What could students from 1933 and 2018 have in common?

Eighty five years of observatory student journalism

Josh Winston

For many reasons, 1933 was a landmark year in American history. The country, in the grips of the Great Depression, had just witnessed the first world war and was sliding uncontrollably toward World War II. The American people had seen the end of prohibition and the attempted assassination of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In Europe, Hitler was quietly gaining power. The first radio waves from the center of the Milky Way Galaxy were detected and the loch ness monster was allegedly spotted for the first time.

In Atlanta, the Evening School (the predecessor of Georgia State) had just become autonomous as the University System of Georgia Evening School, taking it one step closer to it eventual incarnation as Georgia State University. To match this new collegiate designation, the school newspaper rebranded itself as the The Evening Signal. The first issue under the new title was published on Oct. 2, 1933.
In a later edition of the paper, one anonymous reporter wrote, “Few of us realize we are making real history. Only a few of us stop to think that day by day, we are molding the framework of a great university.”

The Evening Signal, like most things before the broadening reach of the internet, had a much more narrow field of reporting. Coverage centered on the activity of student body clubs and organizations, with a large amount of journalistic attention being paid to its fraternities and sororities.

It’s worth noting that these sororities and fraternities commanded a large amount of journalistic attention because, to the student of 1933, this was their social media; it’s the counterbalance to their rigorous school day.

Likewise, its political investigations never ventured past the school’s doors and often focused on the various student elections happening at any one time. The Evening Signal was a much more insular publication, often choosing to look inward for news—a striking difference from the broad range of topics covered by The Signal today.

In lieu of an Arts and Living section, written observations of collegiate culture were interspersed throughout several opinion columns documenting the social events and happenings of students on campus. However, the absence of a dedicated Arts and Living section within the pages of The Evening Signal did not exclude arts and living topics from being explored in its publication.

One column, appropriately named, “Walton St. Smut,” chronicled the day-to-day social interactions between students at school sponsored events, such as the fall banquet of 1933. Through the thick haze of cigarette smoke, the anonymous columnist pulled back the journalistic veil to observe his subjects and reflect on what it meant to write both for and about them.

The columnist said, “The room is full of cigarette smoke and chattering people, holding their cigarettes out from them so that the smoke curls up before me dancing into my eyes. And here I sit with pen in my hand trying to collect scattered notes for this column. Faces of my victims curl up in the smoke and I anticipate their expressions as the ‘smut’ of this column settles on their countenances.”

Even early on in the paper’s history, there is a considerable amount of reflection on what it means to be responsible to one’s audience. This section of the column presented an usually inaccessible perspective of culture writing and the intricacies that often plague writers.

Much of this self-reflective writing does not exist within the pages of The Evening Signal, especially not when compared to today’s publication. But, enough of it exists to begin to trace its journey from being crammed in between sorority headlines and school events, to its maturation in later publications.

Eighty five years is obviously a long time, and while one might expect the concerns and opinions of students from 1933 to be vastly different from those of 2018, there remains considerable similarities between the young writers. It’s heartening to know that even in the 1930s there still existed a tradition of young writers espousing the evils of materialism.

In December of 1933, Jean Burnett Cobb wrote “The Old and New Christmas,” a column lamenting the increasingly commercialized nature of the Christmas season.

“For the most part, immersed in the welter of ribbons and tinsels, cards and gifts-caught in this commercialized, mechanical age,” Cobb said. “We’ve lost our true sense of value.”

The Evening Signal’s foray into social commentary is notable for its prescience at a time before the widespread commercialization of mass culture that came in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Often relegated to the literal sidelines of The Evening Signal, the “Spectator” column chronicled the daily social interactions of students and professors. In its March 19, 1934 edition, The Evening Signal published a column on the unfair and possibly misogynistic treatment of a female student by her male professor.

This emphasis on social commentary in the early days of The Signal was slight but not completely non-existent. Again, The Evening Signal displayed interest in journalism outside of straight news reporting with a story that seems progressive for its time.

In the January 22, 1934 edition of The Evening Signal, the headline “Are We Making History?” appeared. The article questions whether the current student body was living through a collegiate golden age. The school was in the process of becoming an institution capable of competing with Georgia Tech and other more traditional universities.

In retrospect, it’s easy to say that this was a formative time for Georgia State, with its new independent designation as The University System of Georgia Evening School and its classroom building expansion. But, what’s most interesting is the attempt of The Evening Signal to anticipate that change and investigate it in their writing.

Eighty five years represents a lifetime of change and development, especially in the fast moving environment of student journalism. You could assume the differences in writing would be night and day. But it’s actually more the difference between day and evening; a subtle but distinct difference.

And while the depth and intensity of reporting may differ, The Evening Signal still essentially contained within its pages the voices of students trying to make sense of their particular historic moment through writing, just like we are today.