8 student-media employees terminated at Auburn U. under plans for converged newsroom

ALABAMA — During his three years as the student newspaper adviser at Auburn University, Austin Phillips spent hours each week reading the students’ work, offering advice and answering students’ legal and ethical questions.

And although Phillips’ students have the final say on what goes into the paper, “they know they can come to me, call me, email me any time of the day or night to answer any questions,” he said.

And often they do.

But Phillips — and four other student media advisers at the public institution — won’t return to the newsroom next semester. Three other student media employees’ jobs were also eliminated.

Under a restructured student-media operation, administrators say they won’t be needed.

The restructure, which Phillips said wasn’t discussed with students or faculty advisers until after it was announced March 19, was designed to boost advertising revenue while fostering a “collaborative atmosphere” among the student newspaper, magazines and radio and television stations, according to a letter the Division of Student Affairs sent to student leaders and faculty to announce all student-media operations would be placed “under one umbrella.”

But students and advisers say the new structure, which would replace the eight existing advising and administrative positions with five new ones, could damage the quality of all student-media outlets at Auburn.

Report recommends changes

In 2011, the university hired an assessment team to compile an external report recommending general improvements to its student media programs. While the other four outlets received a single report, the team studied The Plainsman separately because unlike the other media, which are university-funded, it generates most of its revenue through advertising, Phillips said.

The university fronts The Plainsman’s production costs each semester. The student newspaper then repays the university with advertising money, he said. But as print advertising shrinks, revenue has steadily decreased.

The 2011 report also recommended the university should condense eight faculty positions into five new positions to help prepare students to work in a converged newsroom.

The report also featured suggestions to harness readers online. But since Phillips took over as adviser in 2012, The Plainsman has increased its site traffic and social media presence, he said. Its social media accounts showcase the growth as well, Phillips said. Its Twitter account, for example, has grown from about 500 followers in 2012 to more than 20,000.

Although Phillips said the newspaper staff has largely expanded its Web presence on its own accord, the 2011 report became the basis for the restructuring, although it hadn’t been discussed with students or faculty advisers since a “poorly planned” meeting in 2012.

The student media restructure follows an Office of Student Affairs restructure at the beginning of the semester, Plainsman editor-in-chief Becky Hardy said, which placed the student newspaper into the Office of Communications and Marketing. As a student organization, the newspaper previously was controlled by the Office of Student Involvement.

Although the change hasn’t affected the paper’s coverage, the Office of Communications and Marketing wanted an office in the newsroom for their office’s point of contact with the paper. But nothing changed when students pushed back, Phillips said.

‘The Plainsman is a home to me’

Currently, each of the five media outlets at Auburn has its own part-time adviser. But, these advisers will lose their jobs on May 15 and replaced with three full-time positions: a broadcast adviser, an editorial adviser and a technical adviser, which the outlets will share.

One editorial adviser will oversee all three print publications, which include the student newspaper, yearbook and literary magazine.

University administrators had told The Plainsman’s administrative associate Kim Rape she would be let go on March 19, Phillips said. But on Thursday, administrators told Rape, who has worked at the university for 25 years, they made a human resources error and she would not lose her job.

All five outlets will share a single advertising team, which an administrative support associate and an advertising and marketing adviser will oversee. Under this structure, advertisers will be able to purchase advertising packages for print and broadcast.

The five new positions will report to the Manager of Communications and Marketing in the Division of Student Affairs, but they “will have no control over content decisions and will serve as an advocate for students’ First Amendment rights,” according to the Division of Student Affairs letter.

While Phillips and the other employees were encouraged to apply for the new positions, he said he won’t apply because he recently accepted a full-time position on the university’s College of Engineering communications team.

Phillips said full-time university employees must serve for a year before applying for other full time positions. Because his position as Plainsman adviser is part-time, he is unable to do both jobs. Phillips, who is a Plainsman alum himself, said he wishes he could continue advising the student newspaper and helping them progress in their print and digital reporting.

“Had they done this two years ago and made the editorial advisor a full-time position as it should have been, I would have jumped at this,” Phillips said. “The Plainsman is a home to me.”

Hardy said she and other student leaders were upset administrators left them in the dark. Although she said she understands the importance of learning “diverse skills and knowing multimedia,” most students would prefer to focus on their chosen news medium.

In response, The Plainsman published a story on Wednesday about the new structure, along with an editorial questioning the changes.

“When important meetings are called, let us know in explicit terms with more than a day’s notice,” the editorial said. “We want to be involved in selecting the adviser who correlates with our organization. We want a student representative to be involved at every meeting that involves The Plainsman.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Katherine Schaeffer by email or at (202) 785-5451.