Student editors at Fairmont State resign in protest of administrators’ plans to make coverage more “positive”

WEST VIRGINIA — After a summer of turmoil at Fairmont State University’s student newspaper, the three editors have resigned in protest, and according to them, under administrative duress.

The now-former editors of The Columns student newspaper — Jacob Buckland, editor in chief, Tyler Wilson, managing editor and Britany Mullins, copy editor — will launch an independent watchdog news site, called The Broken Column. Their resignations are in response to administrators’ intent on moving the newspaper’s coverage toward a “more positive direction,” they said.

“They see news and the student newspaper as playing the role of a PR front for the university,” Buckland said. “We see it as an actual newspaper.”

Last spring, The Columns published two investigative stories about a form of toxic black mold in student housing. The stories caused hostility and pressure from administrators, the editors said, leading to their adviser’s dismissal. Their adviser, Michael Kelley, was notified soon after the stories’ publication that his one-year contract was up and he would not be returning the next year. Kelley, who maintains that he was told that his appointment would be for three years, has filed a grievance against the university.

Since then, the situation with The Columns has made national news, prompting responses from journalism organizations like the Student Press Law Center and the Society of Professional Journalists. In July, Robert Baker, the main administrator who had been accused of intimidating and threatening the student journalists, was removed from his duty of supervising The Columns.

Deanna Shields, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, was put in charge of the newspaper. Now, two journalists have been hired as advisers, university spokeswoman Ann Mazza said: Rachel Ellis, a former multimedia reporter for The Times-West Virginian, has been hired part-time to serve as the paper’s main adviser and Misty Poe, the general manager and managing editor of the Times-West Virginian, will teach two journalism classes as an adjunct faculty member and serve as assistant adviser.

Mazza said Poe has “significant editorial and reporting experience” and that she will assist the adviser with “logistics and other technical aspects of production.” According to her LinkedIn biography, Poe served as the Columns editor when she attended Fairmont State, from which she graduated in 2000. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, Buckland and Wilson said they have concerns about the advisers’ qualifications and potential biases.

Ellis is a recent college graduate and “is replacing the more than 20 years of journalism experience held by Mr. Kelley,” they said. Attempts to reach Ellis were unsuccessful.

Wilson and Buckland said the Times-West Virginian’s stories are often more aligned with administrators’ interests than students’. The paper reported on Kelley’s dismissal in a way that was sympathetic to the administration, they said.

The school year at Fairmont started on Aug. 17. Soon after, Shields called a meeting between herself, the student editors, university president Maria Rose and provost Christina Lavorata.

Buckland said it was meant to be a “mediation meeting” to clear the air. But tensions quickly escalated.

Buckland and Wilson said the administrators repeatedly said there was “too much controversy and negativity in The Columns last year” and that they needed to highlight more positive news from the university.

Ellis had told the editors that administrators had told her they wanted to “restart the paper, build it from the ground up and take it in a positive direction,” Buckland and Wilson said, though administrators denied saying that at their meeting.

“We were referred to as being toxic for the environment of the newspaper,” Wilson said. “We kind of figured our career, our job lifespan, had been drastically shortened.”

Wilson and Buckland said they would step down from their editors’ posts because they were unwilling to agree to new policies that steered the newspaper in a different, more positive direction.

“I don’t want to work in that environment,” Buckland said. “Students deserve news” rather than the university’s PR, he said.

Fairmont State’s Board of Governors policy says students have the right “to have a free and independent student press which adheres to the canons of responsible journalism.”

Mazza said the students were not given any conditions to stay on as editors, and Shields and Rose have “a keen interest in ensuring the success of the newspaper.”

“The previous student editors were asked not once, but twice, to consider remaining with the publication,” she added.

Wilson and Buckland said when they told the rest of the Columns staff what happened, another staffer also resigned in protest. There are now only three staffers left — not enough to regularly produce the paper on its current schedule, Buckland said.

“They could maybe [print] it every couple months,” Buckland said. “It defeats the purpose of a newspaper if it will no longer be current.”

Still, Maza said that “it is anticipated that the Columns publication will continue — as it has for much of the past 75-plus years — with a new issue in the next month.”

But Buckland and Wilson said they felt like the administrators’ actions have effectively shut down the newspaper.

“They destroyed it without having to come out and say they destroyed it,” Wilson said.

Now, they plan to continue investigating the campus as The Broken Column, which will, for now, just have a social media presence and post a couple articles every few weeks.

Meanwhile, Kelley’s grievance against the university regarding his dismissal is still pending. Buckland and Wilson wrote a letter to the Board of Governors asking them to investigate the situation, and the board chairman said the board was reviewing the allegations against Baker and taking them very seriously.

Buckland and Wilson said Rose told them in the meeting that there would be an investigation into Baker’s actions, but she didn’t give any details on the investigation’s status.

Mazza declined to confirm that there is an investigation, saying that she cannot “comment further on any other personnel matters regarding Dr. Baker.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Madeline Will by email or at 202-833-4614.