-- Surely every journalist who ever sweated blood for a college
newspaper carries a sense of belonging and ownership all the way to the grave.
Such has forcefully proved to be the case for writers and former writers for The
Minnesota Daily, which serves the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus
and boasts of being "the nation's largest college newspaper."
Student managers of the Daily have recently been making
their annual pitch for increased student-fee funds, but they have been doing so
under a cloud. They are still wincing over the licking they took from alumni and
many other readers last October, when they shut down the paper's venerable 34-year-old
Arts and Entertainment section, claiming it was little-read and not pulling its
weight with advertisers.
The paper's three-student management team -- its editor in
chief, business manager, and president -- nixed the section with no advance notice
to its 12-person staff.
Within days, some 150 indignant e-mail messages and letters
arrived from alumni, readers, and the managers of arts groups and businesses who
had advertised in the publication.
The weekly pull-out section had been a training ground
for many prominent arts writers and arts figures in Minnesota, and many were quickly
in touch. Most prominent was Garrison Keillor, native son and radio host, but
others wrote from as far away as Rome and Paris and from prestigious publications
like Newsweek and The Sun of Baltimore.
A typical response to the summary dismissal of A&E's
writers and production workers: "Disgusting."
The episode provides insights into the state of campus-newspaper
publishing, which is always beset by budget concerns and the challenge of attracting
capable staff members, but now faces the additional pressures of rising printing
costs and the advent of new print and Internet publications that compete for student
Says the Daily's student business manager, Sam Rosen:
"We accepted for years that we could lose money in our arts section. But, over
time, we felt a need to be more responsible and more economical."
The section's supporters view its demise as a telling
sign of the dumbing down of campus journalism: If it can happen in the arts-rich
Twin Cities, home to the Guthrie Theater and Mr. Keillor's A Prairie
Home Companion, it can happen anywhere.
The A&E section has often rivaled the Twin Cities' newpapers
as the voice of the city's arts scene. It had continued that tradition recently
by being, in an increasingly conventional campus paper, a sort of all-arts Village
Voice Literary Supplement.
Talk to the dismissed writers, and one cannot miss their
dedication to dizzying theoretical dissections of literature, culture, and politics.
In, for example, an article about an exhibit about home shows at Minneapolis'
Walker Art Museum, Collier White, a senior majoring in cultural studies,
urban studies, and English literature, argued that the exhibition was less a reflection
on home shows than a capitulation to the "glitz" that typifies them.
He was referring, he says, to "commodity fetishism,"
although he avoided the term in the review. "You want to be critical of what you
see as shortcomings, but at the same time, you want people to see things."
Reviews of films and live performances eschewed the "thumbs-up,
thumbs-down mentality that has so totally permeated film reviewing," Mr. White
says. He wrote about many films that he judged might be "doomed to limited distribution"
and about gay films that demonstrated that "the antagonism between Hollywood and
gay film has begun to resolve itself. "
The section was witty and demanded thoughtful reading.
Its astrology column this year, written by Laura Czarnecki, the section's editor
for its last six weeks, fused literary motifs with comical fake astrology.
One salty column purported to be the medium for Lenny
Bruce, with occasional interruptions from Dwight D. Eisenhower. Not your typical
Keeping it that way was always an uphill battle, says
Andrew Knighton, one of the fired A&E writers, and a doctoral candidate in comparative
studies in discourse and society.
Last year's section editor, he says, often admonished
writers to hew to a model of "'what entertainment journalism was supposed to look
like.'" But that model was much more sterile, Mr. Knighton says: "No sentences
longer than 30 words; write like you're speaking to your mother; no vocabulary
for which a reader has to go to a dictionary."
The editor who admits to imposing such strictures was
Julia C. Grant, who this academic year became the Daily's editor in chief -- and,
with her two fellow student managers of the Daily, pulled the plug on A&E. In
the paper's offices just off campus, Ms. Grant radiates capability as she conducts
a rapid tour of the messy newsroom.
