Independent news site to launch at U. of Redlands following student newspaper’s ‘temporary hiatus’

CALIFORNIA — A student newspaper at the University of Redlands could return to campus in the next few weeks, three months after the student government placed the Bulldog Weekly on “temporary hiatus” because of its “slanted, selective and non-factual reporting.”

But this time, the student-produced content won’t appear in print, the reporters won’t receive a stipend from the Associated Students of the University of Redlands and the College of Arts and Sciences won’t sign the adviser’s paycheck.

In response to perceived censorship — following an article that questioned a new scholarship fund’s motives — the Bulldog Weekly’s co-editors launched an online fundraising campaign on Feb. 13 to support an alternative news website, independent from university administrators and the student government.

“Really what this has been about is getting the paper up and running again by any means necessary,” said Taylor Holmes, a Bulldog Weekly co-editor. “So I wouldn’t say that we are totally opposed to continuing to work with student government and with the university.”

With plans to launch the new site — called The Bulldog — by mid-March, the fundraiser has mustered more than $2,500 in support, which will be used to pay for the website and to pay the staff.

Without input from members of the newspaper staff, however, a committee to “re-envision” the student government-funded newspaper will forge ahead.

“The committee just wishes the students on the Bulldog Weekly the best in their pursuits of this independent paper,” said Denise Davis, the ASUR Cabinet advisor who also serves as co-chair of the newspaper committee. “We don’t want to put the paper on hiatus ever again, if we can avoid that.”

‘Rich, white males’

On Nov. 10, 2014, a Bulldog Weekly article about the new Hunsaker Scholarship Prize, which was established after Richard and Virginia Hunsaker donated $35 million to the university, quoted a student saying the qualifications for the fund were subjective and is “targeted at a very specific group — rich, white males — and it’s all for incoming freshmen.”

When student government members flagged the article, Davis said, they determined the reporter had “put words in the student’s mouth.”

Erin Aubry Kaplan, who has worked as a journalist in California for 23 years and served as the Bulldog Weekly’s adviser since 2008, denied allegations the quote was fabricated, adding that nobody within the student body nor the administration approached her about quality concerns with the paper.

“We were open to having a debate in the paper about the story, but none of that happened,” Aubry Kaplan said. “The response was like killing a fly with a bazooka.”

On Dec. 10, the Associated Students of the University of Redlands Cabinet voted 13-2 to put the Bulldog Weekly on hiatus, citing quality issues, “slanted” journalism, monetary concerns, problems with the advising structure and a lack of educational opportunities for Bulldog Weekly reporters.

Administrators “had no role in this action with the student paper, as is stated erroneously in recent headlines,” according to a post about the hiatus on the university’s website, which said the administration does not have the authority nor the ability to suspend publication.

“ASUR takes the position that it is practicing due diligence, not censorship, guided by the goal of the student paper emerging from its hiatus able to practice solid, professional, ethical journalism,” according to the post.

The student organization government provides about $40,000 each year to cover the newspaper’s printing costs and student salaries. Until recently, the College of Arts and Sciences paid the advisor’s salary, said Kathy Ogren, the college’s dean.

Davis said the hiatus followed a semester-long review of the newspaper’s quality, which identified a pattern of inaccuracy. Additionally, Davis said the newspaper’s distribution manager had been discouraged by low circulation.

But Morgan York, who served as co-editor of the newspaper at the private liberal arts college in southern California, argued in a Facebook post inaccuracies in the newspaper didn’t prompt the hiatus, adding that mistakes were “fairly minor, and standard for most newspapers.” Instead, York said the paper was shut down because of its tumultuous relationship with university administrators.

“There lingers a sentiment that the paper ought to be the mouthpiece of the university,” York wrote. “Fact is, it isn’t our job to say what the administration wants us to say. Period.”

Committee addresses ‘issues and concerns’

On Jan. 13, the ASUR Senate approved a proposal to form a committee to “work towards a higher quality student publication,” to be co-chaired by Davis and Hal Gordon, ASUR Cabinet’s executive director of clubs and organizations. The committee was to include three members of the student newspaper, student government members, a faculty representative and administrators.

