Been There, Done That
A look at nearly 40 years of Freep-ness
May 4, 1970. As Vietnam War protests raged on college campuses nationwide, members of the National Guard opened fire on a crowd of Kent State University students, killing four. Amid ensuing mayhem, Boston University officials closed dorms, called off finals, and canceled Commencement. And the Daily Free Press, Boston University’s independent student newspaper, emerged from the chaos.
Two days after the Kent State shootings, journalism student Charles Radin (COM’71) distributed a hastily produced double-sided photocopy detailing a rally at the Statehouse. Its lead story: “Boston University is closed.” Consequently, the first issue of the Freep, as it would soon be called, was the last for that semester. But like the University, it resumed the following fall, publishing its second edition on September 7, 1970.
During its heyday, the Freep was Boston’s third-largest daily, with a circulation of 25,000 (current circulation is roughly 4,000, with paper on Fridays). Just a few years ago, the paper averaged 16 to 20 pages per issue; today’s issues are 4 to 8 pages. An online version, launched in 1996, reportedly generates about 28,000 hits a week.
Few would recognize the Daily Free Press of the 1970s. Smaller than the average tabloid, the design changed on a monthly, sometimes a weekly, basis. At first, it averaged four pages and published editorials only sporadically. But size and coverage grew to accommodate an expanding readership.
One of the Freep’s first major stories appeared on December 17, 1970. In large block letters, the front page announced BU’s decision to hire John Silber as its seventh president. Almost immediately, he became the catalyst for hundreds of stories, editorials, and letters to the editor (often negative). Over a tumultuous 30 years, his frequent criticisms of the paper resulted in swift rebuttals on the editorial page.
Student activism peaked in the spring of 1972. As anger over the Vietnam War intensified, Boston police officers arrested 33 demonstrators protesting military recruiters on campus, and the March 28 issue included a two-page spread detailing the riots that followed. A month later, in protest of bombing escalations in Vietnam and alleged University complicity with the war effort, 250 students occupied an administration building, stealing student files and causing minor property damage.
Hostility between administration and faculty deepened. By 1976, faculty of the College of Arts & Sciences, the College of Communication, and the School of Nursing had called for Silber’s removal, and 500 members of the Faculty Senate voted for his resignation. The outcry resulted in an evaluation committee, which established a chancellor and provost to assist the president.
The decade culminated with the faculty, clerical workers, librarians, and buildings and grounds unions going on strike. Students refused to the cross picket lines, and the University shut down for nine days.
By 1980, the Freep had adopted a cleaner layout, relinquishing its ragtag design of the 1970s for one more polished. The first issue of the new decade incorporated a silhouette of Marsh Chapel and the adjoining College of Arts & Sciences and School of Theology buildings into its masthead. The next year, a new staff, replaced that logo with simple block letters.
The Freep introduced Muse, an arts and entertainment section, in 1980. While the debut issue focused mainly on film reviews, it included a rock and roll retrospective and a look at Boston’s jazz scene. Later the section’s coverage broadened to include theater, concert, and restaurant reviews, gallery openings, in-depth artist profiles, and calendar listings. By the 1990s, Muse was a 12-page insert with avant-garde color covers and designs rivaling local indie weeklies such as the Boston Phoenix.
Papers through the early 1980s were small, averaging eight pages per issue, editorials and letters to the editor appearing only twice a week. An article on October 15, 1981, reported that BU had more violent crimes than any college in the state. Within a month, police investigated seven rapes, three stabbings, and one hit-and-run. The incidents resulted in a University escort service.
A week later, on October 23, 1981, BU police arrested five Freep staff members for trespassing when they attempted to obtain BU police log information concerning an alleged attempted rape. Citing a state statute that requires all police departments to “make, keep, and maintain a daily log … available without charge to the public,” the students refused to leave the station when denied access. Their actions landed them at a Boston police station, where they were released on $10 bail that evening.
In January 1984, the staff expanded the editorial section to three days a week and allocated world news and photographs to page two. By September, the staff changed the paper’s look yet again, reverting to a more traditional layout, relinquishing bold sans-serif fonts. The paper retained this layout well into the 1990s. Market Force, a weekly careers and business journal, debuted in January 1985; it was renamed In Business in 1997.
By 1986, editorial pages ran five days a week. That same year, the Freep published a three-part investigative series about the Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) collection at the University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. According to Freep reporters, before King died, he asked for the return of the papers he had donated so he could open a center in Atlanta. The series contributed to the Student Union’s demand that the manuscripts be returned to Coretta Scott King, who filed a lawsuit against the University in December 1987. After a seven-year court battle, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the papers should remain at BU.
In 1987, the Freep debuted Science Tuesday, the country’s first collegiate weekly science section, and in 1989 it introduced Midweek, commentary and analysis that focused on politics. One of the biggest stories of the 1980s occurred on November 19, 1987, when Joey and Marky Ramone, members of the rock band the Ramones, drew 1,000 students to Marsh Plaza to protest the administration’s refusal to allow the band to perform on campus. The Freep published a special 4-page edition detailing the evening’s events, in addition to its regular 12-page issue.