At the reception area of the two-story building, younger
students dutifully clip and file, while inside, some of the more-seasoned of its
175 staff members write and edit, making the place look and sound like a professional
newsroom, complete with caffeinated chatter and CNN on high-mounted monitors.
Ms. Grant says she expected some heat for folding the
long-running section, but "wasn't ready to deal with" the intensity of the reaction.
"It was a huge learning experience," she says.
Among the mistakes she admits: Her and her fellow managers'
explanations were "too much like bottom-line business approaches." But she doesn't
back down from the decision, even venturing that she shouldn't have bowed to pressure
to explain: "Maybe strength is a better face to present."
The paper's business manager, Sam Rosen, has the air
of being ready to take over a small-town credit union. A business major, he came
to the Twin Cities campus intent on managing its newspaper's business, just as
he did at his high-school paper in the suburbs here. He is particularly proud
that students run the Daily with no professional help.
It may, in fact, be the only campus paper run entirely
by students -- all, including production, business, and advertising staff, are
enrolled at Minnesota, unless they are taking a one-semester break.
They handle a print run of 31,000. Student fees provide
about 15 percent of the $2.8-million annual operating budget. The rest of the
revenues come from advertising. Outside vendors print the paper, because the Daily
has no press, and distribute it -- because, says Mr. Rosen, "we couldn't get enough
students to get up at 5 a.m." Students are supposed to work no more than 30 hours
a week, but that seldom hinders them from pulling all-nighters.
Nor do they rely on advice from the university's journalism
department, with which the paper has no formal relationship. With no hired professionals
on the staff, the three-person management team essentially runs the show, reporting
only to a 16-member board of directors that includes students, faculty members,
and working journalists.
Kevin Nicholson, the paper's president, is also on the
management team. Clearly, the managers weren't happy when the fate of A&E was
reported extensively in the Daily's own pages last October.
Daily editors ran a long front-page article with the headline
"Daily management, staff clash over end of A&E." Some members of the board were
so upset by the coverage that Ms. Grant reprimanded three editors for violating
a Daily prohibition on writing about internal affairs.
A few days after issuing the reprimands, and being publicly
condemned for actions unbecoming to an editor, Ms. Grant rescinded the reprimands.
The three-year veteran of the Daily then set about assuring writers and readers
that she had planned all along to restore much of the arts coverage through the
Lens, a daily page on arts and entertainment.
In the middle of the Daily's ground floor, hemmed in
on one side by strikingly battered couches, one finds the area that used to be
the A&E section. It is being refashioned into an expanded fund-raising and public-relations
department -- a perfect irony, say former A&E writers, who argue that college
papers shouldn't need to promote themselves through anything but their prose.
(Daily staff members wishing to talk to other news organizations or in public
are now required to get clearance from the P.R. section.)
Ms. Grant and Mr. Rosen point out that having, in effect,
an independent A&E section inside the Daily was inefficient. It had its own staff
of "eclectic" writers, copy editors, and designers, and its own deadlines.
Over the years, they say, A&E hadn't attracted enough
advertising, and its existence was a luxury the paper could no longer afford.
Earlier efforts to end the section had been barely staved off.
Mr. Rosen says the section had brought in $50,000 to
$150,000 less than its targets in each of the last five years. In addition, Ms.
Grant claims, reader response had suggested the section was not widely read --
the outcry over its liquidation notwithstanding.
The way they announced the section's closure, Mr. Rosen
and Ms. Grant allow, wasn't ideal. Both spent many hours responding to complaints
and meeting with staff members.
"We're in the position of publishers," Mr. Rosen says,
"having to make the same decisions as people who have been in the business for
30 or 40 years. "At the same time, we're students.
We can screw up, and we do." Former and current Daily
workers say they would like to see the marketing figures on which Ms. Grant and
her fellow directors based their decision.
Just last May, in a commemorative magazine marking the
Daily's 100th anniversary, Ms. Grant wrote about the A&E section, which she was
then editing, claiming that under her management "ad sales flourished," and the
section "certainly seems to be on the right track."
