A Campus Newspaper War in Wisconsin  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April 1999

A Campus Newspaper War in Wisconsin   

By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (mark@texaswatchdog.org) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.      


Adam Lasker does his best to conceal his glee.

On his desk in the narrow, windowless basement office of the Daily Cardinal at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Lasker, the editor, has set aside a February 26 edition of the rival Badger Herald. On the front page, lower right, is a story about a Mexican restaurant extending its hours and the unlikely page one lead, "Late-nighters have a new place to satisfy those nocturnal munchies." Towering next to the jump on page 3 is a half-page ad for the same restaurant.

"You might want to ask Dan Alter how that story got on the front page," Lasker says.

In a conference room of the sunny, spacious and funky second-floor offices of the Herald, Alter, the paper's editor, has his head in both hands. Jumping to the ad was bad enough, he says. The story should not have run, let alone displace a free speech story then printed on page 2, he says. Alter had already upbraided the features editor who made the specious news judgment on one of Alter's infrequent nights off. "You have to remember, this is a learning process for all of us, even me," he says.

Score one for the 107-year-old Daily Cardinal in its unique newspaper war with the surprising upstart Herald, founded in 1969. The University of Wisconsin-Madison, enrollment 40,000, is the only campus in the country served by two independent student newspapers publishing five days a week. A second paper offers twice the opportunity for students to get daily newspaper experience, says Sharon Dunwoody, director of the UW School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Cardinal and Herald editors relish the rivalry. The Cardinal only recently stopped keeping track of its scoops, like the story of the locker room fight between the star running back and a teammate on the Wisconsin Badgers football team. The Herald countered with an exclusive interview with a key basketball player who left the program.

Cardinal and Herald staffers play their own football game each fall and a softball game each spring. The losing newspaper must run an account of each game by one of its rival's reporters.

"Joe Student might not notice the benefit, but it's a very good thing to compete with the Cardinal," Alter says. "It's like playing the old Chicago Bulls--you just get up for it. Without one or the other, there's the risk of getting listless or complacent."

A check of any week's worth of Cardinals and Heralds shows how keen the news competition is. The coverage of beats is nearly identical; the placement of stories on the front page much the same. "In terms of journalistic quality, it's hard to tell them apart," Dunwoody says.

On the newsstand, it is impossible not to tell them apart. The Herald, printed by Madison Newspapers Inc., the company that publishes the morning Wisconsin State Journal and afternoon Capital Times, is full newspaper size with color on the front every day. The typical Herald is 16 pages, with a second section for sports and entertainment on Thursdays. The three-quarter-size Cardinal is eight pages, and color is a rarity. The daily print run for the Herald is 17,000, while the Cardinal's is 10,000.

In addition to the two local dailies, the two student newspapers vie for advertising dollars with three television stations, a full complement of radio stations and two weekly newspapers. One of the weeklies, the satirical 6-year-old Onion, has the highest readership of any publication on campus. Both student papers have suffered an erosion of ads in competition with the Onion, the editors say.

In 1995, competition put the Daily Cardinal out of business for seven months. Clifford C. Behnke, the managing editor of the State Journal and Cardinal editor in his senior year of 1965-66, says Cardinal alumni who came to the aid of the paper were shocked to learn of its financial condition. The year Behnke graduated, the Cardinal had reserves of $30,000, saved largely from the nickels then charged for each issue. By its close, having been forced by the Herald to become a free publication, the Cardinal was $137,000 in debt and unable to pay its printer, Behnke says.

The collapse of the Cardinal, Behnke says, had its roots in the left-wing political foment on campus during the Vietnam War. When campus radicals in 1970 bombed the Army Math Research Center at Sterling Hall, killing a researcher, the Cardinal ran an editorial endorsing the bombing and condemning the work of the military on campus. Michael Arndt, now a Sunday business writer for the Chicago Tribune, says left-wing orthodoxy was as important to the staff in the late '70s, when he was the Cardinal editor, as it was at the height of the war.

"We were the first American newspaper at the time to send reporters to Cuba," Arndt says. "On one hand, what we did was great. On the other hand, it was all propaganda, and we came back and printed every bit of it."

"Their left-wing politics extended to their business practices," Behnke says. "They viewed making money as abhorrent."

The Herald, founded by four students in 1969 as a conservative counterpoint, went from weekly to daily in 1986. Tim Stanton, the Herald's first daily editor, now an attorney in Chicago, says the Herald's coverage was tailored for students of the Reagan era. Political opinion, unlike in the Cardinal, was consigned to the editorial page.

"Merchants didn't particularly want to be associated with the Cardinal, and readers were happy to have an alternative that was relevant to campus," Stanton says. "I can't say it is surprising that the Herald caught up and passed the Cardinal."

While Alter does not discuss dollars and cents, he says the Herald is financially healthy, relying on advertising alone for its income. Lasker says the Cardinal is breaking even. Without paid circulation, Lasker says the Cardinal advertising staff simply has to be more creative and more aggressive.

Behnke and the other Cardinal alumni on the board of directors, who demanded oversight in exchange for helping resuscitate the paper, think it will take more. The board is considering recommending that distribution, advertising and other business operations be turned over to a private company.

For Lasker, who opposes privatizing any part of the paper, the solution is as simple as it is unattainable, at least for now. "Give me 12 to 16 pages with full color every day--that isn't much to ask," he says.

From the sun-splashed upper floor, Alter welcomes any Cardinal attempt to catch up. "I love waking up every morning and picking up both papers from the stands," Alter says. "The Cardinal is good at what it does. But if you ask anyone on this campus, they're going to tell you the Herald is the better paper."

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