Auburn Plainsman: Editorial Board’s Strategy and Tactics Questioned by Alumni and Fans

Danger, Will Robinson. This is probably longer than you would like. I’m trying to give the story some background, as little exists in the editorial (and ensuing comments) this crisis has spawned. I’m sure I don’t have all the details, but this may help to better put the controversy into perspective.

I love Auburn. I think you know that, if you’ve read this site even a few times. The background is at the top of this post, so if you don’t want that (although I think it is important) go to the event.

Some background. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of The Auburn Plainsman staff. I am also not (thank goodness) involved in this controversy in any way. I’m a spectator.

Full disclosure: I have had many dealings with the Plainsman over the years, ranging from stories to purchasing advertising. The vast majority of those dealings were very positive and productive, but sure … there were a few bad ones. I can only think of two or three bad experiences, out of hundreds. Still, that being said, I care about, and respect, the Plainsman and wish for it and the journalism program to prosper.

In the past, I have advised the Auburn Glomerata, the campus yearbook. I was also the station manager for WEGL, Auburn’s student radio station and I founded Eagle Eye TV, the Auburn student television program. I offer those bits to illustrate that I do have some familiarity with student media on Auburn’s campus. Finally, the journalism program resides within the department where I teach, Auburn University’s Department of Communication and Journalism.

That introduction offered, I tend to look at controversies from a public relations perspective, so this recent kerfluffle has caught my attention.

I’m writing about this, at the risk of being beaten senseless by my colleagues, because it serves as a good case study for crisis management. I know my students will be talking about this, as it has happened in our own front yard. What follows are only representations of my observations. They do not necessarily represent the opinions of anyone at Auburn University.

Auburn people love their institutions. I’m one of them. The Auburn Plainsman is a time honored institution, too. For the record, “The Plainsman (is) the second most honored collegiate newspaper in the nation” and has 23 college Pacemaker Awards to prove it. You’ll note that their last award was in 2005. That may well play into the frustration exhibited by the current Plainsman staff.

This latest controversy shows that The Plainsman deserves better than they are getting, in many ways.

The Event: On Thursday, a very unhappy experience transpired. The Auburn Plainsman student editorial board chose to post an editorial on the front page. It is unhappy for the Plainsman staff and for the targets of their editorial. It is unhappy for everyone.

To say that they ran it on the front page, however, does not do this incident justice. A front page editorial is intended to draw attention to something the editorial board deems important to the community. To place it above the fold, gives the editorial greater significance. But, to run it above the flag/nameplate is really the same as a declaration of war, or peace (see images). Well, that’s what they’ve done … but on a local (mostly internal) battlefield.  Hey, even headlines of some of the biggest events in history didn’t make it above the flag.  Two below did, two didn’t.

US Declares WarBE001129victory_japan_surrenderspeace-headline

al_bn-smallNow, to place this in current day perspective, more and more newspapers are playing with their front page layout and design. Many will now run news boxes above the flag, even wrapped around the flag/nameplate. Here’s a perfect example from The Birmingham News.

In defense of the students, information above the flag is no longer so rare or to be unexpected in other papers. It may be that the tone of this editorial – combined with its banner screaming placement – is what helped set people off.  But, since it was such an unexpected event and really deals with internal fights, was this strategy wise?  Yes, there are implications for the community, but perhaps the students over-estimated their worth in the eyes of many readers.  Hey, it’s possible.

Looking at many front page examples you’ll see that generally most news goes below the flag/nameplate and rarely (I’m still looking for examples) does an editorial go there. If you can think of an editorial above the flag on a newspaper throughout history, please share it with me.

This is pretty much unprecedented for the Plainsman. Most all of their issues (that I can remember) have flags at the top of the page. I’m sure they have run front page editorials before, but none like this (that I can remember). For context, front page editorials are not unprecedented for newspapers. (See here and here.) In fact, they seem to happen quite often lately, especially with the wars and economic turmoil we’re experiencing.

Why so much attention to the flag/nameplate and the editorial’s placement? Well, in journalism circles that placement is considered pretty important. Some might even call it sacred space. “Sometimes editors have really rigid ideas about what can go on the front page,” said Eric Deggans, TV and media critic at the St. Petersburg Times, in an American Journalism Review story (unrelated to this story).

I’m a film buff, so the Plainsman’s editorial initially struck me like something out of Citizen Kane. If you’ve seen the movie, Kane publishes a statement of principles on the front page of his newspaper. The Auburn Plainsman’s motto is “A spirit that is not afraid.” Well, they certainly weren’t afraid to publish this editorial. Now, in the movie, Kane goes on to violate his stated principles repeatedly throughout his newspaper empire’s life. This action by the Auburn Plainsman’s Editorial Board certainly doesn’t equal the fictional Kane’s transgressions, of course, but it does raise questions about fairness and the judgment of youth.

