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A missed opportunity for the Oregon Daily Emerald

The big story this week in college media is a decision by the staff of the Oregon Daily Emerald to strike over its board’s decision to hire Steve Smith as publisher. Smith withdrew from the post in response.

It’s a shame, mostly for the Daily Emerald itself. They’re missing a chance to work with someone who is a real leader when it comes to rethinking newsrooms.

If you’re not familiar with Smith, he was one of the most innovative leaders in the news business when he was editor of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wa. He left the paper last year to protest repeated budget cuts.

Smith is an alum of the Daily Emerald, and had been consulting with the board in recent months. The Emerald, like a growing number of college papers, is in financial turmoil, and is looking for ways to chart a future that allows it to remain financially independent. The board recently voted to make Smith interim-publisher for one year, and Smith accepted.

That prompted the strike. According to an editorial posted on the Emerald’s Web site:

This is the last edition of the Emerald we will publish until the board meets the four demands the entire newsroom staff presented to the board at its executive session meeting last night

The demands address recent hiring decisions of the board that are far out of line with the Emerald’s guiding values and ethics. The Emerald is in the midst of a transformation that we hope will allow us to continue to publish as long as the University is enrolling students, but we are in dire financial straits and if these changes are not made soon, the Emerald may have to close its doors within the next few years. However, the newsroom is not willing to sacrifice student control and editorial independence of the Emerald, nor the integrity of this organization, in the process.

The staff was in part concerned about remarks Smith made that he might possibly teach at Oregon while working there. The staff felt this was a conflict that threatened their independence, plain and simply. Also, they felt the board should have conducted a wide-ranging search for the position. Smith had, in fact, agreed to serve for one year while the board did such a search.

The staff was also concerned that the new position of publisher would have authority over the editor. They felt Smith’s $80,000 annual salary was too high. And finally, they felt the board just didn’t take their concerns seriously.

Upon hearing of the strike, Smith withdrew:

All along, my only goal has been to help the Emerald through the current financial crisis. I am lucky to have the time and the resources to offer a year of service to the paper that helped forge my career. But I have been too close for too long with the Emerald and its fine student journalists to go to war with them now over this.

The strike continued through today, when the staff posted a note saying it would return to work on Monday and agreed to have its dispute with the board mediated.

On a certain level, I admire the idealism of the staff. But I’m also struck by the fact that these ideals, for better or for worse, go far beyond what exists in the professional newspaper world.

I’ll just use the example of publisher as an example. It’s pretty standard, and has been for a long time, that the executive editor reports to the publisher in the professional world. The Emerald staff, however, felt that such an arrangement would compromise their editorial independence. Maybe, but I doubt it. Especially when that publisher, in this case Smith, was an executive editor for many years himself.

As for the pay, well, who knows. I’m a bit sympathetic to the board, probably a group of volunteer alums who are scrambling to find a way out of the crisis, and are now even further behind in that effort.

I respect the ideals of the students in this case. But it’s a shame they couldn’t find a way to work out their differences without using the nuclear option of a strike, and turning Smith in an adversary in the process. He wrote that he was unaware of the concerns until after the strike began.

I don’t think he deserved to made the villain. And I think the Emerald will have a hard time finding a more innovative mind to help them chart a future course that will keep the Emerald alive and healthy.


2 Responses

  1. The $80,000 salary seem like a real issue. But as a veteran of the student movement of the 60’s the idealist rhetoric it seems that the collegiate dedication to “ideals’ is a lot more complicated than first appears. One interpretation is that it is the perfect being the enemy of the good. Another interpretation is that it is that “principles” are more important that the health of the paper. After 8 years of “principles” being used to explain public decisions, I think a more balanced approach of principles and pragmatism might make it alot easier to get from here to there, faster rather than slower.

  2. In my opinion what happened at the Emerald was that a consultant was hired to supervise the student editor, a real departure from what happens at college newspapers where the editor takes on the role of publisher. That’s been upheld in 35 years of case law involving public institutions. Of course, the Emerald is a private non-profit corporation, and the board can take this action if it likes, but not without fallout and consequences. I admire the students and hope this is resolved in the best interests of all concerned, but certainly with the restoration of student control over a student newspaper.

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