Then and now: ‘Rocky Mountain Collegian’ marks 125th birthday

“All progress is the result of mental activity. Therefore the condition of the mind determines the extent of that progress. If the mind is sluggish, advancement is impossible.”

The first known photo of a Collegian staff, in 1896

Thus began the first article in the first issue of the Rocky Mountain Collegian, a little over 125 years ago, dated December 1891. It was from the “First Prize Oration” delivered the previous month by John Walsh, class of 1894.

Senior A.J. Sedgwick was editor in chief. He and five others — including Society Editor Irene C. Edwards, the only female on staff — wrote the following in the “Editorial Comment” section, titled “Salutory”:

“After much delay, resulting from a number of causes, the Collegian has at last made its appearance. The managers will do their utmost to produce a creditable paper, and one that will meet with the approval of all friends of the College. It shall be our earnest endeavor at all times to present all of the College news — what the students are doing in different departments, the changes that are being made, and, in fact, everything of interest connected with the College.”

The Collegian staff in the 1920s. Courtesy of the Coloradoan

There was an item about the college newspapers in Colorado and surrounding states with which the monthly Collegian was exchanging copies. Excerpts from the “Local Department” (see box at right) included items about the dancing club, hopes for starting CSU’s first fraternity, social engagements and enrollment hitting a whopping 124 students.

The Collegian is the oldest continuously published college paper in Colorado and one of the oldest in the West. Its long and storied history was the subject of a panel discussion among former editors held last fall as part of the annual CSU Media Festival, to honor the paper’s 125th anniversary.

The present

Today, the Collegian serves a student population of 33,000 instead of 124. Its print circulation is 5,000, and had 441,160 page views during the fall semester, up about 10 percent from the previous spring.

The paper operates independently as an arm of the Rocky Mountain Student Media Corporation (which also manages other outlets like KCSU and Collegian TV). It is funded primarily through student fees and advertising revenue.

Collegian advisor Jim Rodenbush said his role is to simply serve as a resource to the students; he doesn’t approve articles before they’re published — although he and editors critique each issue during evaluation sessions after each one is published.

“Under no circumstances do I say you have to do this or that,” Rodenbush says. “They don’t have to listen to me.”

The content is overseen by an editorial board of 12 to 15 people. The paper relies on a staff of about 100 student contributors, including editors for each section. Regular 16-page issues appear Monday through Wednesday, followed by a 24-pager on Thursday, with periodic special editions on Fridays.

As for its digital presence, Rodenbush says the Collegian website has been made more mobile-friendly. The proportion of readers who read the site on a desktop computer vs. a mobile device has flipped in the last couple of years, to 43 percent and 57 percent, respectively.

From the first issue

Some excerpts from the “Local Department” in the first Collegian, 1891:

“The dancing club meets every two weeks.”

“Miss Minnie F. Harrington spent a few days in Denver last week.”

“Be a man. Don’t borrow your neighbor’s paper, but buy one for yourself.”

“Ain’t it funny that none of the professors ever get sick?”

“We hope to see a Greek Letter fraternity established here before the year is over.”

“The three higher classes have spent a few pleasant evenings with several of the Profs this term.”

“The attendance at the College is rapidly increasing. There are at present 124 students enrolled.”

“The local contest was a grand success. The chapel was crowded and the ushers were kept busy.”

“Miss Wilson entertained a number of College people very pleasantly on the evening of Nov. 14th.”

“Assistant Chemist Nicolai Andersen has resigned, and goes to New York to resume work at his old place.”

“Don’t forget the local editor. It is impossible for him to meet each one, so kindly hand him what items of interest you may have.”

“Frank DeVotie, while skating on Sheldon’s lake Thanksgiving day, broke through the ice. He did not take dinner with his friends as was intended.”

“The Botanical department has lately received from Storrs & Harrison 700 greenhouse plants of the leading varieties; also 1,500 bulbs from J.S. Vaughan, of Chicago, for winter forcing.”

“The design for the cover of the Collegian did not arrive in time for this issue, but will appear in the next number.”

“A student became very inquisitive as to the number of demerit marks he had, and asked a member of the Faculty. His case was investigated and it was found that he had the requisite number for suspension. Advice: ‘Be quiet; black marks do not evaporate.’”

A typical day

According to Editor-in-Chief Julia Rentsch, the workday starts at around 6 a.m., when the social media team begins sending out stories from the print issue hitting the newsstands — as well as online-only content. The paper is delivered along six routes (two by bike) to nearly 400 locations on campus and around the city.

Rentsch, left, and Rodenbush discuss the paper’s March 8 issue.

During the day, the Collegian “street team” hands out papers, while the sales team secures advertising and the editors work with reporters on newsgathering. The editors meet back at the Rocky Mountain Student Media offices in the lower level of the Lory Student Center at 5:30 p.m. to plan the next day’s edition. That meeting is followed by the copyediting and layout necessary to meet the printer’s 11:30 p.m. deadline. Then the whole process starts over.

“I could almost say I’m majoring in student media, with the amount of time I spend there,” says Rentsch, a journalism major minoring in global environmental sustainability.

She says the Collegian staff welcomes letters to the editor and other reader feedback because the paper reflects the CSU community and serves as a sort of “journalism lab” to prepare future journalists for a changing media landscape.

“We’re members of the community we serve, we’re not just trolls in the basement creating content,” Rentsch says with a laugh. “We know who we are, and we know who our audience is. We’re students, and sometimes we make mistakes.”

City council honor

To mark the Collegian’s 125th year of publication, Fort Collins Mayor Wade Troxell proclaimed December 2016 as Student Media Celebration Month at the Dec. 6 City Council meeting.  Rentsch and Edward Kendall, speaker pro tempore for the Associated Students of Colorado State University, were on hand to receive the honor.

“For 125 years, the production of a student-led newspaper has served to educate future journalists while providing a forum for public discourse throughout the Fort Collins community,” the council proclamation read by Troxell said.

Rentsch, who served as reporter, copy chief and managing editor before becoming editor-in-chief last November, is quick to credit the many students who worked at the Collegian over the last 125 years.

“I may have been the one to receive the city’s honor, but it was on behalf of all who came before me,” she says, adding that while the way news is delivered may have changed, the Collegian’s role remains unchanged from what the original staff outlined in the “Salutory” of 1891.

“Our mission truly is the same,” Rentsch says. “We are dedicated to producing high-quality news for the campus. We’re primarily funded through student fees, which some students don’t know, but it’s our responsibility to serve them. And the truth.”