Many Plainsman alumni have voiced their concerns in comments on the Web and the majority are not happy with the current editorial board’s decision, or tactics.

The setup. The Auburn Plainsman published a front page editorial, above the fold … in fact, above the flag/nameplate, in the Thursday, February 12 edition. Download the front page PDF.

The main focus of their attack is on the paper’s general manager, a university employee. Now, I’m referring to this as an “attack” because the story came out of nowhere. There had been no coverage in the paper that I know of, and there had been no previous editorials inside the paper. I hadn’t even heard of all this internal fighting – and I teach here. Of course, that’s not too uncommon. ;o) I’m usually the last to know anything.

Here is part of what the nine member editorial board had to say:

We have lost confidence in the current management of the business side to reverse this dangerous trend (declining pages & ad revenue). While these are hard economic times, we believe new management of our business operations is needed now. It is because of this belief, we feel our general manager should be replaced by those who hired her.

2.12.2009-A1

In campus backstory talk (combined with listserv posts by Auburn Plainsman alumni, staff and advisors – present and past), we learn that this is a problem that has been brewing (if not boiling over) for years. It is not a new controversy and reports from those involved say that negotiations through traditional administration channels have been repeatedly pursued by both students and faculty. Advisors and students have had discussions with the Auburn Dean of Students and the Auburn President. The feeling is that their concerns have not been acted upon. Frustration has set in. Big time.

Again, to remind you of the passion people feel for this student newspaper, let’s remember that The Auburn Plainsman is not just any student newspaper. Aside from the paper’s many awards, alumni of the newspaper have gone on to illustrious careers in local community newspapers, as well as state, regional and national newspapers and magazines. Of late, Cynthia Tucker (a 1976 grad) has received a Pulitzer Prize for her work as editor of the Atlanta Journal’s editorial page. Serena Roberts recently broke the story about the use of steroids by the New York Yankee’s Alex (A-Rod) Rodriguez. Roberts writes for Sports Illustrated magazine. Those two are just a sampling, I assure you.

The list goes on. So many local newspapers in the south (and around the nation) have Auburn alumni on their staff and, in some instances, leading their paper as editor or publisher. Again, this is not a story about just any college newspaper. In some, perhaps many instances, the Plainsman’s alumni have a stronger connection to the paper than they have to the university. This is one tight, protective family. They love the institution they work(ed) for and want it to uphold/retain the proud reputation and traditions they experienced.

Critique

Although I’ve shared some opinions above, I’ve tried to remain fair in my observations.   I’ll continue to do so and share my main critique and observations of the editorial here.

The editorial begins with the statement, “This is not about us, the current Plainsman staff.”  (Emphasis mine.)   The editorial then goes on to contain 25 instances of the word “we” throughout the copy. One instance is in the headline and another is repeated in a pullquote.

Um, you don’t claim this is about the institution and then talk about yourselves repeatedly throughout your editorial. I believe this is a big reason why so many have had such a negative reaction to the editorial. Many of the comments in response to the editorial have stated, essentially, that the editorial board should wake up and grow up … as in, welcome to the real world of newspapers in the 21st century.  Also, seasoned journalists say, hey – you’re not going to like the decisions or work quality of your bosses all the time.  It goes on…

Next, no one is really speaking publicly about this. That silence raises natural questions. Had the following questions, for example, been addressed in the editorial – this negative backlash may well not have happened.

Some questions:

  • Did the current or former advisers know about the impending publication of this editorial?
  • Did the advisers (both formal and informal) offer counsel to the students? Did the students seek their counsel?
  • Do you know that in this particular dynamic relationship, the Plainsman’s advisor may really only advise. They cannot tell the students what to do. Such is the way the relationships are setup.
      This is important. The ultimate decision, as I understand it, is in the hands of the student editor’s hands with regard to what get’s published. I believe that the editorial board would vote as to their support for adding their name to any editorial. I do not know what their process is, however. It appears that all of the student editorial management names are on this editorial.
  • Did the students consult a lawyer before proceeding with this editorial? Some have suggested that their editorial is an unfair attack on one person, the general manager. They did not name her, but they did identify the job title and there is only one person in that job. She may buy ink by the barrel, but she has no control over how the ink is used – the students do. And, they’ve just spilled a whole barrel on her. So, was this editorial fair to her?
  • Did the students do any pre-screening of influential Plainsman alumni to gauge support for such an act?
  • Did the students consult with the Journalism Advisory Board, a group of journalists (mostly, if not all, alumni) that serve to advise the academic program?
  • Why didn’t the students do a better job writing the editorial? Why didn’t they first identify questions that would likely arise and then answer them as best they could. Associated stories, sidebars and more could have filled the voids.  They certainly had room in print and online to do all of that.  It just doesn’t make much sense.

