Journalists at Flagler College continue struggle

The newspaper for a private college in Florida will keep its mission to enhance the image of the school and will stay under the college’s control even after students protested and resigned over their concerns the paper had been censored.

Flagler College President William Abare said he intends to approve a new governing document for the college newspaper that includes the creation of an advisory board — although, as publisher of the private college’s newspaper, he will retain final editorial control.

Director of Public Information and newspaper adviser Brian Thompson created the document to help avoid conflicts over control of the newspaper and to make the paper more independent following the September 2006 controversy in which Abare pulled copies of The Gargoyle from the racks and had it reprinted after it carried a faulty headline.

The paper had published a story with the headline “Campus Growth Forces Tuition Hike,” which then co-Editor in Chief Glenn Judah at the time admitted was a mistake because it indicated an increase in tuition already had been approved. The story described how tuition rates would rise in the future because of the growth of the college, but an actual hike had not been decided.

“We should have had the chance to fix our own mistake instead of [the university] taking the authority away from us,” Judah said at the time. “We still stand behind the story. We just disagree with the way the administration went about it.”

Abare defended his actions by saying the context in which the newspaper’s error took place — right before many prospective students would be visiting campus — and the fact a correction would not come out for several weeks meant taking the newspaper off the stands and reprinting it was the best option.

“Because there’s not a daily circulation, when you have a three-week span between the time when one issue is published and another issue is published, a retraction or a correction really becomes … a non-issue at that point. Three weeks have passed,” Abare said.

“This is horrible, because … a parent or a prospective student reads this and says, ‘Oh my gosh, Flagler College is in trouble,’” Abare said. “People don’t necessarily have a wealth of information about finances in higher education, so when it comes to that and you see a headline on your newspaper, most parents are going to have questions.”

Student editors’ reactions

Current and former student editors of The Gargoyle have expressed concern that the new proposal, submitted by Thompson, will not prevent censorship much like they claim happened last year.

“Honestly, it looks like more of the same garbage,” former Gargoyle co-Editor in Chief Bill Weedmark said. “And in my opinion, there’s a strong chance that The Gargoyle will dissolve this coming semester — it may not be required as a class anymore, and the majority of the editors resigned and no one else wants the job.”

But not all editors share that view.

“I have seen the mission statement and new proposal … and, although they are not perfect, they do set up boundaries and give the paper more autonomy,” said Gargoyle editor Brittany Hackett. “Not everyone from last year’s staff agrees with me, but to me it’s a good foundation.”

Thompson would not provide a copy of the proposal, but Abare said it seeks to create an advisory board to which concerns over content can go instead of going directly to him. Abare said he is not interested in a majority vote by the board, saying instead there should be a consensus on the board whether an article in question is good or bad.

“I think that in the event the board has some misgivings or need for further clarification, then at that point the board would come to the president and ask for a decision,” Abare said. “The key thing is I don’t want to become a micromanager, and I don’t want to be the editor of the paper. I’m not interested in having them send me a proof of what’s going to be printed every other week.”

Weedmark said although the newspaper was “for sure” not an independent publication, through practice it became an independent student voice — except when controversial issues came up.

“The president treats it as a [public relations] vehicle, which directly conflicts with the [Society of Professional Journalists] Code of Ethics regarding advocacy, and we were all on staff to practice journalism — not promote the image of the university,” Weedmark said. “The student handbook even described the class as gaining first-hand experience in writing news stories for a newspaper — it doesn’t describe it as gaining experience in writing press releases or image-enhancing articles.”

Abare has claimed the primary mission of The Gargoyle, funded by the college and run primarily by students, is to enhance the image of the university — while the newspaper simultaneously serves as a venue for journalism education as a lab course.

Thompson affirmed the role of The Gargoyle as a mechanism for journalism education, saying “this is an academic tool, this is about journalism,” but Hackett said she has mixed feelings about the future of the newspaper.

“I don’t feel like I can get a solid education in my field if I am not able to practice honest journalism, but I am skeptically optimistic about the future,” Hackett said. “It would be a lie to say that I trust the school won’t do it again, but I love the Gargoyle too much to not give it one more chance and see if we can make it better for the future.”

The Gargoyle’s Web site recently was named a finalist in the national online Pacemaker Awards competition, a major prize for student journalists.

Dual roles

Phone calls seeking information at Flagler College — including those to the president’s office, other administrators and Gargoyle editors — often can be directed to the same person: Brian Thompson.

Thompson serves in a dual capacity as one of The Gargoyle’s advisers and also the director for Flagler’s Office of Public Information, the goals of which he says do not conflict because his job in public information is not to craft the message for the college.

“Because my office has changed so much, I’m not really a spokesman for the college,” Thompson said. “We’re becoming more of an almost college media office, in that we do the Web site, we do the alumni magazine, we do things like that. And so in some ways there are, but it’s kind of like anybody, sometimes you have to have a … veil of ignorance. And you’ve got to take yourself out of that mode and get into this one.”

Thompson also said he does not have the information required to speak for the college and that President Abare himself is the official spokesman — such as in instances in which student journalists would need to get official information from the university.

“[Abare is] designated as the spokesman for the college. So that information almost always comes from him,” Thompson said. “And I don’t even have information that I can even go on record with them about.”

Editors have expressed concerns, however, that Thompson’s roles could be a conflict of interest.

Hackett said Thompson’s two roles can make it difficult to know which hat he is wearing when he talks about a particular issue or concern.

“Sometimes, I [do] think there is a conflict of interest with Brian’s two roles, especially when the ‘scandal’ happened at the end of the year,” Hackett said. “On the one hand, he wants to be there to support us, but on the other hand he has a job to do for the school and the administration, so it can be hard to know where he personally stands on certain issues.”

Weedmark said it is “definitely a conflict of interest to have him in charge of both the college newspaper and public relations for the college.”

But unless Abare were to change his position on the role of the newspaper, Weedmark said a change of advisers would not bring about editorial independence.

Thompson is one of two advisers for the newspaper, along with Carrie Pack — both of whom work for the school’s Office of Public Information, but Hackett said other resources in the communication department are available if Thompson’s role conflicts with his responsibilities at the newspaper.

When asked about the situation, Abare defended Thompson’s qualifications as an adviser by saying he was once on The Gargoyle staff and was hired away from his journalism position at the local newspaper, the St. Augustine Record, to head the public information office at Flagler College.