Are Two Phoenixes Better than One?

Two campus newspapers, both alike in dignity,

In fair Swarthmore, where we lay our scene,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

In the Mar. 15 edition of The Phoenix from 1963, a proposal to split The Phoenix into two separate papers was covered. The past few semesters of The Phoenix had been filled with errors and inaccurate reporting. The slant of the paper blatantly leaned towards the editor-in-chief’s view and the administration suspended a few issues for their inaccuracies. The proposal arose out of some students’ dissatisfaction with the paper. The proposal would have created a Tuesday and a Friday/Saturday edition of the paper run by different teams of writers and editors. The business operations of the paper would remain unified to ensure continuity with advertisers and printers, but everything else would have been separated. Proponents of the split believed that it would prompt the papers to increase their journalistic quality to compete with each other. 

Neoliberal economists argue competition in a market forces the actors in that market to compete and produce better products. Under the current system, The Phoenix had been operating as a monopoly with complete control over campus journalism at Swarthmore. The split would create a system where the two papers had to compete with one another and thus would become better papers, improving accuracy and the overall quality of the journalism. Proponents, operating on the assumption that specific editors-in-chief have their own focuses, also hoped that the split would lead to a wider coverage of news under the two-Phoenix solution. Dr. George Becker, then-chair of the English department, agreed that the diversity of opinion would be a product of the split, but he further stated, “…the views of The Phoenix editorial board are often irresponsible, and I see no gain in doubling the irresponsibility.”

This diversity of opinion was also hoped to extend beyond topics covered to political diversity in the opinions published by The Phoenix. 

Those arguing against the proposal responded with vitriol: “At best the establishment of two Phoenixes would create two self-conscious publications which might meet minimum standards of journalistic adequacy.” Opponents argued that the proposal would lead to sensationalized pieces appearing in the newspapers as they would compete for readers by offering the most controversial and overdramatized headlines and stories. Rather than The Phoenix continuing to be the prestigious icon of campus journalism that it was, the two newspapers would devolve into nothing better than tabloids. Not all students were opposed to two tabloids existing on campus with student Phil Grier stating “…two dirty yellow sheets are better than one.” Students would be empowered to find the truth in the middle of the coverage by the two newspapers. 

Ultimately, these arguments for separation were not successful, being defeated three-seven in a vote by the student council. At this time, the student council exercised significantly more influence over The Phoenix than the Student Government Organization does today. A permanent Phoenix relations committee acted as a conduit for opinion between the student body and The Phoenix. The student council also had to approve The Phoenix’s constitution, which they did the previous year, allowing the editorial board to elect their own editor-in-chief. The failed vote to split The Phoenix was covered in a report by the Phoenix relations committee that concluded: “the present Phoenix setup is adequate and that there is no real need for a major change in policy.”

Would Swarthmore be better off with two Phoenixes? The Bible would seem to think so. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 states “Two are better than one… For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.” Theological arguments aside, American psychologist Kenneth Kaye states that “Two heads are better than one only if they contain different opinions.” I think that Mr. Kaye may have hit the nail right on the head here. The two-Phoenix solution held value at a time when campus journalism was limited, but now campus journalism abounds in the form of the Swarthmore Review, Voices and the Swarthmore Independent. These papers allow for diversity in editorial and journalistic opinion and have broken The Phoenix’s total monopoly on campus journalism. While I would not support the splitting of the current Phoenix into two parts, I do agree that Swarthmore’s campus needs a sensationalized tabloid to spread lies, gossip, and misinformation to the detriment of the journalistic profession as a whole. As such, I am currently accepting applications for writers at my new newspaper: The Swarthmore Campus Enquirer. 

Special thanks to Donald Lloyd Jones ’86 whose 1982 Phoenix article on this subject served as the inspiration for this article and whose words I will leave you with: “Nevertheless, Swarthmore remained – and has always continued to be – a one-newspaper town.” 

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