Mid-week at the University of Georgia at Athens, where I went to undergraduate journalism school, a group of top editors of the independent student news organization The Red and Black walked off the job and created an alternative Wordpress site to report the news.
The editors and alumni were angered because, during the summer, the nonprofit news organization that owns The Red and Black hired a consultant who was also a member of said nonprofit’s board. It began planning to use more professionals in the production process and to return to print five days a week after adopting a “digital first” mentality and reduced printing schedule a year ago. The resulting Web traffic (and I assume income) apparently disappointed board members.
But the biggest threat to the students was the elevation of a professional editorial adviser to editorial “director,” with the mission to edit and advise the students and approve content before publication. The changes were conveyed to the new student editor, Polina Marinova, who had spent the summer interning at CNN, as a fait accompli, and the paper’s editorial director shared with her a poorly written draft memo from the consultant.
The memo spoke about maintaining standards. It also misspelled the word “libel” as “liable,” and contained this gem:
Sarcastic comments directed at our audience in non-opinion sections, ie “It’s been a solid, Lilly Pulitzered week…” We wouldn’t say it’s be [sic] a solid Yarmulke topped week at the Jewish Community Center. Or a solid burr-headed week at the African American studies conference. Or a solid body pierced day at The Red and Black. Stop this now.
And that’s before it got into a discussion of balance between “GOOD” and “BAD” content, describing “BAD” as, “I guess this is journalism.” The phrase soon launched a hashtag on Twitter: #iguessthisisjournalism.
The memo quickly fell right into the hands of news outlets like Gawker: “College Newspaper Memo: Cut Down on Journalism, Don’t Describe African Americans as ‘Burr-headed,’” read the site’s headline.
All of this is mighty painful for alumni of The Red and Black, people who spent just about every waking student moment at the newspaper that was founded in 1893. When it existed on campus as a student organization, it faced battles with the administration several times as it reported on campus controversies or news like campus crime and administration issues that reflected poorly on those that controlled the paper’s funding. The newspaper went financially and editorially independent in 1980, only the second large student newspaper to do so, after the Florida Alligator at the University of Florida. I was at The Red and Black in late 1980 and 1981.
The conflict has gotten a lot of coverage beyond Gawker, including a story in The New York Times. But the report from Michael Koretzky*, a regional representative of the Society of Professional Journalists, hurt the most, because it showed that possible reinstatement of the students who walked out and the elimination of prior review of their work are only the first steps in fixing what appears to be a dysfunctional situation. And Sara Gregory’s reporting for the Student Press Law Association from afar, using all the tools of traditional reporting as well as social media, exhaustively documented the case.
Friday, in what is hopefully the beginning of a healing process, the consultant who wrote the memo apologized and resigned, the editorial director agreed to change his title to “adviser,” and he agreed not to require prior content review before publication. The university’s Grady School of Journalism also weighed in after the meeting with its own memo.
The Friday discussions following a new-student open house at the paper as well as online also noted that the nonprofit’s bylaws leave room for two non-voting students to sit on the board. An active, young board member has not joined the board in recent years, and several members have been on it for the last 30 years, including president Elliott Brack.
The day wasn’t all healing, though. The news organization’s current publisher tussled with a reporter from another campus news outlet who was filming during the meeting, and the incident was caught on cell phones, tweeted, and posted on YouTube. Gawker followed up on that angle too. It breaks my heart, because I’ve met the publisher and consider him a good guy.
The painful lessons for the news organization’s publisher, Harry Montevideo, in this case: You can’t deny media access anywhere these days; your nonprofit salary could be published far and wide; and a publisher, of all people, should never lay their hands on a student journalist. Montevideo followed up early Saturday with an apology to the student and posts in one Facebook alumni group indicating he took a salary cut in the summer of 2012. At the moment, no one has filed charges in the tussle with the student.
Perhaps the broader lessons going forward: Those who treasure the institutions that educated generations of journalists cannot let old structures ossify. More than 30 years ago, many of us felt we had solved the problems of independence for student voices when The Red and Black became independent of the university. Clearly, it’s a battle that needs to be fought time and again. We’ve been discussing it on an alumni Facebook group that grew from 165 members to more than 350 in three days, with concrete steps planned soon as well as watchful eyes. The whole thing is far from over.
As Barry Hollander, a professor of journalism at the university blogged, it’s way past time for those old structures to bend, before they break. We need new blood, and the passion and new-media skills the young journalists used to tell their story represent journalism’s future.
But first, it looks like they’ll have to reapply for their jobs. They have the support of many, if not all, of the alumni I know.
Best of luck, guys. The alums are watching, as are members of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Student Press Law Center. Hit us up with questions through the usual social-media channels.
*This story originally misspelled the last name of Michael Koretzky.