Daily Emerald on strike, and the evolution of the newspaper

Around 8:30 this morning, Kai Davis (or @ninjakai) twittered something about the Oregon Daily Emerald being on strike. The initial image in my mind was one of people picketing in the street, and I couldn’t honestly guess as to what they would be striking about.

Then I read the editorial.

The argument is that people in the newsroom are concerned about the manner in which a new Publisher, Steve Smith, has been chosen for the paper. According to the article, the “editors felt that the Emerald cannot afford the salary Smith proposed, […] 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, [and] 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.”

Ryan Knutson’s comment on Steve’s initial post, though, really says it the best (emphasis mine):

And while I disagree with some of the fumbling steps taken by the board, I would only expect a strike of the staff to occur if the board tried to appoint J-School dean Tim Gleason, Dave Frohnmayer or any other administrator or permanent faculty member, but not a champion of integrity in journalism and ODE alumnus like Steve Smith. To assume Steve, who has worked in the newspaper business for decades, would suddenly drop all respect for the ethics of watchdog journalism and prevent the Emerald from criticizing the UO just because he might also teach journalism students in the classroom is naive.


When I was on the board during fall term of this year, I pushed strongly to try and involve Steve into our operations, knowing that his experience and his integrity would be a tremendous asset to the Emerald as it tries to find itself in these changing times.

In short, the Daily Emerald reached out to Steve because they thought he would be the right person to turn the news organization around. The discussion shouldn’t be about the editorial integrity of the student newsroom, but rather how the Emerald is going to completely reinvent itself. I had the opportunity to sit in on a Society of Professional Journalists session with Steve this past fall, and also had several conversations with Ryan about the paper and the future of news. I believe Steve’s own explanation of the situation, instead of the sensationalism that this has grown to be (it has now been covered in the Eugene Weekly, the Oregonian, the Chronicle of Higher Education, College Media Matters, and other publications).

Granted, I fully sympathize with the newsroom staff and their concerns that their voices weren’t being heard. I had to try and fight through the same institutional inertia this fall.

This is a critical juncture for the Daily Emerald, however, both as a newspaper and a news organization. The real dilemma isn’t the potential conflict of interest between the Publisher and editorial content of the paper, but rather how to bring the organization from the red into the black. In fact, there was argument made that the Publisher could indirectly control the voice of the paper by dictating how many pages were to be printed. To my knowledge, you just don’t have this problem if you have a website (or Twitter, or a blog, or anything digital for that matter). With declining revenues from print, what they really need is strong leadership to right the ship and figure out how to effectively “innovate” and monetize online.

I’m not entirely sure that the organization has the capacity to pull an IBM. Only time will tell.


Matt Petryni March 7, 2009 Reply

Hey Daniel,

Yeah, I think Ryan got onto Steve’s bandwagon a little bit (unfortunately) and assumed the strike was about keeping Steve from being our Publisher – and not about the real financial issues at stake. We actually never had this interest at all, in fact, I still wouldn’t mind if he applied as a candidate in the national search to find the best qualified candidate. But this was never about Steve Smith in particular, and I don’t know if it’s his egoism or simply a mistaken ordering of our demand list that’s given so many that impression.

The staff was only really concerned with advancing, and having serious consideration given to, the recommendations that resulted from our professional analysis that sought to address with the Emerald’s diminishing financial stability. To us, this only emphasizes the importance of actually conducting a productive national search for the candidate who’s the best match, not just whoever came up with the idea for a “publisher” in the first place.

Ironically, had the Board simply heard us out toward the beginning (in a way that indicated to us that they honestly cared what we thought), they would have likely averted having to address all of our “demands.” Our recommendations only became “demands” after months of what we saw as the almost complete disinterest in the opinions and ideas of their staff. Our “demands” only became the “only available option” then after those frustrations reached a breaking point that essentially required us to force the Board to wake up to the reality the student staff was dealing with way back when you were still working at ODE.

The more important of our demands, though, were the last two, which we’re actually still negotiating: that the paper remain independent and that it remain student-run. It is our thesis that we don’t need any further entrenchment to the already too outdated hierarchy of the Emerald, and given what the news staff knew about the preferences of our readers and subscribers, any move away from student independence would likely be financially ruinous.

The other big problem is that, as of yet, no solution to the “problem” (I prefer “opportunity”) has emerged to prominence to address the financial constraints of the future of full-time journalizing. But we also think, and tried to demonstrate with the strike, that deferring to the authority of the Steve Smith generation over the input of the people who hardly ever remember a world of journalism before the internet to us seems kind of counterproductive.