The paper’s look remained consistent through the 1980s and into the 1990s, with issues averaging 12 pages. Photos and other graphic touches became more common, and spot color was added to Muse section covers during the mid-1990s. In January 1991, City Focus, a weekly section that concentrated on news from greater Boston, took the place of Midweek. Nine months later, editors replaced it with Spotlight, stories about personalities shaping the Boston community.
The first big story of the new decade broke in January 1990, when Silber announced his candidacy for governor of Massachusetts. A dark-horse, he stunned students in September by clinching the Democratic nomination, and the Freep staff grudgingly endorsed him in a November 5 editorial. A Daily Free Press poll indicated that nearly 50 percent of BU students favored Silber; he lost to Republican opponent William F. Weld in a tight race.
The 1990s saw the Freep covering some tragic stories. In March 1991, two BU students were hit and killed on Comm Ave by a car driven by Boston Celtic Charles Smith. Smith was charged, found guilty, and sentenced to four and a half years. In 1995, freshman hockey player Travis Roy (COM’00) crashed into the boards within the first 11 seconds of his first college hockey game, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.
During the spring of 1992, students led the University in a mini sexual revolution when members of Students for Sexual Freedom petitioned Silber to revise the guest policy, add sexual orientation to the University’s antidiscrimination clause, and allow condom distribution. The same year, Freep staff debuted F-Stop, a monthly photographic magazine now published online. The paper averaged 16 pages an issue by 1995.
Environmental issues shot to the forefront when a January 27, 1994, article revealed that recyclables collected in the George Sherman Union were being thrown away. By February, a new recycling program was in the works. A year later, the Board of Trustees unanimously named Jon Westling, BU’s executive vice president and provost, the University’s eighth president, sparking anger from members of the Faculty Council. Silber remained as chancellor and a trustee.
Perhaps the biggest story of the 1990s broke on October 25, 1997, when the Board of Trustees announced that the University was dropping its 91-year-old football program. BU football was memorialized in a commemorative edition published before the final home game on November 8; the team rallied for a win, bumping its record to 1-8.
In 1998, the staff redesigned the front page, shortening the name of the paper to the DFP. This lasted only one semester; by September, the staff sacked the abbreviation and reverted to a leaner masthead.
On September 14, 1998, the paper ran a front-page story detailing a lawsuit filed by former Freep office manager Karen Miranda, who alleged she’d been fired from her job in 1994 because she suffered from cervical cancer. On September 28, after six hours of deliberation, a Suffolk County Superior Court jury ordered the paper to pay Miranda a six-figure settlement.
The financially strapped Freep discontinued its end-of-semester special editions, which had previously contained as many as 80 pages. By the middle of 2000, issues averaged 8 to 12 pages a day, and Muse was cut to 4 pages.
To usher in the new millennium, staff members undertook a major redesign, which resulted in a more polished and easier-to-read product. Designers added teasers above the masthead and other design elements, such as pull quotes to highlight an interesting comment. The same basic design is used today.
In March 2001, police charged School of Medicine student Daniel Mason with killing two men from Jamaica Plain, and the Freep urged the Medical Campus to revamp its application screening. Six months later, the staff responded to the September 11 terrorist attacks with in-depth coverage that continued through the semester; 30 members of the BU community were killed that day.
Editorials throughout the early 2000s pressured Westling to amend the University’s antidiscrimination policy to include protection for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) community. Westling ignored the requests, despite urging from the Student Union and members of Spectrum, BU’s GLBT student organization. The conflict escalated in 2002 when Silber interceded, ordering the BU Academy’s gay-straight alliance to disband, an action that sparked nationwide controversy and resulted in U.S. Congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) demanding his resignation.
The University’s reputation was briefly tarnished in 2003, when BU terminated its contract with Daniel S. Goldin, who was set to become the University’s ninth president, at a cost of $1.8 million. The Board of Trustees unanimously appointed Aram Chobanian as president ad interim, and Silber resigned as chancellor and trustee.
In June 2005, the Freep released a special issue to announce the hiring of Robert A. Brown as University president. Coverage continued the following fall, when Brown was inaugurated as BU’s 10th president.
By the fall of 2007, the Freep was averaging 8 to 12 pages a day, and the staff cut Science Tuesday (which had been renamed Science and Tech), Spotlight, and In Business in 2008, publishing them online only. Muse remained, but was only one or two pages long. The sections resurfaced in print on occasion in 2008 and became regular fixtures again in 2009, when the staff announced in February that it would stop publishing on Fridays.
Despite financial woes, the staff persevered. Top 2009 stories included the men’s ice hockey team’s fifth national championship and the arrest of Philip H. Markoff, a second-year School of Medicine student, who police charged with the killing of a woman who advertised massage services on Craigslist.
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