I really don’t know the answers to those questions. It just seems that had those issues been addressed, those things been done, this may not have played out the way it has.

Also, you should know, The Plainsman has (and has had) an online presence for some time. However, they have never really embraced it. Look at many of the comments and you’ll see that is a repeated theme. Now, had the students stated that they actually have a new online (much more involved) newspaper coming within the year (which they do indeed have coming) … this may have helped to deter some of those comments.  Had they illustrated their own attempts at innovation and attempts to rectify the differences, that too would have helped.  But, look at the editorial.  Not much there.

Back channel talk says the Plainsman’s new online strategy is something they have been working on and it will be launched soon. Again, there is too little background information shared by the editorial board and too little context provided to bolster their claims. The absence of this rather compelling information only served to hurt the editorial board’s reception by their readers. It is almost as if the editorial board is their own worst enemy. Perhaps they could not sufficiently step back and fully analyze their strategy and tactics before moving forward. It wouldn’t be the first time something like this has happened.

In the comments section on the editorial’s Web page, the sentiment currently runs strongly against the editorial board’s decision to run the front page editorial. On the alumni listserv, the sentiment also seems to be mostly against the decision. However, the tone on the listserv has several instances of much wiser counsel and somewhat calmer evaluation of all that has transpired over the last few days.

The comments on the editorial’s Web page have even turned ugly. The discussion has spilled over to blogs (here, too), and Twitter. Again, the response there is largely negative toward the editorial board. There are some (as WordPress calls them) “anonymous cowards” taking sides with the editorial board, and some are quite nasty. I don’t know that I’ve seen an attributable positive comment outside of the listserv conversations.  This kind of snarky nastiness cannot serve a positive purpose.  Did the editorial board even think about the online spread of this story?  They have not been responding, at least not in their own names.  Are some of the anonymous comments from the editorial board?

Update: The Birmingham News posted an article (that link is was a MSN cache of the page, it too has been removed) but the article was inexplicably pulled down. A Bama student has published this LiveJournal post. A re-blog of the last post by Charlie with notes. This week, with the Plainsman’s own follow-up editorial sharing greater detail, we also see two Letters to the Editor in the Plainsman, one of which also appears in the O-A News, and this blog post by Charles Apple. Finally, and perhaps the most devastating bit of information to come out, Niki Doyle (a past Plainsman editor) confirms, from the Dean of Students, that the GM had “turned in her retirement paperwork on Dec. 11, 2008. In other words, she had been planning to retire long before this low blow dealt by the editorial board.” That makes the initial editorial seem quite uncalled for and petty.

The comments are all over the place. There are suggestions that these students have damaged some future job options, as the people doing the hiring have seen this and are not pleased. There are anonymous former Plainsman staffers lashing out with their own personal vendettas over perceived unfairness and firings. It is quite ugly.

My point here is that the actions by the editorial board are perceived, so far, by the majority of people interested in the story as a bad decision. Further, the controversy has led to some rather heated and unsavory comments to be exchanged. Even worse, many of these comments have been anonymous, making the environment even more questionable. Had the editorial board done some advance work, speaking with alumni and influentials, before publishing their editorial … some of this could have been avoided. Further, had they not gone from in-house bickering and background discussions with administrators to a front page above the flag editorial, they might have been better received, too.

Look, the editorial may have been justified.  It may bring about positive change.  But, there isn’t sufficient information out there to justify it in the eyes of the majority of alumni and readers who have taken the time to respond, so far.

There is a phrase. “You can’t unring the bell.” The Plainsman has now rung the biggest bell they have. Had they taken their first shot across the bow with a more reasoned, focused editorial inside the paper, then – later on – they might have been able to go to the front page if things didn’t work out as they wished. As it stands now, they have launched all battleships. The first skimish is a failure, IMO, so far. Who knows what this week will bring as people begin to learn about it. With the overwhelming external public feedback being so negative, so far, the Plainsman editorial board is quite sunk without a big turn around in the week to come.

To have run this not only on the font page, but above the fold … even above the flag, well … the Plainsman now has no other recourse. To hit the front page with another editorial on the same topic will seem kinda sad. Again, they cannot un-ring this bell.

I feel like they launched a massive (unexpected, at least publicly) attack on one person when an inside the paper, better written and reasoned, editorial might have been a wiser path. The lack of background information, for those just now learning of the internal squabbles, has also fed the backlash, in my opinion. That, too, could have been avoided with a wiser strategy and tactics.

