UWS student newspaper flap brings back memories

Your intrepid regional blogger pictured here covering a 2000 Joe Lieberman rally in Duluth for the UW-Superior Promethean.

Your intrepid regional blogger pictured here covering a 2000 Joe Lieberman rally in Duluth for the UW-Superior Promethean.

Last Saturday, the Duluth News Tribune ran a story about perceived outrage over a recent edition of the University of Wisconsin-Superior campus newspaper, recently renamed the Promethean from its previous name, the Stinger. It was an April Fool’s Edition in which the paper renamed itself the “Pessimist” and printed made up stories.

The story brought back all kinds of memories from my time at UWS, where I was the editor of that very paper, also then called the Promethean. (Fun Fact, before it was named the Promethean in the 1970s, it was known as the Peptomist for about 50 years. Thus, “The Pessimist” is an obscure call back gag).

First, one item of commentary. April Fool’s Day is stupid. And when a media outlet tries to do April Fool’s gags the chances of failing at being funny but succeeding at offending people and tarnishing your brand is high. We did April Fool’s editions when I was at the Promethean but I always argued against them. Sometimes they were funny, but they generally pissed people off and then this stack of mediocre jokes would sit on the stands for a whole week or two, confusing the hell out of everyone.

Here’s where most college papers get satire wrong. Heck, this is where most people get satire wrong. There’s a lot of good satire out there. We see it performed by many talented comedians and late night hosts. Good satire seems effortless, like blowing a whistle. But there is so much to designing the tone of satire that it’s easy for it to fail in its one core mission: to be funny while offering meaningful commentary on our times.

As a result, mistaken practitioners of satire often come at it with the intention of being a latter-day Jonathan Swift but end up telling an “oops, that’s actually racist” joke. Though I have not seen the UWS newspaper in question, I strongly suspect this is the root of its problem. This is further compounded by the fact that college newspaper staffs tend to be an insular group of awkward aspiring writers not yet attuned to learning from criticism. (Again, maybe this has changed since I was in college; but I doubt it). I was editor of the paper while taking a mass communication law class, in which I was taught the precise legal boundaries of libel. Speaking from experience, it’s easy for a young editor to see that line as aspirational rather than cautionary.

In fact, today Duluth News Tribune editor Rick Lubbers penned an editorial lecturing the UWS student journalists on the responsibilities that come with First Amendment rights. (Amusingly, he referred to the paper by its former name, the Promethean, in the process).

UPDATE: (I’ll be darned, the paper changed its name back to the Promethean a couple months ago. So the DNT was right about one thing).

OK, so here’s where I step off the high horse and get on the side of the kids. Sure, the paper needs to take its lumps here and eat the criticism. I hope the students have plans to follow up the joke edition with a string of great stories that illustrate what’s really happening on the UWS campus. But those students also need some room to fail. You don’t learn comedy by telling good jokes. You learn it by telling bad ones until you figure out what good is. I don’t agree with doing April Fool’s editions, but the editors here decided they would run one. They need to face the consequences on their own so they can learn. It’s how I learned. It’s how I continue to learn.

When I saw this story I immediately got in touch with Paul Ryan (not that Paul Ryan), a classmate and fellow editor on the Promethean. Paul writes a blazingly inappropriate satire column for the Duluth Reader Weekly that he has done for various publications, including the UWS school newspaper, since he was in high school.

My comment to Paul was how glad I was that I never had to hold a press conference defending my decision to run the column where Paul had put Chancellor Julius Ehrlenbach on the website “Hot or Not.” (Fun fact, he also put his own picture on “Hot or Not” only to learn that the Chancellor was deemed hotter than he was).

When Paul took over as editor of the Promethean when I got hired at the Hibbing Tribune, he ran an April Fool’s story that deadpanned the cancellation of the journalism program. The very next year the college cut the program for real.

Sometimes satire is too good.

Students need room to figure out what’s good and bad, what’s right and wrong. With the decline of actual journalism education we must let students gain experience somehow. Otherwise we’re training scribes, not writers.


  1. As a UWS grad … 1972-BS Business Mgmt … 1974-MA Communications (Radio-TV-Film), my view is that the April Fool’s Promeathean dust up is totally ridiculous. It seems like the objectors should grow up and stop behaving like pathetic little children. My advice is to remember that there is a hard, cold real world out there that you will soon be joining. It’s a world that does not give a wit about your namby-pamby feelings and could care less about your childish insecurities. Indeed, when you enter the cruel world, you must be prepared to face lots of harshness and unfairness. How you face up to the realities of the world will, in large measure, determine your ability to compete in a most unforgiving and tough world. You will not be pampered or coddeled … and how you deal with the real world will ultimately determine your success (or failure) in life. Remember, nobody cares about your juvenile sensitivities, and the world will not sing Kumbaya as you retreat into your “safe place”.

  2. John Ramos says

    On the other hand, don’t you think people are better equipped to compete in the cold hard world if they learn to stick up for themselves when something bothers them? If the anger simmering in your post is any indication, it suggests to me that some people do have something to worry about. You consider people who object to things they find demeaning to be “pampered,” “coddled,” “childish,” “juvenile,” “namby-pamby,” “pathetic little children.” If somebody heaped that kind of harshness on me, I’d object too.

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