While that may sound like grounds for keeping, not cutting,
the section, she now says its financial and readership history called for change.
The Lens, the replacement section, is far more run-of-the-mill student-newspaper
fare than A&E was -- it has had some coverage of, say, independent films, but
none with the earlier panache.
Articles on exhibitions and other arts events show signs
of heavy contributions from press releases. Reviews, while often as good as many
in daily newspapers, proffer judgments like "something to stroke your chin by"
and "slap-yer-thigh" rather than A&E's "flaccid, extended dirge," "slap the viewing
public with its own hypocrisy," or "heteronormative misstep."
The events at the Daily demonstrate the not-surprising
inexperience of its managers, believes Dan Sullivan, a professor of media management
and economics at Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He is
the journalism-department representative on the Daily's board but does not advise
He reflects: "They sort of did what looked like the easiest
thing for management." While the A&E section may have been unusual for a college
newspaper, the forces that Daily managers say scuttled it are not. Their rationales
seem to fit with national trends.
"There is an interest," says Mark Goodman, the executive
director of the Student Press Law Center, "in appealing to a broader audience,
in not being -- this is the pejorative way of putting it -- not being the traditional
navel-gazing college newspaper." But at the Daily, the termination of A&E, a most
iconoclastic publishing endeavor, has run counter to a national trend of increasing
the arts coverage in college newspapers.
That has occurred, says Tom Rolnicki, the executive director
of the Associated Collegiate Press, because the arts provide a dependable
niche for campus publications at a time when readers have so many better sources
of news coverage.
If A&E prided itself on moving ahead, the history of
arts coverage at the Daily also encouraged harking back to the glory days, as
is clear from the centenary magazine.
One article recounted the legend, never confirmed due
to gaps in the paper's archives, that Bob Dylan, while still Robert Zimmerman,
briefly reviewed music for the Daily.
Among critical letters that came in from famous alumni,
the most attention-catching was one from Mr. Keillor, a nostalgist if ever there
was one, who called the end of A&E "dismal and depressing. "This is not a decision
that journalists would have made, and it diminishes the prestige of the paper,"
added Mr. Keillor, a former editor of the section.
Now, while Daily managers try to convince Twin Cities
arts advocates that the paper remains committed to them, A&E staff members press
the case that, as Mr. Knighton puts it, "it's taken on a corporate attitude. The
business department there -- public relations and advertising and business management
-- takes up more than half of the building."
Mr. White, the senior and former reviewer, who
is trying with Mr. Knighton and others to start a new, independent arts weekly,
says he was amused, but not surprised, to see Daily managers at a recent presentation
to the university's committee on student fees in "black power suits -- they were
better-dressed than the committee members." And they were pitching their request
for increased funds with a PowerPoint presentation on the paper's "bottom line."
At the Daily itself, anger had subsided over recent
weeks, as the business of getting out the paper, five days a week, consumes those
who remained. Criticism had continued -- articles that were in reality advertisements
for campus events and services had increased, as had the use of wire services,
Last week, however, a new controversy broke. First, the
managers were roundly criticized by the university's student-fees committee for
a range of failings, including generating poor morale. The panel urged the paper
to consider hiring a professional staff member "to help its student managers make
better decisions." |
A member of the committee also asked the editor
of the Lens, Mark Baumgarten, to appear at an open forum that is part of the fee-request
process, which he did. He said that tensions are normal in college-newspaper offices,
and urged the committee not to penalize next year's Daily staff.
He said he believed that the paper's managers should
focus on editorial integrity, not marketing. When the Daily's president, Mr. Nicholson,
heard that Mr. Baumgarten had spoken at the hearing, he directed Ms. Grant to
fire him. She did.
Then managers agreed to take into consideration
that the fees committee had asked him to appear. The Daily's staff members were
not sure whether Mr. Baumgarten was fired, or not.
[Editor's Note: The website of the U. Minn. student newspaper The Daily
has been down since the story broke this week.]