Former Red & Black staff plan to return following board apology

GEORGIA – Former editors at The Red & Black have decided to reapply for their positions following an apology from the paper’s board, though concerns remain over the extent to which the board has reversed the policies that prompted the students to quit in protest.

Friday, the paper’s independently incorporated board of directors reiterated statements made earlier in the week that affirmed the students’ final editorial authority and said it would consider adding student representatives to its ranks. The board also announced the resignation of one board member, Ed Stamper, seen by students as primarily responsible for the conflict.

These actions address somewhat the demands laid out by student editors, who asked for the elimination of a prior review policy, sought representation on the board and demanded Stamper’s resignation.

In a statement issued after a tense meeting at the paper’s office, students said their decision to reapply was the first step toward a hopefully improved relationship with the board. The editors said they trust that the board would “make the right decision” on the remaining issues.

So far, Stamper’s resignation is the only one of the students’ demands to have been met fully.

At the meeting, student editors pressed the board for an answer to the question of prior review and were referred to the board’s statement. In a later meeting with Ed Morales and Erin France, the paper’s two professional editorial advisers, Morales said there would be no prior review.

Melita Easters, the board’s vice president, said in interviews Friday night that the board voted to change Ed Morales’ title from editorial director back to editorial adviser but said the board had not voted to change the actual job requirements it approved at its annual summer meeting.

It’s not clear what those job requirements are or whether they address the issue of prior review, though Morales’ assurance to students indicate that if there is a policy, it will be ignored. Easters said she could not remember the exact job requirements that were approved two weeks ago but said they are “vastly” different from the requirements detailed in Stamper’s memo.

“Because a job description is an employee matter, I don’t believe as a board we would release the job description,” Easters said.

As far as adding student representation to the board, Easters said again that the board had discussed the issue but had not made any decision. The board’s bylaws establish two seats for students, but the board has not filled those seats recently, Easters said.

“We told the students this afternoon that as part of our adding some new members to the board we would consider adding two students,” Easters said, adding that she did not know how many open seats there would be on the board beyond Stamper’s now-vacated seat.

Easters said the board planned to give students a copy of the board’s bylaws in the next few days.

Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte said the board’s announcements Friday are “encouraging moves in the right direction.”

“This is real progress, but it’s only a first step,” LoMonte said. “The job won’t be finished until students have meaningful representation on the board, just as they do at every other independently incorporated student newspaper in America. If the board is concerned that The Red and Black is not well-serving its audience, maybe that’s because its audience is nowhere to be seen in the board meetings.”

The tenuous progress made Friday caps weeks of students’ increasing concerns that exploded early Wednesday evening with the walk-out by editors hours before the deadline for the paper’s second issue of the school year.

Since May, student editors have bristled over increasing involvement by the paper’s professional staff, which grew by 10 over the summer as the result of board hirings. Students have said in interviews that they felt pressure by staff to run certain stories or photographs they would not have done otherwise. Friday, staff told a observer from the Society of Professional Journalists that they had been warned their paychecks would be withheld if mistakes in The Red & Black’s website tagging system continued.

Stamper’s memo instituting prior review reached students on Wednesday afternoon. Within hours, the editors collectively decided to quit.

The news of the editors’ resignations spread rapidly on Twitter and Facebook, where exiled editors set up camp. The story has been covered by publications ranging from The New York Times to Gawker, shared widely by a massive alumni network that has watched the story with special interest and concern.

After a meeting Thursday ended with the two sides at an impasse, hopes for compromise hinged on an “open house and discussion” scheduled for Friday at the paper’s Athens office.

The former staff arrived to find out that the meeting was also being billed as a recruitment meeting. A handful of new students showed up interested in joining the paper, were given applications and told the paper was accepting candidates for editor and managing editor.

Alumni who turned out for the meeting as well as members of the media were asked to wait outside, while the former staff was allowed into the paper’s second-floor newsroom to await the board’s statement.

Less than 10 minutes into the meeting, a physical confrontation erupted between Harry Montevideo, the paper’s publisher and an ex officio member of the board, and a student journalist covering the meeting for Grady Newsource, the University of Georgia’s journalism school newsroom.

