I’ll start at the end: The students at The Red and Black are more mature than the adults.


 
That’s my conclusion after speaking with Katherine Tippins, the former student media coordinator at Macon State College.

Tippins drove to Athens today at my request and investigated what has become a national story: The walkout of the senior staff at the University of Georgia’s independent student newspaper.

As SPJ’s national representative for the region encompassing the University of Georgia, I wanted to hear firsthand about The Red and Black – from a journalist who doesn’t work at The Red and Black. (Although Tippins once did. See my previous post.)

I also listened to more than an hour of interviews with students, alumni, and a j-school professor that Tippins recorded before a raucous “open house” at The Red and Black, where there was yelling and physical violence – but not by The Red and Black students.


I’ll move to the middle: Old men behaving badly


 
Tippins was at that meeting, which was difficult for her to describe because it was actually two meetings in one…

Red and Black Publisher Harry Montevideo originally advertised an “open house” for new writers, who silently filled out applications in one room while Red and Black alumni and former editors gathered in another to hear an official statement from a board member who insisted, “no questions” – and then had to answer many questions.

By the end of the afternoon, there were still questions.

Former news editor Adina Solomon told Tippins, “It’s good that the board is showing signs of compromise, but I don’t think our three goals are met yet.”

Tippins asked what those three goals were…

  1. Ed Stamper off the board,” Solomon said. Stamper is widely known to have written the memo that forced the walkout. It dictates what students can cover, and how they’ll answer to professional staff. (That’s “prior review,” an offensive concept to both SPJ and the College Media Association, whose code of ethics prohibit it.) Stamper’s most famous line in that memo was under the heading, “a balance of good and bad” – BAD: Content that catches people or organizations doing bad things. I guess this is “journalism.” At the meeting, Stamper announced his resignation.
  2. More student input,” which means adding students to the board of directors. Apparently, the board’s bylaws require that, but no one recalls it ever happening. I say “apparently” because no recent staffer has seen the bylaws. The board is supposed to provide a copy to the students, which hasn’t happened as of this writing. That led Solomon to conclude, “I don’t feel like that’s been completely done yet.”
  3. No prior review,” Solomon insists, “but they deflected any questions we asked about that.”

The Red and Black management seems to embrace deflection, and nothing illustrates that better than Montevideo’s physical confrontation with a reporter from the University of Georgia’s j-school news station. Called Grady Newsource, it sent a broadcast reporter to cover the meeting.

Montevideo had no problem talking to Grady Newsource earlier in the week, when he granted a lengthy interview – in which he said it was “disappointing that the students didn’t seem to have a willingness to work through what I think are fairly minor changes in our operations, and only intended to make the paper better.”

In a statement after today’s meeting, Montevideo explained his confrontation with the Newsource reporter Joshua Buce…

After repeated verbal requests for him to turn off his camera and make some progress to the stairs, I began to escort him toward the doorway. As a result of either my assistance or his resistance, we both fell to the floor. When I regained my balance I stood up, backed away and he exited the building, but only after a good deal of verbal assault toward myself.

I asked Tippins about Montevideo’s explanation that he was merely assisting the reporter…

It didn’t seem that way to me. Regrettably, I didn’t see the very beginning of it, but it appeared that Harry only had one knee on the ground, but the other guy was on all fours. You can see from the photos who was being the aggressor.

Tippins described the incident as “full-blown hostile.”

She says witnesses remarked, “How could the publisher of a newspaper do this to a reporter in a building that’s all about reporting?”

My opinion: When our own reporters barge in to cover a story, even if they cross a line, we protest any physical attacks against them. Indeed, how would The Red and Black respond if one of its reporters zealously – even overzealously – tried to cover a meeting, and campus police grabbed him by the neck and brought him to the ground?

In the beginning: Pros vs. students


 
As often happens, one story begets another. When the staff walked out of The Red and Black, they started looking into it.

While The Red and Black board meetings are closed even to the staff, the students dug up the company’s tax forms and posted them on their website, Redanddead.com.

Among the shocking revelations contained therein: Montevideo was paid just shy of $190,000 last year. Since the nonprofit company spent just over $1 million that same year, Montevideo took home nearly 20 percent of its budget.

Compare Montevideo’s salary to that of Patricia Carey, his counterpart at The Independent Florida Alligator, the student newspaper at the University of Florida that’s bigger than The Red and Black.

According to The Alligator’s Form 990, Carey earned just over $69,000 last year – on a budget of just over $1.2 million.

So what does The Red and Black get for Montevideo’s massive salary?

Tippins’ interviews reveals the answer: more micromanagement.

Sports editor Nicholas Fouriezos told Tippins an example from earlier this summer…

“We’re supposed to put keywords on some of the stories, but I guess we missed some,” Fouriezos recalled.

Not long after, the students received a memo from Ed Morales, the former editorial adviser who was elevated this week – many say against his will – to editorial director, meaning he’s the boss. (Morales seemed relieved to be demoted back to adviser at today’s big meeting.)

