My friend Mike Grass who currently works as professional reporter and copyeditor, but formerly served as a Daily news reporter, editor, and editorial page editor, has written a letter to the editor disagreeing with part of my “Agenda for Change.” Here’s the complete text, which he asked me to post:

“Newspapers are not democratic institutions and they should not be. The Daily can profess democratic ideals in its content but that doesn’t mean it should be run on democratic ideals. 420 Maynard Street is not a New England town hall meeting, it’s a newsroom with deadlines, decisions to make and articles to write. Newspapers need strong editors who can make decisions, who know what is going on and what the best course of action to take. They also need a strong editor oligarchy, who can steer the newspaper behind the scenes, while the reporters are chatting in the newsroom, working on stories, or in some cases, tormenting the business staff by hiding half-eaten wings from Mr. Spot’s in their desks.

After working at the Daily for four years as a reporter and editor, and now working in a professional newsroom, I would feel uncomfortable going up to the senior editor or one of the managing editors telling them that the article on Sen. Daschle should move above the fold or that the feature piece on the Majority Whip needs to go to page 3. It’s not my place, it’s their decision. But my editors do value my input. Editors should feel obligated to take in the concerns of any staffer. But they also need to know when it is right to go and make a decision.

The Daily is actually more democratic than most newspapers. Take the editorial page, which is odd. Most newspapers decide their editorial stances through a cadre of editors. The Daily invites anybody from staff … or in fact anybody from off the street (as soon as they meet staff requirements) to shape editorial policy. While the voice of the Daily is administered by the editorial page editor(s), it can be shaped by a body that has the possibility of being stacked by outside organizations and attracting random people who have “opinions,” or at least think they do. That is, in itself, a pretty democratic body on campus.

Your frustrations with the Daily are warranted. You feel that editors have made the wrong decisions about many things. I’m sure that you’re right at least a good chunk of the time. But you may be wrong too. Despite the strong front some editors will put up, they are weak too … because they are still learning. They make mistakes. Hell, I made mistakes as an editor, but I learned and fine-tuned where appropriate. The Daily is filled with many intelligent people (and some extremely stupid ones as well). The smart, clever, adaptable and sharp-minded ones are supposed to rise into the editor class. But they exist in a chaotic organization, like most newsrooms are. (But most newsrooms don’t double as a living room, or they aren’t supposed to at least.) Some editors do well, some do an abysmal job.

As for suggestions, I’m not going to make any except for getting a copy desk. (It would help a lot. I campaigned against it during editor in chief elections, but in hindsight, it makes a lot of sense.) As for your point about letters to the editor, the edit page staff has a specific formula about how many letters are published based on how many letters of
a certain view come in vs. the prevailing topic of conversation vs. space. If you see a U-Wire piece, it’s because they probably didn’t have letters to go in there. The volume of letters varies, from a dry trickle to flash floods.

The glory days of the Daily you refer to in the 60s, 70s are long over. The days of Tom Hayden are dead. But it’s not that the problems you refer to today weren’t evident then. The Daily was never a democratic co-op, despite of the editorial stances in the newspaper. Hayden, if I remember Daily history correctly, was accused of being a dictator by some in the newsroom. But people respected him for it and the Daily did some great things. And the Daily continues to do great things, despite the turnover and the ups and downs of its staff.

What the Daily needs to continue to do is fight its isolation, engage campus and be relevant. If it isn’t, it needs to re-evaluate its mission and plan of action.”

In response to Grass, I’d like to make clear that only one of my ten suggestions involved a more democratic operations, and that was simply to “involve [staff] in decisions that effect the newspaper as a whole” something that I don’t think is too hard to ask – all it would require is perhaps a briefly monthly staff meeting, and simply notifying the staffers about major changes, such as hiring new professional staff, or switching the format of their website.

I also clearly single out the editorial section for praise; I think it both unusually democratic, and unusually vital compared to the Daily’s other sections, and I think there is reason to correlate the two: “As an editorial staff member, the editors are clearly known and firmly in charge of the section, however virtually all decisions about what editorials should say were decided in open meetings with the entire staff. Consequently, only rarely did staff members feel left out or ignored, even if the group decided not to adopt their point of view” Although Grass advocates a “strong editor oligarchy,” I think concentrating power at the top of a student newspaper amplifys the weaknesses of inept editors. To me, while there should be mechanisms for efficiently running the paper, involving staff and seeking input in major changes should be encouraged.

Finally, although it’s something of a laundry list, here are my ten specific suggestions about how to improve the Daily, and none of them involve transforming it into a “democratic co-op”:

1. Run corrections for every error discovered in a consistent, prominent space in the newspaper

2. Make it a policy to print as many letters to the editor as realistically possible

3. Respect every member of the newspaper, and involve them in decisions that effect the newspaper as a whole

4. Revise the Michigan Daily Bylaws, including a clear, comprehensive ethics policy, and post it on the Daily’s website

5. Make available email addresses to the entire news staff, by beat

6. Recruit underrepresented minorities on campus for all sections of the newspaper

7. Discuss news at weekly news staff meetings, make the daily news meetings required for reporters working on stories for the next day, and encourage collaboration

8. Hold public forums to discuss the newspaper’s policies about using race, and other policies that generate controversy

9. Have a senior editor, or an officially selected person function as a reader ombudsperson to write a regular column about criticisms of the newspaper and conduct internal investigations of alleged ethics violations

10. Make internal newspaper operations more transparent – make M-Desk meetings public, encourage staffers to attend meetings of the Board for Student Publications.

> Read the entire “Agenda for Change”.

Author: Rob