It’s the students, stupid.

Originally published on athens.patch.com on Aug. 18, 2012.

Every once in awhile, people involved in higher education have to be reminded exactly why they’re here. It’s easy to get consumed by necessary academic elements like research, budgets, policies and administration. But at the center of every academic institution are students.

Last week’s series of events at The Red & Black, the independent student newspaper of the University of Georgia, could’ve been completely avoided if the students were kept in the center. However, in working to maintain a quality newspaper while making the money necessary to keep the nonprofit publication afloat, the newspaper’s board of directors — comprised mainly of Red & Black veterans from decades past — strayed away from the core of its institution.

Significant decisions were made about the student newspaper’s staff, its editorial philosophy and the direction of the product without input from the students. When the student editors returned from their summer break, they found a very different newspaper from the one that they were hired last semester to run.

It’s hard to believe that the powers-that-be at The Red & Black didn’t expect a negative reaction from the students. They likely thought most would be mad, and some would even quit, but in the end they would be left with a core group of competent students who would ultimately succumb to the changes.

What they underestimated is the courage of editor-in-chief Polina Marinova, managing editor Julia Carpenter, news editor Adina Solomon, variety editor Tiffany Stevens, sports editor Nicolas Fouriezos, multimedia editor Lindsey Cook, photo editor Cory Schmelter and chief photographer Cody Schmelter. These eight students would stand up for their principles, unite for their cause and launch their own product. And they certainly didn’t anticipate the nearly unanimous support the students would receive after walking out on The Red & Black.

Calling themselves “The Red & Dead” and launching their own website, Twitter feed and Facebook page, within hours the renegade editors found themselves with thousands of supporters from the campus community, alumni and the journalism field itself. But outside of a few official statements, they displayed incredible maturity, mostly keeping quiet in the hopes of finding a compromise with The Red & Black.

Less than 24 hours after the walkout, the students were invited to meet with newspaper administrators to discuss the situation. It appeared the administrators at The Red & Black were finally willing to admit their mistake and once again put students at the center of their publication. Surprisingly, that wasn’t the case. After the board refused to budge, the editors held firm and walked out, again. But this time, they went public with their story with one simple tweet: “We are taking all requests for interviews …” While The Red & Black board continued to isolate the student editors, hours later journalism outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fox News and The Huffington Post were putting them at the center of the story.

The support became overwhelming, and the stats prove it. They gained more than 4,500 Twitter followers in just two days (compared to the nearly 15,000 followers The Red & Black amassed over several years). The “likes” on their Facebook page matched the number of “likes” on the Red & Black’s page. And they started publishing original news and feature stories on their website, which surpassed more than 100,000 hits.

Alumni offered to help finance a new campus newspaper. Advertisers said they would pull ads from The Red & Black. Journalism professors said they would encourage students to write for this new forum. No longer could the students be put off to the side. Either The Red & Black put these students back in control of their paper, or they compete against them for readers and advertisers. And if the first two days of competition offered any foresight, the century-old newspaper didn’t stand a chance.

In a Friday meeting, with more than 100 supporters cramming the lobby and entrance of The Red & Black, the board gave the students everything they wanted. With the overwhelming public support, the editors would’ve likely had any demand met. But they held firm, as they did all along. All they wanted was editorial control, student representation on the Red & Black board and the person responsible for the chaos gone. Essentially, they wanted to wrestle back control of their student newspaper. And the board succumbed, finally putting students back at the center of the paper, as they should’ve been all along.

Author: Joe Dennis

Journalist. Teacher. Announcer. Coach.