University of Central Missouri's student newspaper on hold for the year after budget shortfall

MISSOURI—The student newspaper at University of Central Missouri will live online-only this academic year.

The Muleskinner – the university’s biweekly tabloid-sized paper – was placed on a one-year abeyance, with a guarantee from administration that it will return again next year.

How the paper got to this point, however, is a bit disputed.

In the original article the Muleskinner published on its site, the staff of the paper seem to understand the abeyance as being part of the budget cuts.

Initially, the communication department had cut two teaching assistant/graduate assistant positions to help meet the $1.5 million cut to the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. The cuts came as a share of the university’s $5.36 million budget shortfall. But an emergency budget meeting in June resulted in more cuts, including the Muleskinner’s print product.

“The chairs for the college were called to an emergency meeting June 13 and nearly $860,000 in additional cuts were made throughout the CAHSS [College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences], including the budget for the Muleskinner and its assistantship, according to an email to communication department faculty,” the article stated.

The email to the communication department faculty was forwarded to the Student Press Law Center. In it, the Department of Communication Chair Art Rennels summarizes the impact of the budget cuts on the department.

“Subsequent to the meeting, the following occurred: a) The MuleSkinner is in abeyance for one year,” Rennels wrote.

He later elaborated on this abeyance, writing: “The commitment was made (I was there as were all the other CASS chairs) in front of the Provost and President that the MuleSkinner was in abeyance for only FY18. That it will be re-activated in FY19. Matt will receive 3 hrs reassigned time to manage and keep the DigitalBurg up and running. We are going to create a steering committee with important stakeholders to study the MuleSkinner and, perhaps re-envision the MuleSkinner for the future.”

The department lost five Teaching Assistants and two Graduate Assistants. And, funding was partially cut for the Muleskinner’s GA position. These losses made up 26.38 percent of the additional $860,000 shortfall, according to Rennels.

As Rennels’ email states, it was decided during this meeting that the abeyance would also accompany the creation of a steering committee that will help re-envision the Muleskinner. Muleskinner adviser Matt Bird-Meyer said he has created a committee of outside professionals, including former students and some faculty members, to talk about what the reboot of the paper will look like. The committee will begin meeting in late August because the president and provost want to see a relaunch plan around October, Bird-Meyer said.

“I’m very excited about this steering committee because the students will get to work alongside faculty and media professionals to craft a set of recommendations that outline the future of the newspaper for years to come,” Bird-Meyer said. “I think this will be a great learning opportunity for them and a way for them to have ownership in the final product.”

In addition to the steering committee, Bird-Meyer will also be advising a digital-only newsroom for the first time. He has been with the Muleskinner for five years and seen it go from weekly to biweekly. With this abeyance, the staff has already been looking at ways to increase its website traffic and better reach the younger, digital-first generation. But losing the print product does have its drawbacks.

“One of the biggest [challenges] is I think overcoming the notion, the misconceptions that we are closing,” Bird-Meyer said. “That’s probably the hardest because once rumors start and misinformation gets out there, that’s hard to overcome. We’re absolutely not closing, it’s just sort of a setback.”

A setback some attribute to the university’s budget cuts. Assistant Director for Media Relations Jeff Murphy, however, disputes the Muleskinner’s claim that the abeyance was due to budget. He said the president and provost were briefed by members of the communication department about a plan to make a more “future-focused” Muleskinner.

“The president and provost believe there is tremendous value in the Muleskinner as a learning opportunity for students,” Murphy said in an email. “They are waiting for a plan from the department related to modernizing and contemporizing the Muleskinner.”

In an interview with the SPLC, Murphy went on to explain that, though there are budget cuts going on in the university, these did not have an effect on the Muleskinner’s abeyance.

“At no time, however, was there any talk about budget,” Murphy said. “The university is going through some budget issues right now where we have lost state funding and there are some issues related to funding loss by projected decline in enrollment among international students and then some other mandatory expenses that we will have to make up for this year. But the budget was not really a discussion topic regarding the Muleskinner.”

The dean of CAHSS, Gersham Nelson, supports Murphy’s explanation. He said that, though he did not play a role in writing the decision, he did sign off on the proposal, and the decision presented to him was not related to budget cuts.

“It would appear as if they have a connection,” Nelson said. “They do not. This was entirely an academic decision. The decision was made by faculty who thought, and had been thinking for a long time, that a different model for the Muleskinner would be more productive on the one hand and be more…far more pertinent for the student newspaper. Productive in the sense that students would write articles as part of a classroom responsibility. And that the context and content could be merged in a way that bring about greater reliability on the part of the publication.”

Rennels, the Communications Department Chair, deferred all comment to University Relations.

According to some of the faculty involved in the academic decision, however, the abeyance was not originally part of the curriculum change. Though it is true that the goal was to increase the amount of content coming from classes into the newspaper, closing the Muleskinner was not part of that original discussion. In their opinion, the abeyance is budget-driven.

In fact, this budget cut may be in violation of the bylaws of the Student Publication Board, which states in Article VIII (which outlines the responsibilities of the Board), Section B, Point 3: “Recommending, establishing, implementing and monitoring sound fiscal policies, including approving all budgets and budget amendments, which are further subject to the approval of the university provost/vice president for academic affairs.”

According to minutes sent to the SPLC of the Student Publications Board’s last meeting, there was no mention of closing the paper when the Board discussed the budget cuts. Instead, the Board gave full support of filing the graduate assistant position, which was given to Jacque Flanagan. This was the final time the Board met, well before the emergency June meeting of college chairs.

Aside from the abeyance, budget cuts did affect a total of 11 student staff positions, including the graduate assistantship reserved for the managing editor. Bird-Meyer said he and his colleagues have been able to get some scholarship money and service award money to attempt to make up for the losses, but the students will still earn “substantially less” than they would have prior to the budget cuts.

“It kills me because they were already planning to make their income with us and now they have to do something different and work with us to get their clips and stuff, so their lives are going to be even more hectic,” Bird-Meyer said.

Jacque Flanagan was among the students whose wages were cut. She is a first year master’s student and serves as the managing editor and graduate assistant for the Muleskinner. She previously worked for the Muleskinner for three years as an undergraduate, and Flanagan said she is not too surprised that the organization is moving toward a more digital presence.

“It doesn’t necessarily surprise me that our print edition was cut,” Flanagan said. “It’s different whenever they have taken the paper away because it’s saying, ‘Oh, we’re not going to invest necessarily in the paper and the specific media traditions going on, but we are still invested in our students and making sure they are able to go with the way of the world,’ and I think that is online.”

As the students work to handle going online-only, they are looking at how to keep readership up and create digital-first content.

“It sucks because it was taken away from us, and it came in a way that we weren’t really expecting,” Flanagan said. “But I know my staff and I know the faculty that I have surrounded by me, they’re all very wonderful people – they’re great communicators – and I know that they were going to go what’s best for our students and best for our community and going in the way that the people are, and that is online. So I think we’ll be able to successfully do it, but we’re going to have to bust our butts for it just as of right now because of how swift it has been. I’m looking forward to it, but it’ll take time and it’ll be hard.”

Plans for the future include redesigning the website, implementing push notifications and discussing the possibility of an app. There is also a push for more clarification about the Muleskinner’s abeyance in an effort to resolve the discrepancies in everyone’s stories. Flanagan, though, is looking ahead.

“They have promised us print in a year, but I don’t know if that will even be an option on the table in a year if we do our jobs correctly,” Flanagan said. “We’ll have our fingers crossed.”

SPLC staff writer Sophie Gordon can be reached by email or (202) 974-6318

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