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CU's Campus Press Fights for Independence

CU professor Tom Yulsman at the April 2 meeting.
Campus Press/Matt Wessels

University of Colorado at Boulder journalism professor Michael Tracey has never previously suffered from camera shyness. Indeed, back in August 2006, when bogus confessor John Mark Karr was arrested as a suspect in the JonBenét Ramsey murder due largely to comments he made in correspondence with Tracey, the prof practically vaulted into a media horde gathered at the Boulder Justice Center.

But after spotting a flash during a journalism-department faculty meeting about the future of the Campus Press, an online student publication, Tracey went into high-dudgeon mode. "Ask permission before you take a photograph," he snapped at me, like a male diva upset that the paparazzi hadn't given him a chance to pose first.

This response set the tone for the snarky session that followed — the latest fallout from "If It's War the Asians Want...," an attempt at social satire by student provocateur Max Karson that ignited controversy in Boulder and nationwide. After the essay appeared on February 18, CU caught plenty of shrapnel from critics who demanded to know why university officials had allowed it to be disseminated, little realizing that the school's options were limited by the Press's unusual structure. For more than a quarter-century, the publication has functioned independently of CU even though it's part of the j-school's curriculum — a for-credit class.

In subsequent weeks, CU reps tried to come up with a way to prevent future PR meltdowns, with some faculty joining students in a call for unambiguous independence and others advocating stricter control. In a widely circulated e-mail, associate professor Jan Whitt, who declined to comment for this column, argued in favor of turning the Press into "a lab newspaper" — meaning, presumably, that instructors would engage in prior review, determining what would be published and when.

Karson and other student journalists, joined by Press adviser Amy Herdy, arrived at the April 2 School of Journalism and Mass Communications meeting expecting to hear formal presentations of such plans, and no wonder: In a telephone conversation the day before, Paul Voakes, the journalism department's dean, told Press editor Cassie Hewlings they would be unveiled and discussed there. Instead, attendees dished out three documents viewable at blogs.westword.com/latestword — and all of them caused a stir for unlikely reasons.

First up was Voakes's "Report to the SJMC Faculty," which revealed little new beyond details about why the dean came to write it. Although a four-person faculty committee had initially been charged with conducting an investigation into what happened before and after the posting of "If It's War..." and a second ire-stoking piece, "No Habla Ingles," the group broke up after just a week, citing "no cooperation or support from the key figures." Turns out the committee wanted to quiz the subjects separately; professor Meg Moritz said at the meeting that this approach was meant to make everyone feel they could speak freely. The students, for their part, asked to convene together rather than let the committee "interrogate" them, as Hewling put it amid much grumbling from the assembled profs.

The second report, "Campus Publication Data of Accredited Journalism Schools," written by Herdy from data compiled by Tyera Eulberg, should have triggered even less discussion, given that it simply revealed specifics about how many of the 110 accredited U.S. journalism schools operate newspapers. However, professors such as Len Ackland seemed to think Herdy had been ordered to bring a business plan for the Press to the meeting — and even when Voakes said otherwise, faculty types like Tracey kept coming back to the same point.

Finally, associate professor Tom Yulsman, head of the news-editorial sequence, read a statement sculpted at another meeting two days earlier, and on the surface, it should have buoyed the Press crew. The text says the print and broadcast faculty "agreed that [the Press] should remain an independent student media voice because we strongly uphold the principle of freedom of expression." But the students had difficulty focusing on the declaration, perhaps because of the palpable tension between Yulsman and Herdy. After one especially sharp exchange, Press reporter Monica Stone complained about the nasty tone. While apologizing to Stone, Yulsman emphasized that his words "weren't directed at the students in the room" — making it clear that no sorries would be coming Herdy's way.

Yulsman insists that he's always been in favor of Press independence even though he circulated a February 23 draft plan that called for the publication to collaborate more closely with Newsteam, the school's broadcast arm, "with the goal of creating a unified multimedia online news publication for the SJMC." Since Newsteam is a lab, the Press would almost certainly have lost its independence in the configuration, which explains why students felt Yulsman favored such a change. But Yulsman says he simply hadn't registered this prospect — "People pointed it out to me, and I went, 'Duh'" — and now leans toward other ideas. Perhaps, for example, the school could facilitate the Press's independence and then create a new combined publishing-and-broadcast entity that would allow instructors to vet material in advance. While such a setup might seem to make investigations casting the university in a bad light less likely, he feels that strong advisers willing to back students against administrators "when they've got the goods" would mitigate the problem.

In Yulsman's view, the "Asians" brouhaha demonstrates the need for more adviser involvement in the present Press model, too. Herdy abides by the code of ethical behavior established by the College Media Advisers organization; it calls for student-media gurus to "defend and teach without censoring, editing, directing or producing." As such, she didn't read Karson's piece until after it went live. Had Yulsman been in her position, he says he would have asked students to show him anything potentially incendiary, and if "Asians" had been submitted, "I wouldn't have told them not to publish — but I would have said, 'You really shouldn't publish this, and if you do, you'll look really stupid.' And theoretically, if I run afoul of some board somewhere, I don't care." He doesn't see such a policy as prior restraint, since "I'm not telling them not to do it." As for the question of whether reviewing material in advance would have a chilling effect on student independence, he notes that "I'm the teacher, and they're doing it for credit. If it chills, it chills."

Of course, the combined news-broadcast model gives CU little incentive to continue funding the Press. The site's budget is quite modest in the overall scheme of things: $35,000 per annum, with another $56,000 going toward Herdy's salary. Yulsman isn't certain the creation of a new entity would eat up all of these funds, but under the independence scenario, he thinks the Press would have to move out of its newsroom and pay for its own space — something that would further drive up expenses. Hewlings understands the challenges inherent in this scenario and says they'll all be addressed in a business plan she and her fellow student journalists are conceiving with pro bono assistance from Aurora's Jim Birschbach, a media-sales pro who's worked with ESPN and Google. Still, it's hard to see how even the most efficient advertising staff could generate enough revenue to cover such costs, especially allowing for the Press's loss of its print editions a couple of years ago.

In the meantime, Voakes's tenure as dean is up for review; he should know within the next month or two if he'll be reappointed for another five-year term. (Faculty members made their recommendations about him last November, prior to the Karson calamity.) He hopes a plan for the Press will be in place before then — perhaps by semester's end — and promises that if independence wins the day, CU will make the publication's survival and continuing viability a top priority. He's optimistic of success, partly because of the statement read by Yulsman, which he sees as "a step forward" that should help break down the distrust between the journalism faculty and the Press staff.

That'll be a big job. Hewlings says she was "disappointed with the way the meeting took place. I thought there wasn't a lot of respect from the faculty to the students. I thought there was a lot of ridicule." For his part, Yulsman chalks up much of the friction to the decision to let outsiders, including media members, attend the session. "I don't think faculty enjoy having their faculty meetings in public," he concedes.

Not even the faculty member who seems to enjoy the spotlight most.