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Business Casual: The Old Digital Divide

 

When he was 18 months old, my grandson could turn his mother’s phone on, locate the YouTube icon and call up a “Sesame Street” video. I find that astonishing – but his parents take it in stride. They belong to the digital generation; I belong to the trying-to-keep-up generation, the one always wondering who moved the technological goalposts.

The flap this past summer at The Red & Black, the independent student newspaper that serves the University of Georgia community, brought this divide home dramatically. It was a classic generational confrontation between the techno-savvy, social-media-wielding “kids” and the “oldsters” who are struggling to keep up. No surprise, the young tweeters won.

The simple recap: Student editors walked out when they were told that the non-student board of directors had decided their editorial adviser would become the editorial director with the new right of prior review and were shown a draft memo that discouraged “bad” news – including “sarcastic comments”– in favor of “good” news. After a great deal of turmoil, the board backed down.

The Red & Black journalists who resigned were immediately tweeting and posting and had, within a very short time, established their own Red & Dead Twitter account and website. They were busy getting their story out while board members were working on a response, which didn’t come until the next day.

By then, the story was spreading. Many – myself included – were concerned that the University and the Grady J-school were getting an undeserved black eye from those who believed The Red & Black to be operated by the school, which it has not been for more than 30 years.

While the students were telling their side and sharing the patently ridiculous “good news” memo with the Internet world, there was silence from the board. When its statement was released, it was too little, too late.

Meanwhile, the story moved from the social media to mainstream media: The Atlanta Jour-nal-Constitution, The Washington Post and The New York Times, among others. The board was in a come-from-behind position, unable or unwilling to react or respond in a timely fashion. They changed what had clearly been promoted as a public meeting to a closed meeting for prospective Red & Black staffers only.

I made the trek to Athens to attend the meeting and report on it and was one of several journalists who was left cooling my heels in the lobby of The Red & Black building – along with professors, alums and other interested parties – while board members and employees tap-danced around the meeting’s changed status. 

We were subsequently invited outside into the 90-plus degree heat to hear another statement from the board that affirmed student control of the newspaper’s contents. The editorial adviser would advise, not review stories before publication. The author of the unfortunate draft memo resigned from the board, and the student editors ultimately got their old jobs back.

The board was out-Twittered and out-maneuvered. The student journalists owned the story from the start – and it helped that they were right. 

Some disclosures: I am a proud graduate of the Grady College at UGA and a former Red & Black staff member. I have spent almost all of my career in journalism, and my knee jerks at  anything that sounds like censorship, because it is almost always at odds with the truth.

I recognize that a lot of people who heard the Red & Black story assumed that it was just a bunch of spoiled, arrogant students who didn’t want anyone telling them what to do. If I hadn’t spent a career as a working journalist, I might have thought so, too. But attempting to stifle “bad” news is a very slippery slope.

Ironically, The Red & Black changed its format last school year to become primarily an online publication with only one print issue per week. That can’t have been an easy switch for the student journalists or their board. Every viable print publication has an online presence – that’s the easy part; the hard part is figuring out how to make money from it.

The Red & Black board members have had no shortage of advice, but I can’t resist adding to it. Every serious publication is struggling with the issue of delivering good, relevant, reliable, journalistically sound news and information – and making a profit. Involve the students in the struggle; let them be part of the solution.

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