Bill Rocque, a sociology professor at Redlands, said both Davis and York asked him to participate in the committee, so he didn’t realize initially how contentious the meetings would become.

York and Holmes recommended Aubry Kaplan as a member of the committee. Their proposal was denied, Davis said, because Ogren had already chosen to defund the position.

Although she declined to disclose Aubry Kaplan’s salary, Ogren said she chose to defund the position because instructional funds “are usually used to support courses that are actually being taught.” Redlands does not offer a journalism curriculum.

“We also really wanted to start with a relatively clean slate, in that there’s been a lot of tension with certain members of the committee from last semester,” Davis said. “We wanted to bring in different people from different parts of campus who might help us move forward in a more productive manner.”

Ultimately, reporter Ben Purper joined York and Holmes as Bulldog Weekly representatives on the committee. The committee first met on Jan. 23, three days after about 100 students and faculty discontent with the hiatus spawned a protest on the administration building’s steps.

To a crowd with signs that read “freedom of speech” and “save our paper,” York said the hiatus “felt punitive.”

“It felt like ‘OK, you’re not up to our standards so we’re going to shut you down,” York told the crowd. “‘We have power, we’re going go exert that power over you, and you’re going to do what we say so that you can get it back.’ We feel like we’re held hostage.”

Holmes said the initial committee meetings were productive aside from a difference in opinions about what prompted the hiatus. That changed after she and York submitted a proposal that would have allowed them to publish in the interim while the committee discussed future changes.

“Their proposal was essentially that they keep printing the way that they had been printing last semester with the same adviser and same structure without changing anything, which signaled to ASUR that they hadn’t really understood why we’re in the situation that we’re in,” Davis said. “ASUR was not willing to entertain that compromise because it wasn’t actually a compromise.”

In response, the student government members submitted their own proposal, which included “vague” educational opportunities for reporters and would have allowed student government additional oversight over the paper’s editorial content and more say in the hiring process, Holmes said. They also proposed the student government and the newspaper staff to co-author an article about the paper’s progress, to coincide with commencement.

“ASUR wasn’t interested in setting up a structure where they wouldn’t have the power to either shut us down or have a say in who gets what position on the paper and what gets published, so that was around the time it got very tense and we started thinking about another option,” Holmes said.

On Feb. 11, York and Holmes met with the staff to entertain the idea of an independent news organization. They launched the campaign to fund the independent publication on Feb. 13.

“It really was not the hiatus that made us want to go independent, but it was kind of the events of the committee that prompted our campaign to go independent,” Holmes said. “In the absence of the paper, we’ve seen more than anything that people really value it as part of their college experience.”

Online transition

In response to the fundraising campaign, Gordon sent York, Homes and Purper an email on Feb. 16 announcing the trio had been dismissed from the committee because “it is clear that your full effort is not with the committee.”

“Your continued participation in the committee would just serve as an unneeded distraction,” Gordon wrote.

Then, after attending weekly meetings for a month and a half, Rocque said he resigned from the committee. Without much leverage, he said he felt committee members were going in the wrong direction and “were not working in a direction of establishing anything even close to being an independent press.”

Davis said the committee is currently investigating alternative funding structures, advising structures and ways to fix their “dysfunctional” advisory committee.

“Everything from the fact that the paper does not have a corrections policy,” Davis said, “all the way up the chain to ‘how do we handle disagreements within the actual committee?’”

They have reached one decision, though.

“The newspaper has decided that we would like to use this moment to undergo a medium change,” Davis said. “Instead of having just a print version, we’re working on a website and we’re going to move the student newspaper, sponsored by ASUR, online.”

Although Aubry Kaplan said she doubts the committee will be able to create a student government-funded newspaper before the semester ends, Holmes, York and other student journalists are gearing up for their online debut as The Bulldog.

“I’m hoping the controversy surrounding the Bulldog Weekly won’t prompt the university to take any kind of extreme action against us,” Holmes said, “but we’re warning our writers, we’re all aware that is a possibility.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Mark Keierleber by email or at (202) 833-4614.