Northern’s student newspaper adviser ousted – Detroit Free Press
A yearlong dispute over coverage of Northern Michigan University by its student newspaper culminated in the surprise ouster of the paper’s faculty adviser, a move the student journalists feel is a direct slap at their attempt to aggressively question the university’s administration.
The dispute started over an open records request by the paper for contracts with the Upper Peninsula school’s coffee vendor, and has included charges of secrecy, followed by a mass e-mail from administrators questioning the paper’s accuracy.
It all reached its zenith Friday night, when the paper’s board of directors — which includes students, a faculty representative, a community representative and the vice president of student services — emerged from a closed-door meeting to oust Cheryl Reed from her adviser job for next year and to deny the current student managing editor the top editing position.
All of this took place eight days after the chairman of the Board of Trustees at Northern sent an all-campus e-mail disparaging a story in the North Wind reporting on traveling expenses for board members.
Journalism students said they believe the message was clear:
“I definitely think it’s another form of retaliation for the stories we’ve been doing this year and the questioning of the administration,” said outgoing editor-in-chief Emma Finkbeiner. “They are trying to take control of the content of the paper. They want us to write what they want — less questioning. This is a massive blow to our First Amendment rights.
“We’re just asking questions and looking at documents. We feel that students should know how the university is operating with their tuition funds.”
Northern spokesman Derek Hall denied the administration had any influence over the student publication board’s decision. He said the administration has been concerned about the accuracy of articles in the student paper.
Friday’s conflict centered on Cheryl Reed, who started last fall as the newspaper’s adviser. When she started then she heard whispers that the administration wasn’t very open, but the veteran investigative reporter decided to give administrators the benefit of the doubt and not believe the rumors.
She says she has different thoughts now.
Her job as a journalism professor is safe, but the paper’s board of directors voted 5-3 to not keep Reed in her adviser role next year. At the same meeting, the board voted to not hire student Michael Williams as the editor-in-chief for next year. Williams is currently the managing editor of the paper and was the only applicant for the job.
Reed and Williams have hired attorney Paul McAdoo to represent them. McAdoo also is representing the Detroit Free Press in an open meetings act lawsuit against the University of Michigan.
Reed is a former editorial page editor, columnist, book critic and investigative reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times and several other papers. She won Harvard University’s Goldsmith Prize and the Investigative Reporters and Editors award for investigative reporting. She has worked in several positions at different colleges as well.
On Tuesday, the national journalism group, the Society for Professional Journalists, issued a statement calling for Reed’s reinstatement.
“Boards that oversee student media must avoid any hint of censorship or prepublication interference,” said Dana Neuts, SPJ national president. “Colleges and universities that are fortunate enough to have student newspapers should give advisers the freedom to teach students about good, ethical journalism without fear of retribution if something less than positive is published about the institution.”
There was no instruction from the administration to banish Reed, those on the board said.
“In my role as chair of the board, I know I will be asked if the president, administration or faculty had anything to do with pressuring the students into this vote,” Aubrey Kall, a student who is also the chair of the student publications board, said in a statement. “I can unequivocally state that no pressure was applied on or request made to the students of the board to vote for or against any North Wind staff members for next year. Each was encouraged to decide for themselves.”
She told the Free Press via e-mail on Tuesday the news staff has been responsible for the tone of the coverage of the university this year.
A coffee conflict
The conflict all started over coffee — or at least who would sell coffee on campus.
The paper sent in an open records request in early fall for Northern’s contract with the school’s Starbucks franchise — which is owned by a Northern alumnus — after a competing coffee stand was shut down. The school at first refused to turn over the contract, saying it had a confidentiality clause in it. The school eventually released it and the paper wrote about it.
Finkbeiner says after the story ran she was intimidated by a faculty member, who warned her the paper should stop publishing those types of stories. The administration investigated, but said there was no evidence of any intimidation.
The paper also filed an open records request for e-mails between administrators about the paper. Northern sent a several hundred dollar bill for processing the request. The student publication board then voted against spending the money on the FOIA. After immense public outcry, Northern gave the paper the records for free.
Then, in February, the paper sent an open records request for expenses turned in by the board of trustees. The administration released records on a Wednesday — the weekly paper’s production day — and sent an all-campus e-mail explaining the records.
The paper then published a story knocking the board for reimbursing one board member’s use of his private jet to travel to the Upper Peninusla school.
That drew fire from Northern’s board chair, Rick Popp.
“While I certainly appreciate and encourage our students at NMU to be actively engaged on campus and speak their minds, especially if they have concerns and/or ideas that require expression and further exploration, I am disappointed with the North Wind’s apparent effort to discredit and disrespect some of NMU’s most ardent supporters.
“I’m further disturbed that this public action is continuing a recent pattern, and the disrespect for some of our most successful and generous alumni and advocates appears to be an attempt to demonstrate that the North Wind was digging deeply into a legitimate news story — which is clearly not the case.”
The agenda for Friday night’s board meeting clearly lists an agenda item to discuss Williams’ application to be the editor-in-chief for next year. It has an item that says 2015-16 appointments.
Reed and Finkbeiner say they didn’t know that included Reed’s position. The adviser for the paper is appointed by the journalism department at the school, but has to be approved by the board.
The discussion was handled in closed session. Finkbeiner was told to leave. She says that’s not normally the case — when Finkbeiner interviewed to replace the previous editor-in-chief who left earlier this school year because of a heavy classload, her predecessor was in the closed-door meeting.
Reed didn’t disclose details of the closed session, but said she advocated for her students.
Finkbeiner and Reed said there is no doubt in their minds that if the North Wind hadn’t been as aggressive with its coverage of the administration, Reed would still have her job.
They said they also believe the administration was involved in the decision.
That’s not the case, Hall, the university spokesman, said.
“The North Wind board is acting on their accord,” he told the Free Press. He said Northern President Fritz Erickson, who started this school year, has met with the student journalists and Reed this year to talk about accuracy issues.
“All along the way, they’ve been accusing the administration of things that just aren’t true. They have sensationalized a lot of stories.”
That’s not the case, Reed and Finkbeiner said. They say they’ve been accurate and the administration is the one upping the pressure.
“It’s just become this public shaming of the student editors and reporters,” Finkbeiner said. “They are trying to take control of the paper.”
Contact David Jesse: 313-222-8851 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @reporterdavidj.