The Message

Press On

Heath Urie says that for as long as he's been with the Mirror, the University of Northern Colorado's student newspaper, of which he is currently editor, "I have seen nothing but the utmost integrity in journalism ethics from our editors and our reporting staff. All of our stories have been nothing but the truth, with as many facts as we can get from all sides."

If he's right, the Mirror's present circumstances demonstrate that sometimes veracity can stir up a whole lot of trouble.

During the just-concluded school year, the Mirror ran a number of negative stories about UNC's Student Representative Council, which it accused of, among other things, violating the Colorado Open Meetings Law on three occasions, beginning in September 2003. A trio of Mirror supervisors -- Urie, managing editor Chris Marcheso and outgoing editor Jessica Perciante -- eventually grew frustrated by what they saw as the SRC's failure to properly address these complaints, which were detailed in letters sent on the journalists' behalf by Denver attorney Eileen Kiernan-Johnson. As such, they filed suit against the council and its president, Steve Gustafson, in Weld County District Court on April 28, asking that the SRC meetings in question be declared legally null and void.

UNC director of media relations Gloria Reynolds refers queries about the lawsuit -- which will be discussed during a May 20 status conference -- to the Colorado Attorney General's office. Beyond confirming that the state will represent the SRC, Ken Lane, spokesman for the AG's office, keeps mum.

The suit hardly marks the first run-in between the council and the Mirror, a free publication that produces three editions per week (one a week during the summer), and has a circulation of around 7,000. Several weeks earlier, the SRC trimmed the Mirror's funding by approximately $15,000, more than a third of the amount it received from the university the previous year. In an April 8 Greeley Tribune article, SRC member Jory Taylor suggested that the move was justified because other campus groups used student fees to purchase advertising in the newspaper, thereby making the Mirror guilty of double-dipping.

Repeated attempts were made to contact Taylor and Gustafson for this column, but they couldn't be reached for comment. However, Paula Cobler, an adjunct professor with UNC's journalism and mass communication department, who serves as the Mirror's general manager and advisor, feels that the double-dipping claim is "totally transparent. It's one of the most ridiculous arguments I've ever heard."

Urie and Marcheso say their legal action shouldn't be seen as retaliation against the SRC for the budget reduction, and Kiernan-Johnson confirms that the process of drafting the suit was under way well before the council made its move. As for the cuts, the Mirror editors believe the SRC used them as punishment for negative stories. Says Urie, "It was definitely an attack on the newspaper." He's equally critical of other choices made by the SRC. For instance, the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, a campus organization devoted to progressive causes, had its funding reduced to zero, whereas club sports at the university, and the SRC itself, received sizable increases.

Fortunately for the Mirror, the SRC doesn't deliver the final verdict on funding. The university's board of trustees, a group of eight area residents and one student representative (the aforementioned Taylor), must sign off on all the SRC's budgetary decrees and can alter those it dislikes. With that in mind, Urie and company engaged Denver attorney Jim Hubbell to outline why the Mirror's budget shouldn't be slashed. (Hubbell came aboard because Kiernan-Johnson's firm, Faegre & Benson, represents the Colorado Rockies, co-owned by board chairman Dick Monfort. Both Kiernan-Johnson and Hubbell, who occasionally handles legal matters for Westword, are working pro bono.) In a letter to the board, Hubbell cited several cases in which courts struck down attempts to stifle student newspapers, and he made it clear that Mirror journalists won't hesitate to fight back if things go south. The board, Hubbell wrote, "likely does not wish to become embroiled in a First Amendment legal battle."

That assumption may be shaky. On May 4, Urie and Cobler pleaded their case at a trustees meeting. Afterward, says UNC's Reynolds, the board requested that university general counsel Ron Lambden address the following subject at their next gathering: "If we were to put out a request for proposals to run a student newspaper, how would we go about doing that?"

To Urie, this turn of events was shocking. "If they're talking about letting businesses bid for the paper, we would bid, too, because we would want to continue to represent the students," he says. "But we would lose, because we don't have enough funding."

