The entire editorial staff of the Oregon Daily Emerald is on strike, effective at 6 a.m. Wednesday, March 4. The strike is in response to recent actions of the Emerald’s Board of Directors, which oversees the entire Emerald organization. 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. A copy of that speech can be found at the end of this article.
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.
These changes will not be easy; they are multi-faceted and include a reconnection with our audience by investing in alternative products and moving toward a multi-platform newsroom that is more readily available to readers. In order to set these changes into motion, the Emerald needs the best leadership it can find; not only someone who can make these things happen, but someone who can immediately move our financial status out of the red and toward the black. We need someone who has a tangible plan to start making money.
In November, the Emerald recruited Steven A. Smith, Emerald alum and former editor in chief of The Spokesman Review in Spokane, Wash., to work as a consultant and draft a strategic plan for the future of the Emerald. In Smith’s strategic plan, he recommended hiring a publisher with a five-year contract to replace the current general manager position. Smith wrote a loose job description for the publisher position, including its responsibilities. As described in Smith’s proposal, the publisher would have supervisory control over the student editor, which the general manager does not have. This poses an obvious threat to student control and editorial independence that is key to the service we provide. Smith’s job description stipulated that the publisher would not have control over editorial content. However, we believe that if the editor is reporting directly to the publisher, an inherent conflict of interest exists that would pressure the student editor into making decisions aligned with the publisher’s wishes.
At its Feb. 10 meeting, the board voted to conduct a nationwide search to recruit a publisher. We must note that at that meeting, most board members stressed the importance of conducting a nationwide search; many said that not to do so would be a disservice to the Emerald. Then-board chair, UO Libraries employee Mark Watson, asked the board to consider the possibility of offering the publisher position to Smith. After debate, the board decided it would encourage Smith to apply for the position but still run a search. Watson had lunch with Smith the next day to see if he would be interested in applying, but Smith said he was not inclined to participate in a search. Watson said in an e-mail to several Emerald staff members, “Steve was very clear with me that he would not apply for the job if we run a search this spring. He is not interested in putting his hat in the ring.”
Smith, however, made a counter-offer to Watson: He would serve as interim publisher for one year while the board ran a search. He then sent Watson an e-mail with a proposal for his employment with the following conditions, among others: “My pay would be $80,000 for the 12-month period … I would assume the duties outlined in the draft publisher job description I presented to you two weeks ago.”
Watson also stated in his e-mail that Smith said he was willing to do the job because “it’s likely that he will also be able to teach in the SOJC (School of Journalism and Communication).”
The board debated this proposal at its Feb. 17 meeting. Editor in chief Ashley Chase, managing editor Allie Grasgreen and news editors Robert D’Andrea and Rebecca Woolington, who was the board’s newsroom representative and a voting member, attended the meeting and voiced their concerns with Smith’s proposal: The editors felt that the Emerald cannot afford the salary Smith proposed, and were extremely concerned that allowing Smith to work as an adjunct instructor at the journalism school while serving as publisher was an obvious conflict of interest, for multiple reasons. If Smith worked for the journalism school and the newsroom worked for Smith, he would have the potential power to censor the paper if we wrote something critical about the University. Because the Emerald is independent from the University, we are able to report freely and objectively on the institution. Newsroom employees could also be answering to Smith in the classroom and in the workplace. The editors were also concerned that Smith would be at the Emerald for only one year and if things didn’t go how he planned, if the Emerald actually ended up losing money, he would not be held accountable.
The Emerald editors felt that, at that meeting, most board members shook off our concerns. The board passed a motion stating it would conduct a job interview with Smith, and then be prepared to discuss contract terms. Watson e-mailed Smith while that meeting was still in session to offer him an interview, and Smith responded a few minutes later saying he was not inclined to do an interview for the same reasons he did not want to apply for the position. Several minutes later, Watson left the room and the meeting ended in disarray. The next day, Watson resigned as chair. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that Smith would no longer work as a consultant with the Emerald.
A few days later, board member and Register-Guard sports reporter Rob Moseley sent an e-mail to board members saying he thought the board made a mistake in passing up Smith’s offer. Moseley said he would make a motion at the next meeting to offer Smith the job without an interview or negotiation. Jeanne Long, an Emerald advertising executive who now serves as chair of the board, sent an e-mail to board members stating that any further discussion about hiring the publisher would be done in executive session. Executive session excluded any non-voting member, effectively silencing the voice of the newsroom and other professional staff.
At the Feb. 24 meeting, the board approved a motion to offer Smith the job under the terms he proposed. The next day, Long called a professional staff meeting to announce that Smith had accepted the position.
After last night’s board meeting at which the newsroom presented its demands, Long e-mailed Chase the board’s response. She wrote, “The Board of Directors cannot accept the demands presented to it by the staff of the ODE newsroom on 3/3/09. Acceding to these demands would essentially dissolve the structure of the corporation. Furthermore, the Board refuses to be bullied and blackmailed. The Bylaws stipulate the various and proper roles that each part of the organization plays. The Board has fulfilled all its responsibilities to the corporation in good faith. The responsibility of the Board is to oversee the financial welfare of the corporation, and the newsroom cannot dictate financial, nor personnel policy. The Board reserves the right to determine the future operations of the organization.”
