Tucked away in the upper corner of the Rice Memorial Center, a small private school weekly newspaper has managed to create headlines throughout the country. The back page of every Thresher issue, conveniently titled “the Backpage,” has become a prominent weekly staple of Rice culture. Most students begin reading a newspaper on the front page; Rice students will start on the back. It’s a phenomenon that has shaped not only the Thresher, but Rice culture as a whole.
The Backpage has a long and storied history that has led up to its modern success in readership and respect. Its reputation, however, did not go unscathed along the way. Marred by intermittent periods of controversy, the Backpage has survived scathing attacks and problematic articles to allow it to thrive as a weekly way to laugh off the current events on campus.
It is hard to pinpoint an exact moment when the Backpage became a staple of the Thresher. Its beginnings are murky, but Backpage satire can be traced to 1970, when Steve Jackson (Will Rice ’71) became editor in chief. Before his tenure, the back page had a calendar of events, which Jackson said began incorporating comedic elements.
“The calendar was already there when I was a freshman in 1970 — the calendar editor then was Mike Ross, and he put in weird stuff just for fun,” Jackson said. “We all agreed that was a good and worthy thing and continued it after he graduated.”
More satire began appearing with the introduction of the “misclassifieds,” a satirical take on the classifieds section which then, and still sometimes does, occupy the bottom of the back page of each Thresher.
According to Jackson, the idea was not actually his, although it began under his oversight.
“Misclass was part of my opponent’s platform when I ran for editor,” Jackson said. “He said we needed an unclassified ad section. I agreed, so when I won, I kept his promise as well as, I assume, whatever the heck I had said I would do. But the ‘misclassified’ name was my own suggestion.”
Over time, the final page developed from just Misclass to having short, satirical stories.
According to Alex Weinheimer, Backpage editor from 2011 to 2014, these satirical articles were not as popular in the past.
“There wasn’t a Backpage editor at first,” Weinheimer (Martel ‘14) said. “It went from [Misclass] to some articles; it wasn’t one person’s job. They read more like Trasher [the annual satirical issue] articles. Someone on news just wrote articles. There would be articles about stuff like squirrels or something silly.”
According to Weinheimer, the Backpage didn’t become what it is today until fairly recently.
“I think once there were pictures and stuff like that, that’s when it changed,” Weinheimer said. “Or maybe it was the rise of the Onion, I don’t know. But it wasn’t until the last 15 years that it became what it is today.”
Although the history of the Backpage stretches back only several decades, satirical news may have a much longer tradition at Rice. As early as the 1920s, and possibly stretching back to World War I, Rice newspapers have been circulating comedic content. According to former Backpage editor Evan Mintz (Hanszen ‘08), students created an underground newspaper during the First World War as a satirical outlet.
Students began circulating “The Red Tape,” which was founded during World War I. According to Mintz, it was a secret newspaper that circulated around campus criticizing the administration for its involvement with military efforts.
After the war, the Thresher began employing the use of humor on its own during the 1920s. There was a section called “hoots” that functioned as a place for jokes, but did not appear on the back page, meaning the 1920s did not mark the beginnings of the current Backpage.
With the advent of Photoshop and the Thresher’s newfound dedication to the section, the Backpage took off. Modern technology was crucial in finding success, Mintz said.
“When I started doing the Backpage, you had Photoshop in ways you didn’t have before, and you had social media and internet culture that you didn’t have before,” Mintz said.
Mintz also said the quality of the Backpage has fluctuated over the years, but evolved during his tenure, a view shared by Weinheimer.
“It comes in spikes, if you look at the history,” Mintz said. “There was a dark age of the Backpage before me where you could sort of tell people were doing it because they had to and it got passed around on the staff. It got passed around and got to me and started having a personality. I started this ‘Backpage renaissance’ where it wasn’t just jokes, but actually commenting on issues on campus. I feel like I started a few years of really good Backpages.”
Among the more unique aspects of the Backpage is how it operates. Unlike the other sections of the Thresher, the Backpage runs with minimal oversight from the editor in chief and other members of the editorial board, giving the Backpage editors a great deal of autonomy. This independence has allowed the section to find its own identity, evolving and changing with every new generation of editors.