Reynolds notes that the board also asked general counsel Lambden to detail "the university's relationship with the Mirror, because I think it's fair to say the history is unclear." It's long, too. The Mirror bowed in 1919, when UNC was still called Colorado State Teachers College. In 1989, the paper became a nonprofit corporation, the Student Media Corp., governed by a board of directors.

This switch didn't represent a total divorce from the university because of the continued funding link, not to mention corporation bylaws that call for the board to include three UNC students, three UNC employees and two professional journalists appointed by the UNC president. With connections this close, the Mirror probably couldn't file suit against the SRC, because that would be tantamount to the university suing itself -- the same reason that Mesa State College's Megan Fromm recently sued the institution's board of trustees as an individual instead of under the auspices of the MSC Criterion, which she edits ("Learning Curve," March 18). The distinction was apparently lost on the Denver Post, which headlined a May 1 offering about the lawsuit "UNC Paper Sues to Open Meetings."

One of the closed-door discussions mentioned in the suit was unwittingly prompted by the Mirror. Urie learned that SRC council member Jason Brinkley -- who didn't reply to multiple e-mails -- was arrested in November 2003 for driving under the influence. In Urie's article about the bust, SRC president Gustafson said he would bring up the issue at the next council meeting, and he did -- in executive session. The Mirror subsequently requested minutes from this chat, but Urie says what the paper eventually received was dated 2004, not 2003, implying to him that the information was cooked up after the fact "to appease us and make us drop the lawsuit."

Chinyere Tutashinda has a unique view of the discord between the Mirror and the SRC, because she's worked for both institutions. She edits Diversions, the newspaper's arts and entertainment section, and serves as the council's affirmative action/equal opportunity facilitator. "I handled all grievances and made sure that their hiring practices were fair and unbiased," she maintains. In the beginning, neither organization viewed these gigs as conflicts of interest, because Tutashinda wasn't reporting on the SRC for the Mirror, and didn't have a vote on the council. Before long, though, tensions began rising. Tutashinda sat in on all the SRC meetings, and she says that whenever items that council members didn't like wound up in the Mirror, "they would make sly comments to me about how certain things shouldn't get into the paper, and that they're supposed to be confidential." In other words, they accused her of leaking SRC doings to the Mirror, an insinuation she denies. Nonetheless, she believes that her council colleagues continued to view her with suspicion, and when the SRC staged its annual banquet, she didn't receive an invitation.

Matters soon got much uglier for Tutashinda. In late April, she got into an argument with the SRC's Mark O'Donnell over the scheduling of a hiring conference she was unable to attend. Then, on April 27, she received two calls on her cell phone that were filled with racial and sexual epithets: "fucking nigger," "slut" and "everything I ever expected in a stereotypical black bitch," according to a UNC Police Department report. Tutashinda told the officer who took down her information that she didn't recognize the caller's voice but suspected O'Donnell. Her instincts were correct, as a second UNC police report shows. The next day, the document says, O'Donnell told police he'd made the offending calls using the cell phone of another SRC member, James Villalon, from a local watering hole after becoming "extremely drunk." A third SRC rep, Chris Moland, was present as well.

In response, the university determined that O'Donnell shouldn't receive his diploma at UNC's May 8 graduation ceremony. Tutashinda, who appreciated that O'Donnell confessed, said she wouldn't object to him walking with his class on that day, but other students planned to protest his presence if he dared to do so. In the end, no protest took place, because O'Donnell didn't attend graduation. He's slated to answer a harassment summons on June 8 in Weld County court. Neither Villalon nor Moland have been charged with any wrongdoing.

These events are unrelated to the funding cut and the lawsuit. Still, they demonstrate how tricky things can get when a student council handles the purse strings for a newspaper assigned to report about it. UNC's board of trustees could make adjustments designed to better this situation, but they could also break the Mirror once and for all. University spokesperson Reynolds, herself a former reporter at the Tribune, doubts that the latter will happen. "We want a student newspaper here," she says. "It's a valuable learning tool for our students, and a valuable communication tool for our campus. And even though I know all student newspapers worry about the university wanting to have editorial control, this administration doesn't want editorial control."

