Working in student journalism is an opportunity to learn the craft of writing and reporting. That’s been true for me in my role as editor-in-chief of The Red & Black, the University of Georgia’s independent student newspaper, and for the other students who work there. But two weeks ago, we also learned the value of protecting the paper’s integrity as an independent student voice.
When that integrity was threatened, we took action by walking out in protest of the proposed changes. In the end, we won back our newsroom and the whole university community learned how powerful our student voice could be.
Trading Integrity for Clicks?
The Red & Black has covered the University of Georgia community since 1893 and has been independent of the university since 1980. It depends on advertising for its income and receives no funding from the university. Students who work there are paid and make a living as professional journalists.
The first time I set foot in the paper’s office, I felt the energy and enthusiasm of the staff. I saw students attend meetings, write articles, and develop them in collaboration with student editors.
It was a newsroom run by students. More importantly, it was a learning environment. The Red & Black is a place where students can practice what they learn in the classroom and where they are held responsible for the content they produce.
Three weeks ago, all that seemed to change.
I returned from a summer internship to find the staff discouraged and confused—their energy and enthusiasm were gone. Editors felt pressure from non-student employees to assign stories designed to drive traffic and clicks to the website. Photographers were told to take posed photos of people smiling and looking at the camera. I began to feel the journalistic integrity of the paper had been compromised.
The last straw was a draft memo by a member of the board, which proposed to grant final editorial control to the editorial director. That meant a non-student would review all of the paper’s content before it was published online and in print. The editorial director would have veto power over student editors’ decisions.
I met with the board member who wrote the draft and asked if they would consider changing this policy. They told me they would not.
That’s when I knew I had to go.
A Newspaper in Exile
When I called our daily budget meeting on August 15, I told the section editors that I was stepping down as the editor-in-chief of The Red & Black because I could no longer be the face of the institution after we students had lost control.
One by one, the editors got up, packed their things, and said they were leaving with me. When we left, we all walked out united. I knew we were doing the right thing, but I was deeply saddened to leave the place I had worked and loved for years. We discussed our responsibility to protect the integrity of the paper, as well as our freedom of speech at the university’s student newspaper.
Just because we had walked out didn’t mean we stopped publishing. The former staff began posting articles on a separate website and set up Twitter and Facebook accounts to help disseminate information and documents from the day’s events. On these accounts, we published news, variety, and sports articles written and produced by students.
We discovered that we didn’t need a building with furnished cubicles and offices to cover the news. All we needed were telephones, computers, and an Internet connection. I hadn’t seen the staff so energized in a long time.
The Importance of Having a Voice
We told the board members in a face-to-face meeting that we would return only when they met three conditions: no prior review, more student input, and student control of editorial decisions.
On Friday, August 17, we negotiated. Members of the board of directors emphasized that the proposed changes were the work of one board member and did not reflect the entire board’s views. Students were given back editorial control with no prior review of the publication. The following Monday, a few members of the board interviewed me and the former managing editor to discuss our plans for moving forward. Following our interviews, we were reinstated. The next day, the section editors also returned to their desks, and the student newsroom was revived.
The supportive emails, tweets, Facebook messages, and phone calls we received from alumni, journalists, and individuals nationwide were phenomenal and much appreciated — including support from the Student Press Law Center and the Society of Professional Journalists.
Instead of damaging the reputation of the paper, I think our walkout made The Red & Black brand stronger by showing that our staff is dedicated and courageous enough to stand up for the integrity of the institution.
In the end, this happened because students were not included in the conversations that led to the memo. After numerous discussions with board members following the incident, I have faith that the lines of communication between students and the board, which had been closed, are now open again. As a result, the relationship between the students and the board now has the potential to be stronger than ever.
All we wanted was our voice back, and our walkout was the only way to get that in the absence of open lines of communication. We have been promised two seats on the board of directors, which is a huge step in the right direction.
An Independent Future
Working alongside fellow students to produce a newspaper allows us to learn from each other’s experiences and be held accountable for our mistakes, as opposed to just submitting articles to a professor in a classroom. If we had surrendered student editorial control, we would have lost not only our freedom of speech, but the opportunity to choose our experiments and learn from them.
During my time at The Red & Black, I’ve grown as a reporter. I’ve learned about ethical journalism and the importance of journalistic integrity. It was these same insights that guided us in our decision to walk out and during our negotiations.
I sincerely hope that, 30 years from now, when a freshman walks in to submit an application to work at The Red & Black, he’ll enter a newsroom full of enthusiastic student journalists who are not only the watchdogs of the community, but of themselves as well.
This wasn’t just about making sure we got to choose the headlines we wanted. It was also about preserving an environment in which students learned from one another. It was about making sure future generations of student journalists enjoy the same freedoms, and deal with the same responsibilities, that makes the staff of The Red & Black more than just students. It makes us journalists.