Looking back to the start of it all
words and image compilation by Andrea Tudhope, editor
Poking around in the library, I recently stumbled upon a large brown book, its bridge labeled “CIPHER, DEC. 1997 – MAY 2001.” I opened it up, and once I got past the dusty smell of old, yellowed pages (a longstanding obsession of mine), I saw the front page of the very first issue of the Cipher.
It looked so alien to me—a real, black-and-white, thin-paper newspaper—the kind that leaves smoky smudges and the slightly metallic smell of ink on your fingertips. No color, no funky artwork . . . no way was this the Cipher.
But it was. In the summer of 1997, CC student Brian Nichols, at the time a soon-to-be sophomore, began making a plan. The Catalyst was the only student publication at the time, and Nichols (as well as many others) couldn’t help but notice that it only had two pages of current events.
“Obviously CC is an activist college,” Nichols, now a real-estate agent in Tucson, AZ, said in a recent interview. “We weren’t satisfied with just two pages. We wanted to start our own newspaper dedicated to a progressive political agenda, cultural news, and current events.”
Essentially, Nichols and his friends wanted to create an alternative news publication. So Nichols exchanged some ideas with members of Cutler Publications, professors, administrators and students, and developed a proposal. Around December, he and fellow CC student Steve Van Tuyl presented their idea to the CC Student Government Association. They went into the meeting well-organized with a proposed budget request for about $1,900 to fund five issues that would be distributed over the remaining five blocks.
“No one wanted another publication,” Nichols said. “We had to explain to the student council why we should have it on campus [and] why it should be funded separately.”
Though the CCSGA didn’t grant the Cipher the budget that Nichols and Van Tuyl had hoped for, they did grant them $340—just enough to produce a trial issue. And so the first issue was produced, presenting almost exactly what the twenty-student staff had envisioned: a newspaper devoted to politics and current events. They were all very keen on creating a thoroughly professional publication. Although they drew inspiration from publications like The Village Boys, The Nation, and Z Magazine, they were ultimately interested in mimicking the style of the New York Times. According to Nichols, they even copied some of the fonts from it.
When it came to the actual production process, things were not quite as fast and easy as they are with current technology. While the production staff of six worked with software that allowed them to easily put the entire paper together, they had to go through a long process in which they printed off each part of the paper and then cut and pasted the parts to large sheets of posterboard.
“We were pulling all-nighters for two nights in a row, then we’d drop it off at the printer at nine in the morning. Then we’d head over to Il Vicino [Wood Oven Pizza and Brewery] and drink beer and get drunk in the middle of the day. Yeah, those were the good old days.”
Despite the success of the December issue, the Cipher wasn’t able to produce a second issue until March of 1998. As time went on, they were gradually able to find their groove.
“When we first started out, it was all politics. Then we brought in culture and art and began including a lot of different sections, which was a good development for [the Cipher].”
They printed heavily opinionated and controversial articles, which got responses that were occasionally printed in the Letter to the Editors section. One of their goals was to create a dialogue with the student body.
“We had one writer submit an article criticizing a visiting professor on water issues, [titled] ‘Professor Caught Pissing in the Water,’” Nichols said. “It was pretty wild. We didn’t thoroughly read through the article. That professor threatened a lawsuit against the school, and we had to print corrections about it in the next paper.”
Though they may have upset that particular professor, the Cipher staff was intent on consistently getting professors’ perspectives. Almost every issue included a professorial spotlight, in which they printed full interviews that had been conducted with professors on relevant global topics. They also made a point to interview each visiting speaker who came to the college. By the second or third year, these interviews were helping to create eighty-page issues.
As time went on, the paper went through its fair share of transformations. Nichols said that about five years after graduating, he came back and caught a glimpse of the newer Cipher, which had become what he called a “zine.” Though it wasn’t the New York Times-esque paper he had created and envisioned for the future, he was pleased to see that it was still up and running.
“One of my goals was to keep it around—I didn’t even think it would be around still,” Nichols said. “We wanted a permanent newspaper at the campus. I’m glad to see that it’s still alive.”
Yes, the Cipher is still around, and it still represents many of the original ideas that Brian Nichols and his staff used to make the very first Cipher publication. In another fifteen years, another Cipher editor might be pulling this very issue from the shelves of the library to return to our origins once again.