KENTUCKY — For the past 11 years, adviser Gayle Brown has been a familiarpresence in the newsroom of The Northerner, the student newspaper at Northern KentuckyUniversity.
But come this fall —following a decision to move The Northerner from the school’s Divisionof Student Affairs to its Department of Communication — Brown’s position withthe newspaper will be no more.
Student journalists onthe newspaper staff are concerned that Brown’s departure could be a sign ofgrowing displeasure among NKU’s journalism professors with the quality of thepublication.
“This year, it’s feltlike our own department doesn’t think we’re high enough quality, so they wantmore control,” Northerner Editor-in-Chief Cassie Stone said. “We’veheard them say ‘here’s what you did wrong,’ but what we want to hear is ‘here’show you can make it better.’”
While Stone said Brownwas “always very good at explaining things to us,” she added that her formeradviser took a hands-off approach in dealing with content.
“As far as I’mconcerned, [Brown] was an excellent adviser,” Stone said.
Brown declined tocomment for this story.
ZachHart, who is serving as interim chairman of the Department of Communication,said the newspaper’s move away from Student Affairs has been in the works forthe past few years.
“[Thenewspaper] was out of place in the Student Affairs office,” he said. “There wasa disconnect between our journalism faculty and the students on the newspaper.”
He added that thedecision to change advisers was based solely on fit.
Brown’s currentposition, Hart explained, is classified as university staff. With thenewspaper’s change of department, however, the new advising position willrequire additional lecturing duties, classifying it as universityfaculty.
“We were looking forthe best match as both an adviser and teacher, and we took the best fit therewas,” Hart said. “This had absolutely nothing to do with the content of thenewspaper.”
Vice Chair ofCommunication Chris Strobel, who chaired the hiring committee for the newfaculty position, said the department received applications from tencandidates, including Brown. Like Hart, he does not see any issues beyond aroutine rehiring.
Students, however, arestill questioning the department’s motivation.
Stone said she is mostconcerned about “a total lack of transparency throughout the entire hiringprocess.”
“The students werenever asked what they thought or wanted,” she said. “[Brown] is the only personwho actively fights for us, and I’m concerned we won’t have that anymore.”
Incoming ManagingEditor Karli Wood agreed, adding that she is fearful by the prospect of nextyear’s adviser overstepping boundaries to control content.
Staff writer BrandonBarb said “it seems like they want to take away our independence. To let[Brown] go and never consult with us makes this situation very sketchy andunfair.”
When interviewingcandidates for faculty positions, Hart said it is not custom for students tohave input in a final decision.
To help clear the air,Hart plans to meet with the student journalists on Wednesday and explain theprocess. If anything, he said, the newspaper’s move to the Department ofCommunication will bolster its independent standing.
While Stone is stillunsure whether or not the department’s decision is a First Amendment issue, sheis upset over what she called “a lack of trust between us and ourprofessors.”
Stone said she viewsthe situation as a “quality control” issue. Over the past year, she explained,she has heard from journalism faculty that the newspaper is not up to par withprofessional standards.
In particular, Stonepointed to a piece on NKU’s outside visitor policy — which ultimately proved to be based oninaccurate information — that may have upset professors.
Stone published animmediate online correction to thestory.
“This is a learningexperience. We’re going to make mistakes,” she said. “It just doesn’t seem likeour quality meets our department’s standards.”
In January, TheNortherner was recognized with 26 individual awards from the KentuckyIntercollegiate Press Association.
Both Hart and Strobelsaid they are pleased with the quality of the newspaper.
Frank LoMonte,executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said it “makes for a harderargument that there’s censorship at foot when the decisions are made byexperienced journalism professionals.”
“If it’s a matter oftaste, style and judgment rather than right and wrong, it’s a dangerousprecedent to put a university employee in a position of judging quality,” hesaid. “A newspaper adviser is in many ways a colleague instead of a supervisor.It’s a good professional practice to give students a heads up about thedirection the program is going in.”
In an email to Stoneon Monday, Hart announced the department’s choice of a new adviser.
Jacque Day, whocurrently serves as managing editor for New Madrid, a national literaryjournal published by Murray State University, will take over as the school’snew adviser and lecturer in the fall.
Day declined tocomment until she speaks with student journalists at NKU.
“I hope that they dohave a genuine interest in making us better,” Wood said. “We don’t want to seeour newspaper fall into the wrong hands.”