Long live the Red & Dead

Something incredible happened this week at the newspaper where I got my start. And what might seem like a small company dispute on the surface was actually a symbol of a larger industry problem.

As a freshman pre-journalism major trying to find his place among the Bulldog fans at the University of Georgia in 1999, The Red & Black quickly became my new home. In fact, I applied to work there before I even moved into my dormitory.

And they didn’t just hire anyone. You had to prove you wanted the job. I was asked to report on three news stories – my own interviews, my own writing. The only experience I had going into these assignments was working on my high school newspaper, which wasn’t exactly an environment that allowed for students to be entrusted with objective news reporting. But I soon became a stringer for The Red & Black – my first real, paying job as a journalist ($6.50 per story … the “big bucks”).

But it was more than that. In the realm of college journalism, working for The Red & Black meant you were one of the cool kids. A byline that read “By David Brandt, The Red & Black” said to any reader, “I chose to report this news and convince you to read this story, because it’s important for you to know.” It was baptism by fire, and it wasn’t for just some school paper. This was a real newspaper through and through. It was real, and its independence was not to be trifled.

Despite the glory of being a part of that publication, it was also a training ground. It was where I first learned about the impact of a lede, how to ensure accurate quotes, and the value of (at least) two independent sources to the objectivity of my work. I didn’t stay at UGA and made a few mistakes while I worked at The Red & Black, but while I was there I took that opportunity to decide whether being a newspaperman was what I wanted for myself. Every decision I made and every experience I had there, good or bad … I owned.

I got more lessons from a semester with the paper than I did from most of my classroom education. And though most of the latter was obtained at a private college after I left UGA, never did I receive a set of parameters like the now infamous memo given to the staff at The Red & Black last week.

And what a greedy list of demands it was, written by a company board member who couldn’t even spell “libel,” according to reports from the RedandDead.com – the result of top editors and others from The Red & Black staff standing up for the integrity of what The Red & Black means to them. They may have walked out, but they didn’t quit – within 24 hours they set up the social media equivalent to a phoenix, and continued reporting on news about the University of Georgia and its community. The service was more important to them than the brand, just as it should be always.

But as I write this blog, it appears that some form of healing has begun. The board member who authored the memo I referenced above has resigned. The demands for content review by personnel other than students have been dropped. And the former editor in chief and former managing editor are, along with others, applying for their jobs again. I hope their status is reinstated … they’ve earned it. It’s a scenario that they may find themselves having to play out again in their professional careers, given the increasingly controlling role of executives and corporate boards over what content is published or broadcasted – or in some cases, what is even allowed to be deemed “news.”

Many young journalists go into their careers eager to find a great “Watergate” experience. Frankly, I hope tomorrow’s students are eager for an experience that these student journalists at UGA had this week … complete with camaraderie, a test of one’s ethics, and loyalty to the great institution they’ve chosen to serve: objective, independent journalism.

And in a media industry where journalism is more and more stained by corporate interests and political favoritism, tomorrow’s journalism students are going to need an example to admire, one that will guide them to an ultimate truth: Businessmen don’t decide what journalism is … that’s a job for journalists.

Long live the Red & Dead.

David Brandt is the Web managing editor for the Institute of Industrial Engineers, where he writes and edits Web content, produces new media projects, and writes for a monthly magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @iamdavidbrandt.

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