In January 1878, New Haven was suffering a dearth of news. As a semimonthly, the Courant could scarcely live up to its name. The Record, on the same schedule, was about as up-to-date as a literature review, according to a cadre of Yale students. Yale men decided that the University and its surrounding city needed an “unpretentious sheet” of the latest news and “short, pithy articles of interest.” So, on January 28, the first issue of the Yale Daily News rolled off the press. “The innovation which we begin by this morning’s issue is justified by the dullness of the times, and by the demand for news among us,” the News began. The founders outlined a paper committed to free discussion on all subjects consistent with “decorum and morality.” But like the founders of nations or universities, they could scarcely envision the inflection points Yale would face, the turns and revisions the paper would undergo. Throughout the years to come, the paper, the nation’s first college daily, would chronicle how people at Yale reflected on life both on campus and in New Haven. And through the years, it would often run up against issues of race and inequality.
More than a century later, we begin an innovation of our own — a response to the turbulence of our times and to the imperative for historical understanding among us. We undertook a months-long project to explore the News’ archives in the hopes of better understanding the paper’s coverage of Yale and New Haven. We recognize that the News had many moments of exemplary journalism that we do not want to discount, but we focused this project particularly on where it fell short in its reporting on marginalized communities.
We undertook this project not to condemn the past or to shame an institution, but to understand where the News erred – even if it was in accordance with journalistic practices or public opinion at the time. We hope that by doing so, by accounting for the past, we can learn lessons to carry into our present and future reporting.
We understand the challenge of judging historical figures through a modern lens, recognizing that student sensibilities today are vastly different than they were even a decade ago and that we cannot place ourselves as arbiters of what is right and good. Still, we believe that some errors are so glaring that they cannot be defended by the context of the times. For others, we hope that a critical examination of the News’ coverage and, in some cases, how Yale students responded, can provide a deeper understanding of how different perspectives can collide. Our writers – students both inside and outside the News – had the freedom to stray from traditional journalistic and historical forms, sometimes inserting their own opinions and judgements. Our stories approach the borderlands: the project is part journalism, part history, part visceral response to what we’ve discovered. We accept that 145 years from today we open ourselves to the same judgment from our future counterparts. It is only with knowledge of the past that we can make a better future.
Our research demonstrated that the News has long had an icy relationship with some of the student body. After sit-ins and protests, boycotts and the creation of rival papers, the News has time and again promised to do better. But it has been slow to change and often complacent. Let this project signal a renewed effort to bring to today’s newsroom the voices the News historically left out.
Finally, we wish to note that this project remains unfinished. We could not hope to produce a comprehensive study of the News’ coverage of marginalized groups in the more than 20,000 issues the paper produced since its founding. There are beautiful moments in the News’ history, and there are ugly ones too. We at the News today have a better understanding of the former and feel it is time to recognize the latter. We hope that future reporters will continue the effort long after we have left 202 York Street.