Conflicts with media coordinator lead editors at Macon State to resign

GEORGIA — After a year of personality conflicts andbudget disputes with a newly hired student media coordinator, the editors ofMacon State College’s weekly student newspaper decided not to reapply for theirpositions next year.

Jenny Murr, who was editor in chief of The Matrix this past schoolyear, announced the departures in an April 28 column, calling the work situationat the paper “untenable.”

The school created the student media coordinator position a few years ago– and filled it for the first time this year — to make it easier forstudents to seek advice and get approval to spend publication funds, said LynnMcCraney, Macon State’s dean of students. Previously, student publications didnot have a standard process for getting spending requests approved, McCraneysaid. She said students in previous years also had asked that someone with aprofessional background in journalism be hired to work with student publicationsfull time. The school ultimately hired Ray Lightner, a former reporter for theHouston Home Journal in Perry, Ga.

But some Matrix staffers said Lightner was “condescending” anddifficult to work with. John Stephen Massey, the paper’s former photo and arteditor, called Lightner “abrasive” and said the media coordinator often cameacross as “derogatory” when advising staff members.

Murr and Massey also complained that Lightner failed to approve legitimaterequests to spend Matrix funds.

One of the biggest sticking points involved Murr’s request to spend $500for new newspaper racks to place in campus buildings and local businesses.Currently, papers are distributed to outdoor bins, but Murr said she thoughtmore students might take copies if the papers were available near indoor loungeareas. Murr also wanted to expand the paper’s distribution beyond campus intothe surrounding community.

The paper’s faculty advisers approved the purchase, Murr said, but Lightnerdenied the request. He told Murr the Matrix “was not good enough” tojustify the expense or to distribute off campus, Murr said.

When contacted by the Student Press Law Center, Lightner referred allquestions to McCraney. McCraney said she had simply told Murr that theMatrix should improve its circulation on campus before spending money onbins for wider distribution. For example, McCraney said the paper had not beendistributed consistently on Macon State’s Warner Robins campus.

Murr and Massey said the paper did have some circulation problems on themain campus in the spring, but only after the Matrix‘s circulationmanager resigned over a clash with Lightner. And Massey said circulation on theWarner Robins campus was supposed to be handled by the college’s PlantOperations department.

Murr and Lightner continued to clash over Lightner’s authority to approveall expenditures of Matrix funds, including both college-provided fundsand the paper’s ad revenue. For example, Murr said Lightner denied her requestto be reimbursed for travel expenses between two journalism conferences becauseshe changed her travel plans without preapproval — even though her newplans were less expensive.

“I was afraid to buy a bag of chips for the office or copy paper because Ididn’t have prior approval for that expense,” Murr said.

McCraney said Matrix staffers simply were not used to followingstandard financial procedures that other student groups had long had to complywith, including the requirement for expenditures to be approved in advance.Those financial controls do not interfere with the paper’s editorial freedom,McCraney said, and neither Lightner nor other administrators have any desire tocensor the paper.

“The media coordinator does not have, and this particular man I do notbelieve would accept, the responsibility for prior review,” she said. “That’sinappropriate.”

But Murr said the college’s control over the Matrix‘s funds issimply another form of censorship.

“We’re being censored because as long as they hold the purse strings, theydrive the publication to be what they want,” she said. Student editors or thefaculty advisers should be able to approve the use of at least the paper’s adrevenue without administrative interference, she said.

Not all student media had the same experience with Lightner. BrandonThompson, who was program coordinator this past year for the student televisionstation, said he supported Murr but “we haven’t seemed to run into as manyproblems” with Lightner as the Matrix has. But Thompson added that,because he plans to continue working at the TV station, he did not want to sayanything that might “cause friction” with the administration or Lightner.

Murr and Massey said by the end of the year, they had both had enough. Murrsaid she might return as a writer next year — but mainly to preserve herright to challenge in court any attempt by the school to censor theMatrix.

The school has not yet picked a new editor in chief for the Matrix,and McCraney said the college plans to revise its publications policies –modeling them on other schools in the University System of Georgia –before selecting someone for the post.

For his part, Massey said he definitely will not return.

“I wish them the best, but it’s a stretch for me to believe there are goingto be that many qualified people who want to work on that paper right now,” hesaid.