Kentucky university student newspaper struggles after loss of adviser and funding for student stipends

Gabrielle Crooks / The Rambler


UPDATE: Following the publication of this article, Transylvania University spokeswoman Megan Moloney reached out with the following statement: “There will be a staff adviser for the Rambler — we have stated that from the beginning. It is not accurate to say that it will be an unpaid faculty member.”

In a later email, she elaborated on this, saying, “There will be an experienced staff adviser — not a faculty member — and the position will be paid.  If you were told The Rambler staff would be working with an unpaid faculty member, you were told incorrect information.”

Former Adviser Tom Martin, and editors Tristan Reynolds and Taylor Mahlinger all say this is inconsistent with what they have been told.

“When I was informed of this decision I was told that my position was to be eliminated — not that I was being fired and replaced,” Martin said in an email.

Reynolds has a 22-page document detailing the timeline of events and his account of every interaction with administration since May 2, including a video of the May 3 meeting between The Rambler staff, Moloney, and Michael Cairo, a university dean and interim vice president for academic affairs.


KENTUCKY –  Transylvania University’s student newspaper The Rambler is searching for a way forward after losing its funding for staff stipends and current adviser. On May 2, the paper declared a work stoppage in protest and started an online petition against the changes, but is now back online.

Former Rambler Editor-on-Chief Tristan Reynolds, who just graduated, believes these changes will hurt the quality of journalism.

“When I first became editor-in-chief two years ago, it was in the middle of a process of professionalizing The Rambler,” said Reynolds. “In my first two years… it was prone to an inconsistent staff, a low quality of reporting, and it was really not great.”

While the university, based in Lexington, will continue to fund the online-only publication, it will not allocate funds for paying student reporters. This past year, the overall budget was $30,000. The budget for the upcoming school year has not been determined yet. In addition, Tom Martin, a local journalist who was hired by the university in 2016 as newspaper adviser, will be replaced by an unpaid adviser from the faculty.

I was told that it really did not have to do with finances; it was philosophical.

Tom Martin, former adviser of The Rambler

Tom Eblen, president of the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, said in a statement to the Lexington Herald-Leader, “Transylvania University’s decision to stop compensating the student staff and part-time professional adviser of its online student newspaper, The Rambler, looks like a blatant attempt to silence and control student voices … If this decision is not reversed, it will send a powerful message about Transylvania to students, potential students and the nation.”

Martin was informed of these changes during a regularly scheduled monthly meeting on May 2 with Michael Cairo, Ph.D., interim vice president for academic affairs and dean of the university. He was told his position would no longer be funded and students would no longer be compensated for their work starting July 1.

“I was told that it really did not have to do with finances; it was philosophical,” said Martin.

Megan Moloney, vice president for marketing and communications at Transylvania, said in an email that she could not elaborate on this statement or other personal matters, but that “the university values the role The Rambler plays on campus and in the professional development of the students who write and produce content for it. Transylvania is committed to supporting The Rambler and its editorial independence and will work with the incoming staff to advance their work through continued funding, support of new initiatives they propose and an experienced staff adviser.”

Martin said that before his arrival, “It was essentially a group of volunteer students with a passing interest in putting out a campus paper. We referred to it unkindly as a weaponized hobby … You end up with a small core of true believers who are taking on all the work. I was watching students take on an additional 20+ hours a week of really hard work and receiving no compensation for it.”

As editor, Reynolds wanted to change this.

“One of the things that I wanted to do was make sure that if we were going to professionalize the work product, we were going to treat the journalists as professionals,” Reynolds said.

I was watching students take on an additional 20+ hours a week of really hard work and receiving no compensation for it.

Tom Martin, former adviser of The Rambler

That meant paying students a stipend for work they did on the paper. With the university’s permission, The Rambler developed a budget to pay reporters through independent contractor agreements, using funds saved by cutting the print edition and switching to digital only.

Reynolds saw a dramatic improvement.

“This led to a quite high quality of reporting along a pretty broad range of subjects, everywhere from longform discussions with local composers to coverage of [Kentucky’s] sixth district congressional race.”

Student news organizations across the country are struggling to survive economically and the question of how to compensate journalists comes up frequently.

Reynolds is deeply concerned about Martin being replaced by an unpaid faculty adviser because there is no journalism department or faculty at Transylvania. Prior to Martin’s hiring, there was no professional working with the students. Martin has been a working journalist for 50 years.

“[Martin] is very, very good as a professional journalist,” said Reynolds.

On May 3, the students were called into a meeting with university officials Cairo and Moloney. Martin said they told the students that administration would look into finding another way to compensate students, but it was unclear what that would be.

According to Reynolds, the University has provided stipends to members of the sports pep band, and staffers at its writing center, in addition to participating in federal work-study programs. 

The Rambler has started publishing online again.

“We made the decision as a staff to come back from the work stoppage during the last week of classes to cover [the university president’s] departure because we felt that it was important for us to do so as the school paper. Other than that, we haven’t covered any stories and won’t be reporting until the fall, but that is due to summer break,” said 2019-20 Editor-in-Chief Taylor Mahlinger.

Cairo’s time as interim dean ends this fall, when the new dean will start. The university president is leaving.

… it is hard to know exactly what we will do as a publication.

Taylor Mahlinger, editor-in-chief of The Rambler

“I feel that an important first step would be to meet with the new dean once he or she has been chosen, and the new interim president to discuss plans for what the publication might look like next semester,” said Mahlinger.

The university’s statement says that administrative meetings with students regarding the publication’s future will proceed once a new vice president for academic affairs and dean of the university are hired.

“I think it is important to lay out the staff’s concerns and discuss whether or not the new administration would be willing to restore funding for both paid staff positions and an adviser. Until those meetings have taken place, I think it is hard to know exactly what we will do as a publication,” said Mahlinger.

The university’s statement on the issue, which can be read in its entirety here, reads in part:

“[The Rambler] was the only campus organization where the students received payment for extracurricular involvement — more than 85% of the overall budget was tied to compensation — and the university decided that the budget should be reprioritized in order to expand resources and opportunities for students. Conversations about how future budgets will be allocated are ongoing and will include the new dean and new editorial staff.”

*Correction: A previous version of this story said Michael Cairo was leaving the university, we corrected it to say he will be staying at the university, but will no longer be interim dean.

SPLC reporter Ginny Bixby can be reached at or at 202-974-6318. Follow her on Twitter at @Ginny_Bixby.

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