating what information is published. The Western Carolinian operates on a budget managed by the Department of Campus Activities. This money is used to pay writers, designers and editors – a team comprised entirely of students.  

This budget does not cover all of the publication’s expenses, so advertisements must be sold to local business and national ad partners. Ad spaces are available in the print edition and on the website.  

The Department of Campus Activities has no say in what The Western Carolinian publishes. There are no professors pushing specific content.   

“The students – they’re not beholden to the same people that the administrators are. They don’t have to change the perspective to make things look better or look worse depending on what the politics of the situation want. It seems quite credible,” Brady said. 

Student journalists with a passion for producing an informative paper are the driving force behind the newspaper. This is the legacy of The Western Carolinian and student-run papers across America.   

 Why should students care? 

For hundreds of years, student-run newspapers have been an important part of college campuses. Campus newspapers have a responsibility to inform students about campus events, expose wrongdoing and hold leadership accountable. Newspapers exercise the first amendment rights of free speech and free press.   

One of the guiding principles of The Western Carolinian is providing a voice to the voiceless, especially students. 

Liam Bridgeman is the current editor-in-chief of The Western Carolinian. He is pursuing a career in journalism based off the impact work in the field has on the community.  

“There’s no better feeling in the world than someone telling you how your story impacted them and their knowledge of a subject,” Bridgeman said.

Throughout his time at WCU, Bridgeman has covered topics such as increasing student fees and COVID-19 isolation. He believes one of the biggest impacts The Western Carolinian has is on its own staff.   

“It’s important to give young journalists an outlet where they can explore their own writing and actually produce great products that have a direct impact on their university,” Bridgeman said. “The Western Carolinian has a history of molding young minds into great journalists that go on to have very successful careers. We’re still doing that today.” 

Lilly Knoepp is the senior regional reporter for the Blue Ridge Public Radio. She graduated from UNC Chapel Hill and spent time working with The Daily Tar Heel, an independent student paper in Chapel Hill. 

Knoepp discussed the importance of a student newsroom’s freedom to make bold editorial choices.  

“I think [student-run news outlets] make a pretty big impact as a news organization, period, not just as a student organization” Knoepp said. 

 The future of The Western Carolinian  

The Western Carolinian is still distributing physical copies, but news is moving in a digital direction. There is still a charm to a physical newspaper though. A tangible paper feels like living history held in your hands.   

The online format allows the coverage to be more fluid. Corrections can be made; photos and videos to be added and news to be accessed at any time. The Western Carolinian can be accessed online at westerncarolinian.com for up-to-date coverage of Western Carolina University’s events and happenings.  

Whether readers pick up physical copies, browse the website or tune into the paper’s social media, The Western Carolinian’s mission remains the same.   

“It’s important to continue that tradition so that people can stay connected and know what’s happening on campus,” said Ste. Marie.   

Journalism has been dubbed the “first draft of history”. Remaining the voice of the students since 1933, The Western Carolinian has covered history in the making for 90 years and will continue to do so for years to come. 

Updated Feb. 13, 2024 at 4:49 p.m.