The UNC board of trustees' June 16 meeting will go a long way toward proving this point. That is when the members will tackle the university budget for the 2004-2005 fiscal year, including the SRC-recommended slash of the Mirror's funding, and they are expected to consider the idea of letting other parties take over the newspaper. With the prospect of more legal maneuvering on the horizon, Urie is understandably concerned about what may happen next. "I don't have a lot of faith in the university if they don't support the newspaper," he says. "And it remains to be seen if they will."

Getting on and getting off: Last week's column detailed editorial changes at the Denver Post, the newspaper equivalent of a carousel. The ride continues in the business department.

Hitting the highway is Louis Aguilar, who worked briefly at Westword many moons ago. After wrapping up his Post duties on May 21, he heads to the Detroit News, where he'll focus on "outsourcing and the sad decline of American manufacturing," he says. "It means lots of travel, probably to places where a lot of outsourcing takes place: India, China, Mexico." Aguilar is from Detroit, where he still has plenty of family. As a bonus, he allows, the offer entailed "a lot more money and an incredible opportunity to cover something I'm quite interested in. I couldn't pass that up."

Three days after Aguilar splits, Don Knox takes over as an assistant business editor. Knox's resumé includes over a decade at the Rocky Mountain News and a stint as the Post's business editor. He left the latter job in 1999 to work at a database company that was known as e-InfoData until a year or so ago, when it was rechristened InsightAmerica; the firm manages Colorado's no-call list. On top of editing and helping to develop stories, Knox reveals that he's launching "a project with a group of young business journalists. It should be a lot of fun." When asked to elaborate, Knox says, "I don't mean to be mysterious" before insisting that he won't be able to talk about the undertaking for "about a year" -- a span he later reduces to "six months, maybe."

That should give him just enough time to take over the business-journalism world.

Knox comes to a business section whose Sunday edition just experienced addition by subtraction. In the May 9 issue, business editor Stephen Keating introduced several promising new features, including The Wire, a collection of business briefs, and a Q&A with a local entrepreneur. To carve out room for these efforts, Keating eliminated the week-ending stock listings in favor of The Market Monitor, which he described to readers as "a summary of the most widely held mutual funds and popular stocks."

Keating's predecessor, Al Lewis, had already removed some of the Sunday stocks to squeeze in a real-estate page. Chucking the rest gives Keating a lot more options. "Because of the Internet and instant access to financial news -- the ability to track your own portfolio online -- does it make sense for newspapers to list thousands of individual stocks?" By deciding that it doesn't, at least on Sunday, Keating has opened up a larger editorial hole that he'll fill with the help of two new writers, whom he expects to hire in the coming months.

And the merry-go-round keeps spinning.

Get out of that State you're in: Back in July 2002, radio host Greg Dobbs revealed why he'd agreed to work for KNRC, a new talk-radio outlet that had recently debuted. "They wanted to find a niche between NPR, which is substantive radio but not all that dynamic, and the Clear Channel offerings, which are dynamic but, in their opinion, not as substantive as they wanted it to be," Dobbs said. "I loved the idea."

Less than two years later, things could hardly be more different. Dobbs left the station this winter, and The State of Colorado, a Friday-morning reporters' roundtable that he once co-hosted with Channel 9's Ed Sardella, aired for the last time on May 14. At its best, State was a step up from the television version of the show, which aired on Channel 6 for over two decades. But with ratings in the crapper station-wide, something had to give. Rocky Mountain News scribe John Ensslin, who teamed with the Denver Press Club's Bruce Goldberg during State's final months, says: "They said they're going in a different direction, away from public-affairs programming and NPR-type radio." In an e-mail, KNRC program director Doug Kellett emphasizes other factors. "It is both a budget decision because of the expense of the program, and also we want [current morning host] Jimmy Lakey to have that final hour of morning drive. We are broadening our approach through programming to appeal to the most people possible."

Considering the most recent Arbitron survey, in which the new, unimproved KNRC failed to register (again), that may be wishful thinking.

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