For decades, journalism has attracted writers who spent time banging out copy per column-inch although their first love might be other forms of writing. Think Ernest Hemingway, Richard Wright and Damon Runyon, among others.
In that tradition, current Torch Editor-in-Chief Antonio Coleman first developed a serious interest in writing after entering an eighth grade poetry contest.
“I enjoyed writing after that. I wrote short stories and essays,” he said, sitting in the Torch’s office in the Rankin Student Center. “It always comes down to, ‘How are you going to make money at it?’ I looked at different avenues to pursue, and journalism touched on everything: learning information, giving information, being the voice of the community and still doing what you love.”
A senior, Coleman took the reins of Ferris’ student paper during its 70th anniversary year, having transferred to Ferris after developing a passion for journalism. “I called the Flint Journal and said I wanted to write for them. They said, ‘Well, get a journalism degree.’ I was taking business administration at the time, and it was the journalism degree that attracted me to Ferris.”
The Torch began as the Ferris Weekly during the 1930-31 school year.
The earliest copy of the Ferris Weekly in the University’s archives is dated Monday, Sept. 14, 1931 and is the first issue of Volume II, according to the masthead. (The Torch traditionally has given its year of origin as 1931, so it is possible the paper began production in the second semester of its inaugural academic year.) An article on page one notes the improvements to the newspaper, including the enlargement of the page size to 15 inches by 18 inches and the six-column format. It was affiliated with the Ferris Institute but not necessarily sponsored by the school. Students paid a subscription fee of $1.50 per year. The paper became the Torch in 1938, when the editors sponsored a contest for students to come up with a new name.
The sections of the early Ferris Weekly covered many of the same topics as the Torch does today: school news, sports and activities. At that time, student contributors wrote only some of the articles in the four-page paper. Today, as Coleman proudly points out, students not only write the paper, they run it.
“A lot of campus papers have student writers, but then there’s an advisory board that oversees them,” said Coleman. “Here, we know that, when we write, we have the freedom of telling the stories of students and getting those stories out.” Coleman notes another aspect of the Torch that sets it apart from other campus newspapers — the staff is composed of students pursuing a wide range of majors.
“When I first interviewed for the Torch and I saw how many writers weren’t journalism students I went, ‘Wow!’” Coleman adds, “Kelsey Schnell, who was editor at the time, explained to me that a variety of majors gives you a variety of perspectives and talents. So we don’t necessarily just have good writers — we have good photographers, good sales reps, good designers. People use their talents from different majors to make a great paper.”
Over the years, the paper has taken a variety of forms and even ceased publication. When it struggled financially during the 1930s, it was for a time included as a supplement to the Big Rapids Pioneer.
Wartime shortages of paper and other resources were factors in the paper shutting down after its May 5, 1942 issue. It was revived on Dec. 17, 1946, at the urging of Ferris President Bryon Brophy, who felt it would help lead to “a new and healthy school spirit,” according to that first post-war issue. In 1954-55, the paper switched to a biweekly schedule and created a supplemental publication called the FI Spy.
Additionally, for a period between 1988 and 1994, issues were generally published twice per week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. However, for most of its history the Torch has been a weekly publication.
One of the biggest changes took place in 1999, when the paper launched its online version. As a Journalism and Technical Communications major, Coleman, who spent summer 2011 interning at the Pioneer, sees a future in which digital media will grow, but in which print will continue to meet the needs of readers.
“It is nice to have that online presence, but when I walk through the Rankin Center and see somebody reading my story, or they recognize me and say, ‘Hey, that was a great story you wrote,’ that gives you a feeling you don’t get online,” Coleman said. He sees a similarity between the readership the Torch has and that of smaller and mid-market newspapers, in terms of the continued use of print. “Small-town city papers have loyal followings. I know people worry about the future of journalism, but a paper such as the Big Rapids Pioneer that is rooted in the community will have longevity.”
As for his own future, Coleman could ultimately see himself as the editor of one of those newspapers with a strong community following. Before then? Perhaps work as a staff writer — with luck, for a larger market daily such as the Chicago Tribune, a paper he admires for both the breadth and depth of its reporting.
But, for now, Coleman hopes his time at the Torch will be remembered for fostering an enjoyable and collaborative work environment that generates plenty of good story ideas and creates a buzz on campus.
“I want the Torch to be something our people take seriously, but I want it to be something they enjoy doing.
I want people to learn, and I want to learn from them.”