By Linda Blackford, Lexington Herald-Leader
Students and administrators at Transylvania University are battling over the future of the school’s digital news site, The Rambler.
The student journalists who work at The Rambler have stopped publishing it to protest the administration’s plan to stop paying the site’s adviser, professional journalist Tom Martin, and the students who work there. The editor-in-chief, Transy senior Tristan Reynolds, said the administration’s plan will essentially kill the online news site. Martin and Reynolds were informed of the changes last week.
Martin is the producing host of the Eastern Standard show on WEKU and vice president of the the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is a former contributor to the Lexington Herald-leader.
“Over the past three years, since the hiring of Tom Martin and our move to an online publication, we’ve seen a real growth in professional standards and the quality of the product,” Reynolds said. The situation “is deeply concerning because it suggests the university does not value independent journalism on its campus, or student and faculty input into the way it makes decisions.”
Michael Cairo, interim University Dean, said in a campus-wide email that funding for the news operation is not being cut. Instead, that money will be used to support new initiatives undertaken by the news site. The site will have an “experienced staff adviser,” rather than someone from the outside.
“We will continue to work with the student staff to identify innovative ways to advance The Rambler, including budgetary support of its products, expanded support of any new initiatives, an experienced staff adviser, and exploring ways to enhance student experience by supporting The Rambler’s mission through the University’s Digital Liberal Arts initiative,” Cairo said. “The University remains committed to the editorial independence of The Rambler, as outlined on page 39 the Student Handbook.”
Administrators at the Lexington-based liberal arts school declined to comment further.
The Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists issued a blistering statement in reaction to the proposed changes.
“Transylvania University’s decision to stop compensating the student staff and part-time professional adviser of its online student newspaper, The Rambler, looks like a blatant attempt to silence and control student voices,” said Tom Eblen, chapter president. “President Seamus Carey and his leadership team should be standing up for the liberal arts values of a free press, good journalism and media literacy, not undermining them, especially at this critical time in our nation’s history. If this decision is not reversed, it will send a powerful message about Transylvania to students, potential students and the nation.”
Three years ago, the Rambler stopped publishing a paper product and became digital only. Then-University Dean Laura Bryan and the students decided to use the savings from that change, which Reynolds said was about $30,000, to hire a professional adviser and give stipends to the site’s staff.
On Tuesday, the university’s communications office published a post on Transy’s official blog, “1780,” in which it noted that the Rambler was the only campus organization that paid students.
“More than 85% of the overall budget was tied to compensation — and the university decided that the budget should be reprioritized in order to expand resources and opportunities for students,” the blog post said. “Conversations about how future budgets will be allocated are ongoing and will include the new dean and new editorial staff.”
At other schools, such as the University of Kentucky and Western Kentucky University, the student newspapers create their own budgets through advertising and fundraising, which then compensate the student journalists. The advisers at those schools are paid by the university.
The Rambler has just started selling advertising this year, Martin said.
Martin said that when The Rambler became all digital, he helped the students research compensation at peer universities around the country.
“The result of compensating these students, who put in many extra hours above their classwork, has been a very noticeable improvement in the quality and consistency of content,” Martin said. “Having that incentive in place has prevented the falloff in attendance that we were experiencing each semester. My ultimate concern is that this will impact the free expression of student journalists.”
Staff of The Rambler have been paid between $25 and $75 a week, depending on their position, Reynolds said. Writers have been paid $10 per article.
Martin spent about 15 to 20 hours working with students each week, and said it would be hard for a full-time staff or faculty member to provide that kind of time to students.
“What I inherited was a weaponized hobby,” he said. “If they’re going to revert to that lack of oversight and mentoring and let it all play out online, they’re exposing themselves to a lot more damage to the image of the school.”