Inventing the Advocate

Bruce Ellingson was first named associate editor of the revived MSC Advocate campus newspaper, then became its editor that spring. (Photo/Margie Ellingson.)

(Editor’s Note: Fifty-three years ago, the president of Moorhead State College shut down the campus newspaper, The Mistic, in the turbulent days of the student protest movement. In 1971, the tradition was reborn with the arrival of the Advocate, the student news journal that’s still published today. Bruce Ellingson – a mass communications major who served as the associate editor and then editor in chief of the newborn periodical – reflects on the exciting challenges of story telling in those very different times.)

Vol. 1, No. 1 of the Moorhead State Advocate was published Sept. 23, 1971, with a front page divided among stories of homecoming, student military deferments … and the return of an on-campus student newspaper. As associate editor, I wrote the lead article, describing the new newspaper as a “collaborative effort by the mass communications department, the Student Senate and the college administration to fund and foster student journalism and campus news.”

The Advocate would have an adviser,Tom Lundquist, formerly of MSC’s information services department. (We thought of him more as a PR guy than a real journalist.) The inimitable Howard Binford, our ex-officio adviser of journalism, was also on board to keep us on the journalistic straight and narrow this time around. President Roland Dille promised the newspaper would be permitted to have opinions, though “two or three more shades less than before.”

The “before” referred to the Mistic, the venerable on-campus newspaper begun in 1925 but suspended in 1969 as altogether too free with its opinions (or, at least, its offensive language – in particular the notorious F word). Lundquist assured the staff he’d not read every article, but he would have a good idea of what was going into the paper. He was pretty watchful.

That first issue was 16 pages, perhaps 25 percent of them ads. News included the homecoming football game with Winona and where to get draft counseling. Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul and Mary) was performing at Concordia, and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was offering classes in Transcendental Meditation at NDSU. My byline was on a story on Page 1: “college-aided newspaper back on MSC campus.” (Our style decried capitalizing headlines.)

Among my favorite pieces of journalism that semester was a double-truck layout in the Nov. 4 issue. Headlined “the cooling of Moorhead State College” was a piece by Jerome Clark, a veteran of both the Mistic (and perhaps responsible for its shutdown) and the Mystic, the short-lived independent campus newspaper that failed to be sustainable. Illustrated with photos by Jeff Carter, the spread included one double-exposure image that might have been entitled “Rest in Peace.” In the picture, a student appears to be flashing the peace sign from the grave.

In my memory, Clark’s contribution was our first effort at offering commentary “just two or three shades lighter than those of the Mistic.” Certainly, the early issues of the Advocate were efforts in objective journalism where opinions were limited to the editorial page or personal columns. The remainder of the news hole was filled with hard news and feature reporting, which likely delighted Lundquist and satisfied Binford, whose voice and visage I can hear and see even today. Binford subsisted on 4 hours sleep, he told us, and I believe he expected as much of us.

Clark’s piece — it was an essay, really — was his effort to describe a post-1970 MSC campus. He wrote in that November 1971 issue, “Today, a year and a half after the mammoth (student) strike that shut down the school in the wake of Cambodia and Kent State, the campus is almost preternaturally quiet.” He added, “To many locals, these students undoubtedly resemble nothing so much as creatures of some weird leap in evolution, furry little mammal things with bewildering habits and tastes whose coming threatens the reptile purity of the species.

“But really, they needn’t worry — for the moment anyway. The image is there, but not the substance. In the eye of the innocent, the campus has heeded the visions of every subversive of the last 10 years. Now it’s fashionable, not a bit dangerous, for you to wear your hair long and your jeans faded and patched and you’re hardly marching in any cultural vanguard when you take illegal chemical and organic substances into your body.”

By November of 1971, I was a married fifth-year senior who was short the credits necessary to graduate and who didn’t mind a bit that enrollment kept me out of the draft. I wore bell bottoms, and an army great coat once the weather cooled. I tried to be a bit furry. I opposed the war. I had covered the Moorhead police beat the previous year while doing an independent study for Binford. During that experience I came to know Moorhead’s Police Chief Jim Dickinson, who had taken me under his wing (and to lunch) in his effort to persuade me to re-consider my plan to move to Canada. After Chief Dickinson won our ongoing debate about dodging the draft, he agreed to write a letter to my Swift County, Minnesota, draft board, asking them to grant me 1-A-O status as a conscientious objector willing to serve in a noncombatant role. Dickinson wrote forcefully. (Imagine the voice of a police chief and a former Army Ranger.) And in the spring of 1972, the draft board denied my request.

But in the fall of 1971, I was safely enrolled at MSC and an eager associate editor of an exciting news adventure. My memory of Jerome Clark’s piece is that it was a bit controversial among the staff. In my memory, I supported both its publication and its impressive centerfold spread with Carter’s photos to illustrate. As I re-read Clark’s essay today, Clark’s prose seems an effective effort at describing the campus culture of the moment, though I probably didn’t agree with his assertion then that MSC was “an institution without direction, vitality and life.”

For the essay, Jerome Clark interviewed Tom Clark, past student senate president. He asked Tom, by then a resident assistant in Neumaier Hall, for his insights into the student body. Tom was “generally optimistic about the long-range drift of things,” according to the essay. “Just talking with the guys and girls on this floor—and they’re pretty much a cross-section of the student body—I feel a little bit better,” Tom Clark is quoted as saying. “They’re good people and there’s stuff they understand that students have never understood before. They’re not like their parents’ generation. They’re here to learn, not to just get a job, and a good share of them aren’t going to be rushing out to the suburbs to get theirs after they graduate.”

Jerome Clark wrote his “cooling of Moorhead State College” for the 7th issue of the Advocate, published Nov. 4, 1971. I believe Clark’s essay set the tone for an effort among Advocate staffers to free ourselves from the chains of purely objective laboratory newspapering and to better represent the diverse interests of the student body.

Of course, we covered the likes of the student and faculty senate, curriculum changes, student events and sports, but we also covered what students were talking about: sex, alcohol in the dorms, institutional racism, censorship, the resignation of student senators, the Jesus movement, draft amnesty, women’s rights, X-rated movies (one of which we attended as a staff to assure a measured coverage), marijuana in the dorms, gay liberation and same sex marriage, and The Dirty Bird (a notorious bar on Highway 10).

As I reviewed my yellowed copies of that first year, I struggled to remember details of the year. Where was our office? Where did we print? But I had no struggle remembering the importance Howard Binford and The Advocate had in shaping my love of a good story and my notion that the work of good journalism was advocating for a community. Perhaps there’s no irony in the fact that I spent 26 years of my career advising college newspaper and radio stations (and doing my own best impressions of both Tom Lundquist and Howard Binford).

I am struggling with the fact, that despite Tom Clark’s warning, I am now living in the suburbs.

(Now retired and living in St. Michael, Minnesota, Ellingson spent 10 years as a newspaperman in Willmar and Montevideo, Minnesota and the last 25 teaching mass communications and journalism at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa.)

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