The student editorial staff of the Oregon Daily Emerald went on strike Wednesday morning, prompting a newly hired publisher to step down before his first day on the job.
The University of Oregon students expressed concerns about the publisher’s role, saying that a new reporting structure would undermine the independent newspaper’s autonomy. Under the new arrangement, the paper’s student editor would report to the publisher, not to the Board of Directors as she now does.
“The student editor would have a very hard time disagreeing with him or going against the wishes of the publisher,” said Ashley Chase, the paper’s editor in chief.
The publisher position, as described by the board, would replace the paper’s general manager, who has historically reported to the Board of Directors and had no supervisory role over the paper’s editor.
The board’s response to the editorial staff’s “list of demands,” including the preservation of the current reporting structure, was swift. Jeanne Long, a student advertising executive and the board’s chair, sent an e-mail stating that the “the board refuses to be bullied and blackmailed.”
“The responsibility of the board is to oversee the financial welfare of the corporation, and the newsroom cannot dictate financial, nor personnel policy,” Long wrote. “The board reserves the right to determine the future operations of the organization."
Rebecca Woolington, the newsroom’s lone voting representative on the board, resigned rather than sign on to Long’s letter.
“It was an inherent conflict of interest for me to be really in that [board] meeting at all,” said Woolington, a news editor for the paper. “The board made its decision and I was not for that decision, and I thought the most appropriate thing to do was to resign. I did not believe the board acted in good faith, and I could not sign that e-mail.”
Long did not return a call requesting comment.
In addition to concerns about a new reporting structure, newsroom staff members objected to the absence of a national search to fill the publisher slot. The newspaper’s board, which is largely made up of University of Oregon students and faculty, recently voted to offer the publisher position to Steven A. Smith, a former editor of the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Wash., who has served as a paid consultant for the Emerald since December.
In his capacity as a consultant, Smith had suggested that the publisher position be created to help pull the paper out of financial difficulty. Board members then recruited Smith to fill the position he had suggested be created, and he agreed to serve in the post on an interim basis for one year at an $80,000 salary -- a figure he suggested -- while a national search was conducted.
Smith said Wednesday that he was caught completely off guard by the students’ objections, and he promptly told the board via e-mail that he was no longer interested in the job.
“The fact of the matter is, the students believe so strongly in the principle of editorial independence that they’ve taken a stand,” Smith told Inside Higher Ed. “I don’t think it’s the right stand … but I could see myself as a 21-year-old student taking the same stand. If I believed this principle were at risk I would stand up and fight it as well.”
Paper Guards Independence
The Oregon Daily Emerald became an “independent” newspaper in 1971, and it is recognized as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. There is some overlap with the university, however. Some members of the Board of Directors are appointed by the university’s president, and the paper leases space on the campus from the university. While the majority of the paper’s revenues come from advertising, the newspaper receives a stipend from the student government, and by extension a share of student-paid fees.
The paper fiercely guards its independence, and Smith’s stated intention of securing a position as an adjunct professor at the university while also serving as the publisher was a source of concern. Smith said he did not view his potential dual role as a conflict of interest, because he would not be injecting himself into editorial decisions.
“The reporting line was strictly on the business side,” Smith said. “All of the agreements -- the contract that was being drafted -- made clear that the publisher has absolutely no control over editorial content. Period. End of story.”
While the publisher would not have the authority to hire and fire editors, Smith’s proposed bylaws would allow the publisher to “suspend the editor for egregious ethical or conduct-unbecoming reasons.” The board, however, would have to review the suspension and either uphold or dismiss it within 10 days.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said that student newspapers should be structured in such a way as to prevent any potential for the paper’s independent voice to be stifled.
“Where the concern would arise is if the publisher literally had day-in and day-out control over how the editor does his job, and the ability to discipline or fire him,” LoMonte said.
Concerns over editorial control have prompted entire student newspaper staffs to resign on other campuses, but LoMonte said “the idea of going on strike or holding out until demands are met is pretty unusual.”
Smith Refused Interview
The financial stability of the Emerald is a source of great concern for the newsroom staff, board members and the university’s school of journalism. Rob Moseley, a board member, said Wednesday that the publisher position was designed to help save the newspaper. While the newsroom’s concerns were taken into consideration, the board felt some major changes were necessary to save the paper, he said.
“We’re in a perilous position where compromise is necessary on all sides in order to ensure the future, and to be met with a list of demands [from the staff] was disheartening,” said Moseley, a sports reporter with the Register-Guard newspaper, in Oregon.
The students’ “demands” did not specifically say that Smith should be eliminated as a candidate, but they insisted that the contract stipulate that the publisher not be employed in any capacity by the university. Furthermore, the students asked that the offer to Smith be rescinded so a national search could be conducted to find a publisher. Nothing would preclude Smith from going through the normal process as a candidate, however.
The board had initially supported a national search, but the process was changed to accommodate Smith. Smith said that he would consider the post only on an interim basis at a salary of $80,000 a year, and that he would not be subjected to an interview process.
“There wasn’t anything to interview for in my view,” Smith said. “They knew me. They knew my proposal.… I’m not interested in engaging in a year-long national search to be made interim publisher for one year.”
Paper's Financial Stability in Question
The board was planning to meet to discuss the strike Wednesday evening. Whatever the outcome, Tim Gleason said he hopes a conclusion comes sooner rather than later. Gleason, dean of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, said the paper plays a vital role in training students in the school.
“The Oregon Daily Emerald is an essential part of this university, and while it’s independent it is an essential part of the school of journalism,” he said. “We have a very strong interest in a healthy, sustainable Oregon Daily Emerald.”
Apart from the current strike, the larger issue of the financial future of the newspaper is paramount, Gleason said. The paper has been operating in the red for some time, and the strike only makes matters more tenuous, he said.
“My bottom line is that it has to be over very quickly,” Gleason said. “The stability and long-term viability is in jeopardy right now. They’ve burned through their reserves and don’t have a whole lot of time left.”