A video of the interaction has been posted online. Roughly 37 seconds into the clip, Montevideo can be heard quietly asking the videographer to leave the room.

“Turn it off,” Montevideo said. “You need to walk down stairs.”

The student, Joshua Buce, replies calmly, stating, “Lovely, I will when I get downstairs.” It is clear from the video that Buce was walking toward the exit, though he had not complied with Montevideo’s requests to turn off the camera.

What happened next is unclear. A photograph shows Buce falling toward the ground with Montevideo standing over him with his hand on the back of Buce’s neck. In the video, Buce can be heard yelling loudly over Montevideo’s continued but calm requests for him to turn off the camera.

“I don’t think so,” Buce said. “That’s not how it goes. That’s not how it goes.”

In a statement, Montevideo said he was escorting Buce to the doorway: “As a result of either my assistance or his resistance, we both fell to the floor. When I regained my balance, I stood up, backed away and he exited the building, but only after a good deal of verbal assault towards myself.”

Buce could not be reached for comment, but said in a Grady Newsource article that Montevideo “applied pressure on the back of Buce’s neck forcing him to the ground.” Easters said she did not see the incident but backed Montevideo’s explanation and suggested that Buce could have fallen intentionally.

“I think that might have been the purpose of creating the photo opportunity in the first place,” she said.

Student editors said they didn’t see Montevideo after the confrontation, and they were shortly escorted out of the newsroom for the board’s statements to the media and alumni waiting outside.

Two alumni spoke, offering support for the students and presenting the board with a letter signed by more than 100 of the paper’s alumni.

“With a single memo, you broke the heart and the back of this institution,” said Chuck Reece, who was editor of the paper from 1982-83. “You also broke the hearts of hundreds of alumni of this journalistic institution, people whose lives, including mine, were changed for the better and forever by their experiences here.”

The most progress of the day appears to have happened in the meeting that followed between students, Morales and France.

“One of the main concerns was that no one explicitly said no prior review, until I asked Ed,” said Lindsey Cook, the paper’s former multimedia editor, and the voice behind the @redanddead815’s livetweeting of the meeting.

Students’ respect for Morales was evident, cheering when he introduced himself as the paper’s editorial adviser.

“I care about what we’re doing here, and I care about the students, and I care about The Red & Black,” Morales told students. “If you want to continue that with me, you’re welcome.”

Cook said the students’ main concern now is the board’s decision requiring the editor and managing editor to reapply for their positions, and opening the field up to new candidates.

The board, which selects the paper’s editor, will hold interviews with candidates Monday, Easters said. Due to the short notice, probably only four or five board members will be able to be in Athens to conduct the interviews. She said she was looking to see whether the board’s bylaws would allow the group to ratify the editor selection via email.

Easters said the board has a lot of work to be done in the coming weeks and would be meeting as soon as possible.

“All issues which led to this misunderstanding will be more thoroughly discussed,” Easters said. “It is something that we prefer to do face-to-face when all the emotion has cooled.”

Still to be determined is whether the paper will return to daily publishing. The paper dropped from a daily to weekly printed edition in last year, but board members voted to reverse the decision this summer.

On a Facebook group, alumni have indicated they would like to be more involved with the board in the future. Many expressed surprise over news coming out about the board and its management, particularly the seeming lack of enforcement of term limits.

The board’s chairman, Elliott Brack, has held the position since the board was founded in 1980. Stamper, the member who resigned Friday, has been on the board since then as well.

Since going independent from the University of Georgia, the 16-member board has established financial security most student newspapers would envy.

According to the company’s 2011 IRS Form 990, the most recently available report, the paper had a profit of just over half a million. The paper owns its building valued a nearly $2 million with no mortgage and has about $5 million in assets, as of its most recent IRS filing. The filing covers the time between June 1, 2010 and May 31, 2011; the next report is due in October.

Montevideo earned $189,545 in salary and deferred compensation, according to the form. That is an increase of almost $70,000 from the previous year, according to the paper’s 2010 IRS form.

By Sara Gregory, SPLC staff writer