What did the Morales memo say? “He wrote if we didn’t include keywords all the time, paychecks would be withheld.”

I don’t know any company that threatens to not pay you for making mistakes. I don’t even think that’s legal. But of course, I’m not a lawyer. So I asked one.

“Once somebody has done their work, they’re entitled to be paid for it. A corporation can’t withhold someone’s paycheck as punishment,” says Frank LoMonte, for nearly five years the executive director of the Student Press Law Center just outside Washington, D.C.

LoMonte calls the entire management of The Red and Black, “misguided and out of touch.”

Here’s another example of that from summer news editor A.J. Archer…

There was one production night where I was sitting there, looking at the front page of the paper. We have one section that’s called the Rundown, which is just small briefs. And there was one brief about some fraternity members doing something bad, and I remember the editorial adviser [Morales] coming over and telling me, Do not put anything about Chi Phi on the front of the paper. It also happens that [board member] Ed Stamper’s son is a Chi Phi, and he and all his Chi Phi friends have been coming up here, doing focus groups for the paper and giving their input into how it should be changed.

In fact, Montevideo has cited those focus groups as a reason for the micromanagement.

“All the story ideas that we are passing on to our student staff come from our readers,” he told Grady Newsource this week. “We’ve done focus groups with students.”

Problem is, the staff isn’t allowed to attend them.

“If I could see those focus groups personally, that’d be great,” Archer lamented. “But we haven’t been allowed to do that.”

When Tippins asked Archer how he knows what the focus groups have said, the answer was, “The board tells us.”

Tippins and I both marveled at the patience and maturity of these students, who seemingly endured a lot pressure before finally walking off the job.

“I don’t want to be about.com, which is what I feel like when I’m there,” variety editor Tiffany Stevens told Tippins. When Tippins asked who pushed her to do stories she didn’t want to, she replied…

Ed Morales was the one who told me a lot of these stories were what the board wanted – a lot more Top 10s, a lot more events that aren’t pertinent to students. Like a festival outside of town, but someone who contributes money to The Red and Black wanted that story done.

That wasn’t even the worst part, the students told Tippins. This was: “That’s not the Ed Morales who’s been advising us. That’s not who he is.”

Added multimedia editor Lindsey Cook, “We respect Ed Morales, and we respected his opinion – and sought his opinion. We don’t think these decisions are his.”

So the students hung on.

“As long as they’re just telling us to change stuff that’s helpful to reach our audience, that’s fine,” Fouriezos said. “If they aren’t changing the content, then I’m willing to work with it – as long as we weren’t crossing that line.”

When the line was crossed, they walked.

The SPLC’s LoMonte, who has been consulting with the students, is also impressed.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a more effective response,” he says. “They enlisted allies, they went right back to work gathering news, and they kept everyone updated in real time. They handled this brilliantly.”

LoMonte adds, “In hindsight you can second-guess if walking out was the right thing, but it’s certainly understandable – and it forced a decision that might have otherwise dragged on for months.”

In fact, LoMonte has never seen anything move so fast.

“This is certainly the greatest and most intense public outcry in response to censorship we’ve ever seen, and it’s all attributed to social media,” he says. “The kind of groundswell these students achieved would’ve usually taken six weeks – and it took 12 hours to get 2,000 followers.”

There’s something else novel about this situation.

“It’s not the classic censorship situation, because there isn’t a government agency using its power to conceal bad news,” LoMonte says. “It’s purely a matter of people who had good intentions at one time, but have since lost touch with reality.”

So what’s the reality tonight?

Where things stand – and where they could go


 
Cook, the multimedia editor, emailed me this evening…

“We still have some concerns which will be voiced to the board, but have confidence they can be resolved. We are very pleased that all three of our main demands were met.”

One of my concerns: The Red and Black board insists the students who walked out must reapply for their jobs.

Tonight’s official Red and Dead statement says, “Former Editor in Chief Polina Marinova and former Managing Editor Julia Carpenter will reapply for their positions.”

Perhaps I’m more cynical than the Red and Dead team, but I wonder if the current board will really reappoint the students who have destroyed them on social media.

Meanwhile, those students continue to cover campus news, as well as their own, from Redanddead.com.

While I was raised on the mantra, “There are two sides to every story,” I’m definitely taking sides here. I told Cook: If The Red and Black doesn’t honor its commitments, and if the students decide to keep and grow their own publication, I’ll help.

SPJ South Florida, the largest pro chapter in this region, has already passed a resolution supporting the students. And some board members have declared they’re willing to assist, should they be asked.

And we’re not the only ones.

University of Georgia journalism professor Barry Hollander, who has enthusiastically backed the students from his personal blog, says if they go it alone, he’ll go with them – he’ll no longer suggest his students head to The Red and Black to acquire journalism experience.

“Personally, I’ll send them to the alternative,” he says. “I’m a big believer in don’t get mad, get even. I’ll be more than helpful.”