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The Tech, Then and Now

From whimsical to award-winning

In October 1881, a few modest attempts having flared up and failed, a handful of MIT students decided it was time to get serious about starting a newspaper. Under the care of 10 editors (including representatives of each current class year) and a board of directors, the first issue of the Tech appeared on November 16.

For most of the 1880s, the Tech had an illustrated cover that was printed on heavier stock.

“The Institute has never been rich in papers,” reads an introductory article from the first issue. “Although we tremble at the thought of the work before us, we begin it gladly. We believe the same public spirit that founded the tech will sustain it to the end.” Indeed, that spirit has sustained it. The Tech has become, as its tagline now reads, “MIT’s oldest and largest newspaper”–run entirely by students and, thanks to advertising reve­nue, financially independent.

This story is part of the July/August 2008 Issue of the MIT News magazine
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Initially, the paper was 12 pages long and came out every other Wednesday; a copy cost 15 cents, an annual subscription two dollars. The paper provided coverage of campus and world news, but its general tone was one of charming amateurism. Cartoons and jokes adorned its pages, as did poems about such topics as “Janitor John.” The puns–for instance, “Professor: ‘Mention an oxide.’ Student: ‘Leather.’ Professor: ‘Oxide of what?’ Student: ‘Oxhide of beef, sir’ ”–were real groaners.

Yet the loose, tongue-in-cheek style of the paper gave students a way to playfully raise serious concerns. Complaints about campus fire hazards came up early on. In issue 5, the editors claimed that fire buckets were used to catch roof leaks instead of being left in their proper places. In the following issue, they added, “We have discovered still another use for the fire buckets. The architects are using one for a wash-basin.” In issue 8, a cartoon captioned “The only fire escape from the fifth story” showed troll-like creatures laboriously lowering themselves, by use of a pulley, in a giant basket.

The newspaper quickly became invaluable to an Institute still in its formative years. In issue 2, one writer earnestly pushed for a society to improve MIT students’ debating skills. “It is a notable feature of our graduation exercises that enunciation is very indistinct, and lack of confidence universally shown,” wrote T.B.C., who argued that “quickness and ready reply … are gained only in a stubborn debate, which being won, leaves one a step higher in self-confidence and forms the nucleus of the future successful man of the world.” In issue 5, the Tech reported that the Mechanical Debating Society had been founded in response to that piece.

Over the years, the paper tried every printing schedule possible, even becoming a daily or almost-daily for at least four years in the early 1900s. It went on to shed its poor puns and developed into a more serious publication–refining its editorial tone, expanding its world news section, settling into a semiweekly schedule (Tuesdays and Fridays), and growing to 20 pages.

“The Tech’s evolved to be more professional,” says its current editor in chief, Nick Semenkovich ‘09, who joined the paper in September 2006. The all-volunteer organization has won a host of awards, most recently a 2007 Associated Collegiate Press Newspaper Pacemaker award, known unofficially as the “Pulitzer of college newspapers,” Semenkovich says. The paper, which is printed in color half of the time, includes articles from the New York Times wire service and has a print run of about 8,000 copies. It sometimes breaks stories that get picked up by national–and occasionally international–outlets, says Semenkovich.

The Tech was the first newspaper in the world to go online, according to the paper’s current business manager, Austin Chu ‘08. Launched in 1993, the Tech’s website has roughly 6,000 issues–most of the content the paper has ever published–available in PDF or HTML format, starting from issue 1. The carefully kept archives serve as an ongoing history of the Institute, says Semenkovich.

“A college paper is a better criterion of the spirit of the institution and the character of the students than are its catalogues or other official publications,” read an editorial in issue 9. Reading very old issues of the Tech confirms how that spirit and character have endured through the years, even as it evokes a world that would change beyond recognition. As the editorial pointed out, “students select a college because they expect to find there that which is congenial to their tastes; and once within the college, the college paper, being their mouthpiece, naturally expresses their ideas and sentiments.”

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