GEORGIA – The stand-off between former student editors at The Red & Black and the paper’s board of directors continues after a meeting Thursday afternoon was unsuccessful in addressing the students’ concerns over editorial independence.
About a dozen students, led by former Editor-in-Chief Polina Marinova, sought assurances that they would retain the right to publish the paper without having the paper’s non-student editorial director edit and approve articles, a concern prompted Wednesday by a memo from the paper’s independently incorporated board that outlined new responsibilities for the editorial director.
In the off-the-record meeting, the students also expressed concern over a lack of student representation on the board of directors, and sought the removal of the board member who orchestrated a plan to institute prior review.
In interviews Thursday night, editors said that the board’s position had not changed, and that they expected the memo’s directives to stand. As a result, editors were making plans to begin covering the University of Georgia’s Athens campus on its own website.
Harry Montevideo, the paper’s publisher and a member of the board of directors, said in a statement before the meeting that the student editor’s resignations were the result of a “miscommunication.” Montevideo could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts.
Student editor’s concerns over slipping editorial control have been growing since as early as May, when Ed Stamper, a member of the board of directors, was appointed by the board to serve as a consultant in the newsroom.
The Red & Black is financially and editorially independent from the university, unlike many student publications. Instead, the paper operates as an arts and literature nonprofit with a 16-member board of directors.
Over the summer, 10 professional staff – some part-time, some full-time – were hired, and Editorial Adviser Ed Morales’ title was changed to editorial director.
Ana Kabakova, a senior who served as the paper’s design editor over the summer, said she noticed more and more directives coming from the paper’s professional staff and the board telling students what to do.
Kabakova said she was asked to design front pages that teased prominently to stories online, creating an aesthetic look that she did not feel was professional.
“I told Ed I don’t like this, I don’t think this is professional, and I was basically told that I had no choice in the matter,” Kabakova said.
Summer staff and editors stuck it out, she said, hoping that the situation would improve when the fall semester began, and top editors returned from internships and studying abroad.
Very quickly though, “it just went downhill,” said Lindsey Cook, the paper’s former multimedia editor.
“It became pretty clear for some of us that The Red & Black wasn’t what it used to be,” Cook said. The professional staff “was basically telling us what to do.”
As multimedia editor, Cook said she expected to be in charge of the paper’s social media accounts, which have some of the largest followings among student newspapers online.
“There were some arguments the first week about who would post, if it would be the professionals or the students, and it wasn’t fully resolved,” Cook said.
Several students said they were told to cover certain stories by either board members or professional staff. For instance, Cook said the editors were asked to cover last week’s sorority rush much more extensively than editors planned. Blake Seitz, the paper’s former opinion editor, said that he was told staff did not like a cartoon that ran online on Tuesday featuring a lost freshman holding a map, on the grounds that it was “alienating the freshman population.”
The final straw for editors came after Morales showed former editor Marinova the draft of a memo written by Stamper that detailed new expectations for the editorial director.
According to the memo, which the students published, Morales is now “accountable for the final product.” He is to provide “direct to students on what to cover to ensure we are covering topics that are compelling.” He is also to hold “students accountable for quality, by correcting poor quality before publication and grading quality post publication.”
In a video interview with Montevideo posted by Grady Newsource, Montevideo said the memo was a draft that was only intended for Morales.
“Unfortunately we did not communicate to him that this was really for his use and for him to then communicate this to the staff, not necessarily to give to the staff,” Montevideo said. “In hindsight, we probably would have preferred to keep that in his hands and his eyes.”
After Marinova read the memo, she said she met with Morales, Montevideo and Stamper to discuss whether they would reconsider requiring Morales read content prior to publication. She said in an interview Wednesday that she decided to resign after it became clear they would not reconsider.
Marinova met with other editors of the paper Wednesday night, many of whom agreed to resign with her in protest.
Mariana Heredia, a senior reporter for the paper, said she realized it was time to quit when it became clear the board of directors was “no longer asking for our input.”
“I saw The Red & Black slipping away from the hands of students,” Heredia said.