We do not believe the board acted in good faith. We also do not see how meeting our demands would dissolve the structure of the corporation, considering that our demands simply speak to preserving what makes the Emerald the Emerald. The board may reserve the right to determine the future operations of the Emerald, but for board members to not consider that the entire newsroom is adamantly against the decisions it is making calls into question wheth
er the Emerald is truly the board’s first priority.
Following is a verbatim copy of the speech Chase read to the board at its meeting last night. We ask that the board perform the task it was charged with – and said it would do – and not sacrifice the Emerald’s student control and independence. We hope that you, our readers, will support us in this strike. We want desperately to return to work, but we cannot do so quietly and against our journalistic values. A blog, independentjournalism.wordpress.com, will serve as our outlet to keep readers informed on our strike until we can return to the newsroom.
To the Oregon Daily Emerald Board of Directors:
The newsroom is here tonight to address recent actions of the Board of Directors that we believe have been unethical and demonstrated extremely poor business practices.
As you all have said many times before, the Emerald is in the midst of crucial and radical change. Because we are facing what is perhaps the most pivotal year in Emerald history – one that could solidify the Emerald’s survival or its demise – extreme care must be taken with every decision, especially in choosing our leadership.
Three weeks ago, the board voted to conduct a nationwide search for a publisher who would begin in the 2009-10 academic year. The board determined a search would be the most effective way to attract the best candidates for the Emerald and ultimately lead to a fitting hire, someone the board agreed should have, above all, a business background and a tangible plan to lead us out of our dire financial straits.
The actions of the board since that motion was approved, however, have been reckless, irresponsible and, frankly, embarrassing. Rather than dedicate itself to the time and energy that is necessary to conduct a worthwhile search, the board chose the easy way out. It chose to forgo its responsibility to the Emerald, the Emerald staff and the Emerald’s readers by grabbing at a quick fix thinly veiled as an opportunity. The board chose to hire a candidate without performing even the most basic hiring protocol; there was no job interview, no references were contacted and, most appalling of all considering the Emerald’s financial state, there was no negotiation of the candidate’s salary proposal. The most powerful position this organization has seen in its 109 years of publication is set to be filled by a person who wrote his own contract and job description, which takes occupational liberties that are far out of line with the Emerald’s guiding values and ethics.
Steven A. Smith may ultimately be the best candidate for this position. However, that cannot be determined unless the board utilizes standard hiring practices. Any and all candidates interested in such a powerful position should be scrutinized as such.
The actions the board took throughout this hiring process are a profound disservice to this organization and would fundamentally alter the spirit of student control and editorial independence of the Emerald. Since the Emerald separated itself from the University in 1971 and became a completely independent, student-run publication, its obligation to report objectively on this institution has been fully realized. But two clauses the future publisher has included in his job description and employment stipulations threaten student voice and independence: One gives the publisher authority over the student editor in workplace matters, and the other allows him to teach in the School of Journalism and Communication while simultaneously leading our newsroom. Emerald representatives have brought these concerns before the board at past meetings and have, for the most part, been ignored. We are confident that past generations of Emerald staffers who fought hard for our independence would be outraged that this board could be rendering their battle obsolete.
Therefore, it is the consensus of the newsroom that we cannot and will not in good conscious continue our duties unless the Board of Directors meets the following four demands:
1. Immediately rescind the offer to Steven A. Smith to serve as interim publisher April 1, 2009 through June 30, 2010.
2. Conduct a nationwide search for a publisher, as originally voted at the Feb. 10 board meeting.
3. Stipulate in the chosen publisher’s contract that he or she shall not be employed in any capacity by the University, including at the School of Journalism and Communication.
4. Stipulate in the chosen publisher’s contract that he or she shall not have immediate supervisory control over the editor; rather, the publisher and student editor shall remain equals in the organization, as the general manager and student editor currently are.
In meeting these four demands, the board will uphold the guiding values of the organization it oversees. To quote a 2006 Emerald editorial, which points to upholding the highest ethical standards of journalism as one of this publication’s guiding values, “It would by hypocritical of our values to hold other groups accountable yet not hold those within our own organization up to our own ethical standard.” If we do not hold the Board of Directors accountable, we are not fulfilling our fundamental obligation to our community, our readers or ourselves.
In meeting the newsroom’s demands, the board will also fulfill its duty to this organization by doing everything within its power to preserve the Emerald for future generations.
If the above demands are not met at the board meeting this evening, March 3, each newsroom employee standing before you will be on strike, effective Wednesday at 6 a.m. We will return to the newsroom to finish tonight’s newspaper production, but beginning Wednesday, we will not produce the Emerald until the board meets our demands. It pains us to think of being the first newsroom to – intentionally or unintentionally – miss an Emerald publication date, but we believe that to not take a stand would be a grave mistake and have far worse repercussions for years to come.
We hope – and we are confident – that the Emerald Board of Directors will choose integrity and accountability over convenience.
This article reflects the opinions of the newsroom staff. Every member of the Emerald newsroom signed the above speech before it was presented to the board.
All the information divulged in this article regarding board discussions and e-mails is obtainable through Oregon Public Records Law.
The Emerald Board of Directors’ voting members are Mark Blaine, Kevin Boots, Melody Ward Leslie, Jeanne Long, Katie Miller, Rob Moseley, Laura Paz Smith and Mark Watson.
The third issue of Emerald Magazine was completed and sent to the press Monday, March 2, before the newsroom went on strike. It is slated to be on stands Monday, March 9.