Some feel that, despite the backlash, these students may have awakened many people to the problems. Well, sure. You drop a very public big ‘ol unexpected bomb in the front yard, people will notice. The general manager has apparently announced that she will retire in about a month. So, the students get their way on that one count, but what about the backlash? We’ll see this week. I really doubt this one is over. The Thursday edition of The Plainsman will likely be quite interesting.

Finally, some wonder how the Student Communication Board will react.

The official student newspaper, the Auburn Plainsman, is under the direct supervision of the Assistant Vice President for Student Life and has a faculty adviser from the Department of Communication and Journalism. Other major student publications (Auburn Circle, Tiger Cub) are under the supervision of the Director of the Foy Student Union. The SGA Code of Laws established a Communication Board, with representatives from Student Affairs, the Department of Communication and Journalism, and the student body.

Something tells me that there will be a meeting about this soon. Ya’ think?

This post certainly doesn’t address all of the issues at hand here, but I do hope it at least helps to put the controversy in a bit more perspective than has existed over the weekend. I hope the discussion proceeds in a much more calm and constructive manner in public, too.  The Plainsman is too important to lose.

The story is now only four days old. Who knows what will happen this week.

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0 thoughts on “Auburn Plainsman: Editorial Board’s Strategy and Tactics Questioned by Alumni and Fans

  1. Pingback: Another take on The Auburn Plainsman’s front-page editorial | Night Owl

  2. kathy

    I applaud the students for finaly being heard. All the publication advisors/managers need to be evaluated at Auburn. There have been meetings after meetings over the past 2 years regarding the yearbook and the leaders fail to make a resolution. The problem in my opinio, (and no, I am not a student nor alumni) is that SOME of the advisors are so busy playing favortism and acting like a college student that they cannot advise effectively. When the students try to speak with the COMM board or the Dean of students, there is no resolution. So in my opinion, this adds to the frustration of the students who are devoting alot of time and energy to these publications.

    Reply
  3. Robert

    I’ll respond to the three comments/trackbacks, sorry for the delay.

    Niki, thanks for the trackback. I’ve never met you, but I do feel bad for the anonymous comments that have been made on The Plainsman’s site. That just makes the whole controversy have a more improper tone. I believe you’ve made some good points and they should be respected as such, as well as your right to express your opinion.

    Drew, yes is was bold. Perhaps too bold, more on that later. I, too, thought of how this must have been received by the GM as there was never any public discussion of this – over perhaps two years – and then this front page editorial shows up. It had to be quite disconcerting, if not painful.

    Cathy, I appreciate your point of view. I must add that the situation seems to me to show that students were being heard (with repeated meetings), they just weren’t getting the response/action they wanted in the timely manner they wanted. Again, this is all still very cloudy, even given today’s Follow-up explanations about our front-page editorial.

    There is more back channel chatter than there is public disclosure. It seems that today’s “Follow-up explanations” should have been their first editorial, not a follow-up. Why?

    Talk here states that the GM filed retirement papers in late 2008. If that is true, and the students knew about it, then this editorial was uncalled for – at least in the form in appeared. Were they trying to hasten the retirement date? I don’t know. Again, there is still too much cloudy rumor and “I heard” talk which is absent in clear investigated and reported information in the paper. There are still too many unanswered questions. The paper is responsible for sharing clear explanations and facts. They have not done this, even with today’s response.

    That being said, I don’t think we’ll hear the complete story anytime soon. It does seem to have peaked and will now be allowed to fade away.

    The resolution, however achieved, seems to have been obtained. So many people have been hurt and there doesn’t seem any desire for many involved to say, “Enough. Let’s calm down.”

    The whole thing played out very sadly.

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Auburn Plainsman general manager Jan Waters announced retirement before front-page editorial | Night Owl

  5. Brent

    As a response to Kathy…

    If you are not a student or alum and know so much about the situation concerning the Glomerata, then you are obviously a relative of someone who had a problem with the advisor. Like previously stated, just because the students do not receive the answer they want from the advisor, Dean of Students, or Communication Board does not mean they are not being heard. All actions need to be in the best interest of the University and publication, not the student with the complaint.

    Since the publications at Auburn are considered learning labs, the students need to be treated like employees so they learn how “real world” publications run. Furthermore, if the publications are truly learning labs, then the word “learning” alone should provide enough evidence that students do NOT know what is in the best interest of the publication and should accept the instructions of the advisor. Lastly, yes, students devote a lot of time and energy to these publications, but they do not leave empty handed. These students are receiving pay and a nice cushion for their resumes.

    Its truly a shame that a few individuals ruin such learning experiences for other students. Moreover, it is a shame that you (Kathy) speak about an individual whom you have no personal contact and are relying on word of mouth information. Need I remind you there are always two sides to every story?

    As an Auburn University student, I have faith that the administration has placed competent advisors to oversee, not only publications, but all SAPs, who act in the best interest of the University.

    Reply

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