Last week, the Red and Black made news when its owner attempted to strip editorial control from its student managers and soften the newspaper’s approach to hard news. Because Bill Richards drew editorial cartoons at the University of Georgia-based (but independently owned) newspaper for five years, I asked him for a few words of perspective. They’re below the cartoon.
By Bill Richards
For those of us who used to work at The Red & Black, the events of the past few days have been fascinating to watch. I have no firsthand knowledge of any of it, of course, but as someone who spent several years there, with some of the people involved, I have a few points on top of what everyone else has said over and over again.
First, the fact that the Board didn’t consider a walkout to be a possibility speaks to their cluelessness even more than do their inane recommendations. It’s clear that the Board had no idea what motivated their student employees to walk up Baxter Hill to the Red & Black office everyday. Obviously it wasn’t the money. Most non-editors make less than $50 per week. In the past, the trade-off for the crappy pay has been editorial independence. Students are willing to work for The Red & Black’s poverty wages because they are given complete control over content.
So, the board wasn’t in a position to tell students to suck it up, because they were offering the students nothing in return for giving up their autonomy. When you have nothing left to lose, it’s easy to walk out.
The other thing is how predictable and boring the consultant and board member Ed Stamper’s recommendations really were. There’s nothing in the memo that hasn’t already been done by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and numerous other papers at a larger scale. The difference is The Red & Black has a built-in audience and no competition, unlike the AJC, whose attempt to woo the suburban right-wing has only protracted its death spiral. I can’t speak to the wisdom of these changes from a business perspective, but the miniscule number of my former Red & Black colleagues who are pursuing careers in the newspaper industry, rather than other, marginally-more-stable professions, speaks to their folly.
Finally, it’s hard to overstate the importance of having a reservoir of goodwill to draw from when you’re announcing horrific transformations in your organization. We can see this by comparing the fallout for two characters central to the events. On one side there’s Ed Morales, the universally-respected editorial adviser-turned-director-turned-adviser. He has managed to emerge from the drama unscathed, despite playing the main part of the “professional staff” in the national media’s version of the story. On the other side there’s Harry Montevideo, the authoritarian, penny-pinching publisher, who amazingly has managed to emerge even more unlikeable than before.
The dissident students could have made Ed, who delivered the board’s dopey marching orders, into the scapegoat. But they didn’t, because he’s always been an adviser, friend and equal. Harry, on the other hand, has never had much reason to garner goodwill from his young staff. Given the transient nature of a part-time student workforce, it’s understandable. But there’s no reason to escalate a physical conflict with a student journalist during a meeting where you’re trying to bolster your commitment to student journalism. As Kent State and Tiananmen Square showed us, assaulting college students is never a good look, especially when it’s in the service of war or puff pieces about sorority life. And when they’re carrying video cameras.
Bill Richards was The Red & Black’s editorial cartoonist from 2005 until 2010. He is currently a freelance animator and illustrator. Visit his website!