After a student walk-out spurred a flood of support from alumni and others, the board of the University of Georgia's student newspaper backtracked Friday and vowed a staffer they had hired will not have final say on editorial decisions, the paper's former editor-in-chief said.
The new policy was one of several requested by student journalists and outlined by Red & Black newspaper board members in a meeting Friday with students in Athens, Georgia, said Polina Marinova, who was the paper's top editor until earlier this week. She called the policy shift a testament to the students' unity and conviction, as well as thanks to a wave of public pressure put on the board.
"I'm just really proud that everyone stood together and there was so much support," Marinova told CNN on Friday night. "We stood up for ourselves, and I think other people saw that."
Marinova and Julia Carpenter quit as editor-in-chief and managing editor, respectively, of the Red & Black on Wednesday, with fellow editors, design staff, photo staff and reporters joining them leaving the newspaper's building en masse. They explained they had done so after the publication's board recently hired several "permanent staff with veto power over students' decisions."
In a statement posted on a new website -- redanddead.com -- they set up to continue covering news and offer their views, the departed staff posted a "draft" memo written by a Red & Black board member dated on Wednesday -- the day of the resignations and walk-out -- as being "effective today." In the memo, board member Ed Stamper detailed responsibilities for the "Editorial Director and the entire professional staff" such as "taking corrective action to replace students that do not follow our standards," setting design mandates and suggesting what types of stories staff should cover, including "more good" and less "bad" news stories that highlight wrongdoing.
"Recently, editors have felt pressure to assign stories they didn't agree with, take 'grip and grin' photos, and compromise the design of the paper," wrote Marinova, a rising University of Georgia senior, in a statement announcing her resignation. "But what's most alarming to me is that there was no input from the Red & Black student staff about any of these changes."
After the resignations and walk-out, the Red & Black board and its publisher, Harry Montevideo, on Thursday issued their own statement expressing "regret" for what it called "a great deal of miscommunication during the past 24 hours."
They stated the Red & Black "is still and will remain an independent student media organization," explaining the hiring of the new professional staff and specifically stating that the recently appointed editorial director is meant to serve as "a counselor, teacher, mentor, coordinator and manager" and not as a de facto editor-in-chief who makes final editorial decisions.
In her resignation letter, Marinova wrote that "more than 10 permanent staff" had been hired in "less than a month." On Friday, the board of directors vice chairwoman Melita Easters disputed that figure, saying it was "more like eight" -- about half of whom were part-time, and only two of whom were editorial staff (with others focused on marketing and advertising).
Easters said that the "board, as a whole," did not foresee the students' actions or the public hubbub that followed.
"This was a big misunderstanding that got blown even to larger proportions," she told CNN on Friday. "The level of misunderstanding became a feeding frenzy for the media."
A number of national media outlets picked up on the story almost immediately, as did media rights advocates and alumni. The latter included scores of former Red & Black staffers who signed a letter to the newspaper's board of directors characterizing the language in Stamper's memo as "embarrassing" and calling the possibility that students would lose editorial control their "biggest concern."
The Red & Black is one of a handful of student newspapers nationwide that is independent financially and editorially from its university, said Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Law Press Center, which works with high school and college journalists around the United States. Its board may be even more unique, as the only one that LoMonte knows of without any student members.
He said the torrent of one-sided reaction to the episode, including via Facebook and Twitter, shows the Red & Black has an especially passionate alumni as well. The outpouring played a large part in the board's reversals within just a few days, according to LoMonte.
"No newspaper can lose their audience, and this audience wants to read a student-run newspaper," he said. "The fact this situation was largely able to be turned around in a matter of 36 hours is directly attributable to the power of social media."
The board issued a new statement Friday, offering its "deepest apologies" and insisting "the student editor has always had the final editorial decision responsibility for our news content." It added Stamper -- who issued a statement apologizing for "embarrassment" caused by his memo, which he said were talking points for a planned discussion with the editorial director and did not represent the policy of the Red & Black board -- had resigned and opened the door for Marinova and Carpenter to reapply for the top editor posts.
Feeling this statement was "a bit vague," Marinova said she and others met with board members to clarify what was happening. She said she learned that the editorial director job was being changed to an editorial adviser position and professional staff would have "no prior review" or sign-off of news content.
Marinova, who said she didn't believe all board members "knew what was going on" throughout the situation, said she feels there's much more clarity and dialogue.
"We feel now that we have a voice," Marinova said. "And the communication lines are now much more open."
The Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, a division of the university that many of the paper's student staff attend, lauded the board for having "reconfirmed the editorial authority of student journalists" and lamented the "current crisis of leadership at the paper and its effect on students."
Whatever its motivation, LoMonte from the Student Law Press Center interpreted Friday's actions by the Red & Black's board as a clear win for the University of Georgia students -- and, more generally, for student journalists all around the country.
"I think the takeaway from this is that you cannot mess with student autonomy in a student newspaper," he said.
Marinova, who said that she and Carpenter plan to reapply for their old positions, said the ordeal shows that when young people work together with a common purpose, they can be heard.
"Students and everyone should have a voice," she said Friday. "They should feel that they are part of something, that you can't be told that you're ostensible (because) you are there for the reason."