Former editors Tim Faust (Brown ’09), Weinheimer, Reed Thornburg (Hanszen ’15) and current co-editors Joey McGlone (Hanszen ’18) and Riley Robertson (Hanszen ’18) succeeded Mintz. Under each of them, the Backpage continued to evolve. Although each of the editors have their own unique voice and style, the Backpage has recently focused on satirizing current news and events around campus, such as the recent controversy involving a college president-elect, a stripper and Student Judicial Programs.
Weinheimer said it takes time for backpage editors to find their stride.
“When we first started, it was just kind of crass; it was just more about partying, drinking, sex,” Weinheimer said. “When we actually found out, through experience and being a part of the paper, the interworking of the university, we were able to write much better things … It was much more topical and current events, not just what the public party was.”
As a satirical outlet, the Backpage is inherently susceptible to offending certain groups and causing controversy. Throughout the Backpage’s history, major controversies are few and far between, but they exist. Different Backpage editors have had their own views on the kind of content they wish to publish, and some editors have taken bigger risks than others.
One particularly notorious moment occurred in 1996. The Backpage published a column titled “Rice Women Are Like…” in which they listed metaphors that many believed were juvenile and sexist (“Rice women are like … eggs: They only get laid once”).
The article received intense backlash from both within and outside of Rice, leading to a student forum on the problematic climate for women on campus. According to the Houston Press’s 2001 coverage, the incident nearly led to the Backpage’s downfall. School administrators sent a letter to the Student Association recommending the SA “override the editorial policy for the Thresher” in response to the column.
In response to the backlash, the Backpage posted a defense of itself that many viewed as even more distasteful than the original article. The Backpage editors posed such rhetorical questions as, “Pissed off by such a blatant display of sexist humor from the BPEs?” and “Looking to go remove the testicles of the nearest male before heading off to your next National Organization for Women rally?”
“You must be from Brown [then a women’s college],” the article read. “It’s a joke, laugh a little. If you really feel that sad, go get a gallon of ice cream and watch ‘Steel Magnolias’ or ‘When Harry Met Sally.’ Isn’t that what women do? Don’t ask me, I don’t know thing one about chicks.”
While the incident turned heads across Rice and the Houston community, the Backpage survived and learned from its mistakes. The section grew less raunchy over the years, but still had its fair share of questionable moments.
According to Weinheimer, the point of his tenure was never to offend people, although it did happen occasionally.
“Yeah there’s stuff that we shouldn’t have done, but for 96 issues there aren’t that many examples of that,” Weinheimer said.
While Weinheimer’s tenure featured only a few incidents, and never with Student Judicial Programs or the Dean of Undergraduates involved, Mintz’s tenure featured a few more controversial articles. According to Mintz, he wrote articles that incited anger on campus.
“I used the N-word once and it did not go well,” Mintz said. “I quoted some of the lyrics in the song, and it just so happened it was the same weekend as Vision [when many prspective students were visiting campus] — Not a good weekend to try to make that joke, so we literally cut it out of the paper. There were complaints; people tried to get me fired.”
Mintz also wrote articles poking fun at many clubs and organizations on campus, never with the intention of harming anyone. Mintz said he now regrets some of his more controversial articles.
“Yeah I regret it,” Mintz said. “I hurt a bunch of people. I made Rice a less friendly, fun place. [The articles were] a huge mess-up, I should have never done that. I hope that a lot of other people around it learned lessons too.”
Mintz said he shares Weinheimer’s vision for the Backpage.
“At the end of the day you’re supposed to make people laugh,” Mintz said. “If you’re not doing that, you messed up. There were these bizarre groups of people trying to defend me, and I didn’t want them to defend me. I didn’t like them. They weren’t people I wanted to be associated with.”
Through the Backpage’s history, its inclination toward controversial writing has varied with its editors. The Backpage is designed as satire, and according to Weinheimer, controversy should not be a part of the Backpage’s lore.
“Good satire does not need to be offensive,” Weinheimer said.