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What’s Red and Black and Controlled Independently by Students?

The student-run newspaper at the University of Georgia. But when the board tried to seize editorial control, the student staff walked out in a effort to make their voices heard.
 
 
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Photo Credit: SeanPavonePhoto | Shutterstock.com

 

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.