When I read that Truman State University was considering killing its student newspaper, The Index, I had a flood of memories – most reminders of how important the 109-year-old publication is to the university and City of Kirksville, Mo. I worked on The Index during a time of high student activism and saw first-hand its crucial role in bridging the school and community.
In the summer of 1970, The Index was in crisis. Most of its editorial staff had resigned in protest when the college administration refused to let them print articles opposing the Vietnam War and then-President Richard Nixon. The only returning journalist was the sports editor – me. The publication’s faculty adviser called my parents’ home in St. Louis, offered me the job as editor-in-chief, and asked me to report two weeks before school started to rebuild the staff and content.
In retrospect, I feel sorry for the adviser. Tensions were high coming into the fall semester. The previous spring, four students had been shot to death by national guardsmen during an anti-war protest at Kent State University in Ohio. The administration of my school — then called Northeast Missouri State University — wanted to muzzle the hippie generation, and they thought they had a safe choice with the sports guy. The previous semester I was named Missouri “College Sportswriter of the Year” for stories about Lenvil Elliott, a football and track star who later played in the NFL. [The administration] probably figured I wouldn’t care about mundane issues such as University budgets.
However, my motto as editor was, “We aim to misbehave,” long before Joss Whedon made it famous. I knew they had to name me editor-in-chief or kill The Index, which the school couldn’t let happen. Fortunately, the adviser let me test his boundaries repeatedly with completely unmerited hubris.
I snuck into the printing plant and put the Black Panther “national anthem” by Elaine Brown on the front page after being ordered to remove it. I covered Native American and African-American activists in a rural farm town. I wrote about paranoid security measures at protest marches by campus and city police. I even got to spend time with John Trudell, spokesperson for the Indians of All Tribes during its occupation of Alcatraz. Add in ample amounts of Vietnam War debate, and The Index became Kirksville’s connection to the free speech movement.
Eventually I caught the attention of the University’s president by writing an editorial [column] criticizing the decision to build a new administration center when classrooms were crumbling. I didn’t ask the adviser’s permission to run the opinion piece, so I wasn’t exactly surprised when the president invited me into his office for a chat about it. Our conversation quickly devolved into him calling me “a potential bomb-throwing radical” and me responding, “You’re probably right.” It was one of the highlights of my journalism career, all thanks to The Index.
The following year I transferred to the University of Missouri in Columbia, where I continued to misbehave in print by uncovering the fact that the school was charging students twice in their fees for a new athletic center. I also wrote a piece for [Mizzou’s] alumni publication detailing allegations the journalism school dean had manipulated political coverage. Later, I worked on newspapers in four U.S. states, including stints as sports editor of The Sacramento Bee and St. Louis Sun. Eventually, I moved into marketing and communications in the Silicon Valley, but I never forgot what I learned in Kirksville.
During a time of noisy debate and polarization, The Index played a crucial role as a platform for intelligent discussion about volatile issues. Don’t we need the same today? Student journalists are uniquely positioned for that role, especially in the age of digital newsrooms. Local newspapers will always face economic pressure from local businesses. However, independent voices can truly be our “Fourth Estate” at the community level. Our democracy and nation depended on it in my college years, and we depend on it today.
Because of that, Truman State can be our hero in the end: Save The Index, save the world.