OSU’s Underground News Scene

 In the days before the Internet, self-publishing was the hot communication technology. You needed a permit to start your own radio or television station, but none was required to publish your own magazine, newspaper or single-sheet broadside. And while H. L. Mencken taught us “freedom of the press is limited to those who own one,” a mimeograph or photocopy machine wasn’t very expensive to buy, rent, or use while you’re supposed to be working.  

Strictly speaking, all student publications used to be “underground,” since there was originally no such thing as an “official” student publication, with its expenses paid out of the University budget. Even the Daily Barometer began as the College Barometer, a monthly publication a few students knocked off in their spare time – in fact, Oregon State University still does not have a School of Journalism, so the awards the Baro regularly receives are all the more impressive.  

OSU has a long history of spontaneous student publications, dating back even before it was Oregon Agricultural College, to when it was a Methodist school called Corvallis College. The University has a digital archive containing specimens of many student publications, going all the way back to the very first student publication, the Students Offering, first published in either 1868, 1869 or 1871, depending on whom you ask, and the Literary Casket published by the College’s earliest female students.  

It’s unfortunate that the archive doesn’t also contain any specimens of the broadsides posted weekly at the entrance to the college building by a student named James K. Weatherford, who much later endowed OSU’s Weatherford Hall. Weatherford’s postings were truly produced “the old-fashioned way,” since each was handwritten on lined paper, in a limited edition of one. The future OSU was such a small school back then that it was housed in a single building, and every student walked past the posting.  

In the 1880s, there was a more conventional student newspaper, the Gem. The apartment building on King Blvd. called The Gem was indeed named after the paper.  

If the Roaring Twenties didn’t roar in Corvallis, they did at least hoot, thanks to a humor magazine called the Orange Owl. 

The real hot times for unofficial student publications, though, were the 1960s. That was when OSU hosted the Gad-Fly, the Oracle, the Mutha, Poor Jensen’s Almanac, the Tin Can, the Spark, and the Scab Sheet were produced by students and distributed all over campus.  

Of these, the Scab Sheet is especially well-remembered at OSU, as can be seen by its frequent revivals by students of later generations. The Scab Sheet’s prominence in the collective memory of the campus community is the result of its original incarnation centering on controversies in the Beavers football program, as the legendary Head coach Dee Andros came into conflict with African American players. A perceived lack of respect by Andros toward his players was symbolized by the Coach’s demand that player Fred Milton shave his beard. This battle of wills led to a broader controversy which reached its peak when almost the entire black student body withdrew from the University in protest.   

Even though the Internet now provides a much cheaper and easier means of speaking your mind, with the potential of reaching a much larger audience, underground newspapers and magazines continue to appear, such as The Liberty, which won a significant free-speech victory and over $100,000 in legal fees in 2014 when the University tried to restrict its distribution on campus. Sometimes, the archaic nature of independent student publishing was part of the point: The Underachiever of 2002 was aggressively retro, including a DIY pasteup design.  

Has the University seen the end of independent / alternative / underground newspapers? Experience suggests that is unlikely. Quite possibly, OSU has not even seen the last revival of the Scab Sheet.   

By: John M. Burt