FAMU: The staff speaks up

“We won’t stop doing what we love,” Karl Etters says.

And what the editor and his staff at Florida A&M University love doing is journalism. So they’re defying their j-school dean, who shut down their newspaper last week. Today, they started publishing their own newspaper online.

They’ve decided to follow the Red and Dead model. What’s that? It might prove to be the most modern and effective way to fight censorship. Last summer, the students at The Red and Black, the University of Georgia’s independent newspaper, faced a board of directors that directed them to cover more “good news” than “bad news.”

The senior staff walked off the job, launched their website, blitzed social media, mobilized alumni – and succeeded in forcing the resignation of the board member who wrote what’s now known as “the good news memo.”

Can Etters and company achieve similar results? We’ll see. But I asked Region 3 assistant director Lindsey Cook to talk to the FAMU staff – because she was one of those Red and Deaders. I figured one student chatting up another would elicit more honest responses than if an old fart like me tried it.

Here’s what Lindsey heard…

“I really don’t know what the website is going to do, but I would hope that it would show our dedication,” said Donovan Harrell, who was a staff writer and assistant copy editor before the shutdown. “It provides an alternative, and I feel I can get back to work now. It fills that gap without the paper being in production. I’m pretty excited. A little nervous, too.”

But he’s not angry. The dean’s monthlong mandatory training without pay? Harrell doesn’t care about the money, adding, “I’m actually kind of excited for the training, because there’s a lot I don’t know since I started last semester.”

He doesn’t even mind the dean forcing the entire staff to reapply for their jobs once the shutdown ends next month.

Attention j-school deans not at FAMU: You may want to recruit Harrell. Here’s a student journalist who will only complain if you don’t let him work. And he won’t whine about a meager paycheck.

“I’m not happy about it. We all had big plans for this semester, and we were excited to get back to the newspaper,” copydesk chief Noah McCaskill said. But he echoed Harrell: “It’s not really about the money” and, “The training is something that can help us.”

All I can say is, if I had journalists like this working for me, I wouldn’t shut them down. I’d give them big, fat raises.

Some of the older staffers are more cynical than Harrell and McCaskill…

“It sounds like there’s going to be more censorship,” said sports editor Frank Peterman III. He admits the j-school dean “didn’t say that, and she said she didn’t mean that – but the tone said there was going to be more censorship. And I don’t want to be a part of that.”

Here’s something the dean did say, and it bothers Peterman: “She said she doesn’t know if the newspaper serves the students anymore. And I’m like, ‘How can you say that?’ If anything happens on campus, we’re the first one on it.”

That reveals not only Peterman’s pride in his paper, but also a weird lack of support from the dean. Aren’t j-school deans supposed to teach students how to cover a campus? Is shutting down the paper and making the entire staff reapply really the best way to accomplish that? Doesn’t that smack of a Vietnamesque, “We had to destroy the village to save it”?

But FAMU’s scorched-earth plan might succeed in gutting the paper. It’s already taking its toll on Peterman, who says his job was tough enough before his own j-school sucker-punched him.

“The editors just end up overworking themselves, filling all the holes the writers don’t fill,” he said. “Between that and this, it seems like it’s going to be a very hectic semester, so I don’t know if I’ll be returning.”

Peterman filled out another job application, “but I don’t know if I want to turn it in.”

And then there’s Etters, trying to hold together his kaput newspaper while also working part-time as a reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat. His dream job? Environmental reporter at The New York Times.

If the dean was unhappy with his paper before, she’s winning by making it worse now.

“We had people who were slated to be on staff who decided, after the dean’s decision, that they would not be coming back to work at our paper,” he says.

But not out of fear. It’s disgust.

“I don’t think anyone is scared to come back,” Etters said. “It’s one of those things where it’s like, ‘I can get out now and not deal with this drama.’ I understand. I don’t like drama.

“This is not what I wanted to be doing right now.”

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