It’s the kind of logic, I think, that causes you to hire out MTV to do some inflexible internet content management from the top-down while ignoring, and even at times actively discouraging, the ideas of the near-constant internet users you already have working for you, and who aren’t going to suggest their salaries be anywhere near one-eighth of your institution’s budget. Add in the fact that two-eighths of your revenue will likely vanish if you move that direction, and the whole argument to us seems to lock down into a brutally obvious, non-negotiable point. Which is where we got to a month or so ago and where I think you probably got to last fall. We hope we can get the Board there next week.

Granted, not even us – the students – have a perfect idea of what the journalism of the future can and should look like, such that it’s a profession you can afford to dedicate yourself to full-time. But I think it’s safe to say, and I hope you’ll agree, that we have a lot less catching-up to do.
Anyway, I really want to talk more with you about this sometime. I wish we had a chance to talk about it before you left in the fall, but I wasn’t around the newsroom much back then.
I personally would love to see a CoPress-hosted Emerald, and to think the Board’s top-down institutional inertia has had some of our most talented and motivated Millennial journalists jumping ship in frustration all year is something we’re now, hopefully, in a position to finally put to a stop. I don’t want to just “move the paper to the internet” – as has been the position of the Board with their insistence on using CMP. I (and now, much of the newsroom) want an actually effective way to reach our readers with meaningful and well-connected content through the incredibly powerful tools of the internet.

Matt Petryni March 7, 2009 Reply

PS. I’m told that Steve, when asked if he was using twitter to follow the strike by a local news reporter, promptly asked the reporter “what twitter was,” and then when the reporter explained, he insisted that “it wasn’t as interesting as blogging.” Or something like that.

This is kinda the problem we’re concerned about…. being ready for the internet, in my view, is not about making a Bluetooth earpiece a fashion accessory. It’s about realizing how effectively the internet offers ever-improving opportunities for your readers to interact with you while you help do the service of news gathering, investigation, and analysis for their benefit.

Chris O'Brien March 10, 2009 Reply

Great post, Daniel. To just briefly address the comment above, see this post on Smith’s blog from several months back:


Whatever issues the staff may have had with Smith, it would be silly in introduce the notion that someone from an older generation just doesn’t “get it.” Smith gets the need for fundamental rethinking more than most.

And since the staff feels it’s being held back by its board, I’d be curious to know what steps the staff has tried to take to reinvent its newsroom.

Matt Petryni March 11, 2009 Reply

Chris (/Daniel):

Our concern is not that Steve just doesn’t “get it.” We even suggested he might indeed be the best guy for the job, especially if a national search of prospective candidates so determines. But it’s that it’s hard to really say if there is yet anything to be “got,” and that in our opinion the internet isn’t really about finding someone who “gets it” now as much as it’s about being flexible and independent enough to quickly adapt to make use of new tools when they arise in the future. It’s also about realizing that the internet necessitates, to a degree, a much more collaborative business model rather than one which chooses to reinforce the traditional press hierarchy.

The primary concerns of the strike, though, had little to do with “getting it,” nor trying to “reinvent the newsroom,” as much as they had to do with the necessity of upholding our contractual obligations with our subscribers, advertisers and readers, strengthening, rather than abandoning, our journalistic principles despite (perhaps because of) the fact we’d like to reinvent, and finally, that the proposed outlay for the publisher’s salary was too significant to not be at *least* negotiated with prospective publishers.

Daniel March 11, 2009 Reply

No offense, Matt, but the argument of the newsroom makes less and less sense to me every day.

Matt Petryni March 12, 2009 Reply

Yeah, I think that’s also got a lot to do with me unintentionally mixing together my personal feelings on the issues with the larger consensus that’s developed in the newsroom, although these two perspectives aren’t totally in agreement. I’m not really posting here so much to convince the world, or something, of the newsroom’s infallibility as much as just sharing my own thoughts and my attempt to express what the newsroom’s consensus argument is, which I might simply be failing to articulate clearly.

Anyway, I actually think we might agree more than this exchange might make it seem, but perhaps I’m wrong. Either way, I do respect your opinion on the issue and hope I think your input can continue to help inform the discussion about how the Emerald should move forward (or if it should). This is especially valuable now that we’re in a place to talk with the board about the paper’s future much more actively – and, hopefully, openly – than before was possible.

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