The student editors walked out several hours before the weekly edition’s Wednesday night deadline, leaving a majority of the pages unfinished, they said.
A 12-page paper was in racks this morning, but student editors say they don’t know who produced the paper – whether it was professional staff or the product of some of the student journalists who did not participate in the walkout.
Members of the professional staff and board of directors have been largely silent since the walkout. Montevideo and two other board members have said that they believe the editors’ concerns are the result of miscommunication by the board about its intentions.
In the statement Montevideo issued Thursday, he said the board had no intention of replacing the student editor with a professional staff member, nor was there a desire to censor the students.
“If (the student editors) felt like they were being told they were being required to submit stuff for prior review, I can understand their frustration,” said Bill Krueger, a longtime North Carolina journalist who called himself an “emeritus member” of the board but said he had not been active on it recently. “My hope is this can be addressed.”
Elliott Brack, the board’s president and chairman, said he believed the board was responsible for not fully explaining its goal.
“I think we were wrong in not being better communicators, and some of them took it emotionally,” he said. “They just got all upset, not understanding what we were trying to do.”
Brack, a veteran Georgia publishing executive, said he hoped the student editors would return to the paper, but that he expected some will not. Both Brack and Montevideo, in the Grady Newsource interview, said the paper would continue regardless.
“If they won’t, others will,” Brack said. “There’ll be an opportunity for other students. We’ll look for another 10 or 15.”
Brack said the changes proposed by the board are in response to a decision made last fall to drop from daily to weekly print publication. At the time, Montevideo said the decision was a way “to get the students to focus on the Internet, on the website, in a way they haven’t before” by freeing up time previously spent producing a daily newspaper.
By the spring semester, the board had doubts about the effectiveness of the experiment, Brack said. The paper failed to gain significant readership online, and lost the readership it had on the daily print publication, he said.
In April, the board appointed Stamper to go in as a consultant, Brack said. Since May, he’s been sitting in on staff meetings and taking notes on the operation. At the board’s summer meeting, Stamper proposed changes that the board approved.
The board wanted the paper to have a more robust online presence, Brack said, adding that the board’s goals necessitated the hiring of additional professional staff.
“You’ve got to have people there to guide these things,” Brack said of the paper’s social media accounts and other online offerings. “Each one of those takes its own professional.”
The new professionals would be teachers, he said, there as a resource for an ever-revolving group of staff, many of whom join the paper with no previous journalism experience.
The student editors said they agree with the board about the importance of training, but don’t believe it needs to come in the form of prior review. Many described the respect they had for Morales, who they said had always been a welcomed resource in the newsroom.
“I think for all of us, we’re students and The Red & Black was our teacher,” Heredia said. “But it was not a learning environment for us anymore, and that’s why we left.”
Student editors said they’re at an impasse following the Thursday meeting with Montevideo and Melita Easters, the board’s vice president. The board has scheduled an open house for 2 p.m. Friday for further discussion about the situation.
The editors said they will not return to The Red & Black until they are assured of their editorial control. They are also asking for student representation on the board of directors and for Stamper’s resignation from the board.
The board is a close-knit group of predominantly Red & Black alumni, some of whom have been on the board from the beginning. Brack has been chairman since its founding in 1980; Stamper has been on the board since then as well.
The paper has been enormously successful since going independent from the university, becoming a powerhouse among student news organizations journalistically, and also financially.
According to the company’s 2011 IRS Form 990, the most recently available report, the paper posted close to $1.6 million in revenue and a little over $1 million in expenses between June 1, 2010 and May 31, 2011. The paper owns a building valued at nearly $2 million with no mortgage, and has about $5 million in assets, as of its most recent IRS filing.
Montevideo was paid $189,545 in salary and other compensation, according to the 990 form. That is an increase of almost $70,000 from the previous year, according to the paper’s 2010 IRS form.
The student editors said their goal is to return to the paper, and that they hope the board will accommodate their requests.
“I want the younger generations to have the experiences that I had at The Red & Black,” Heredia said. “We want them to have that. It wasn’t like that anymore. They took our newsroom.”
By Sara Gregory, SPLC staff writer