Why the Red & Black student walkout actually worked

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I remember my first walkout. Well, I suppose it was more like my first experience with a walkout. And it wasn’t really a walkout, but more of a rumor of a walkout that never went through.

Did I mention this was middle school?

The details are fleeting, but I think it had something to do with 4/20. You know, the day when everyone with access to marijuana goes out and smokes it? Well, we didn’t exactly have access to weed and if my seventh-grade observation skills were worth their salt, I’d venture to say that our knowledge of the stuff probably came from the TV show South Park or something on MTV (note: since I never watched either that show or that channel, this is and likely was pure conjecture).

I remember hearing that the serious students had planted their backpacks in the stairwells as to make an easy grab on the way out. I remember wondering where all these backpacks were when I walked by one stairwell during the day’s final passing period.  I remember thinking how dumb these student were to stash their backpacks in stairwell. Didn’t they  know they’d get stepped on? Ridiculous.

You can see my trajectory. This was a failed walkout, that is, had it actually taken place, it would have survived as nothing more than a pithy middle school memory that landed a few kids in ISS.

The decision of top student staffers at the Red and Black student-run newspaper (University of Georgia) to walkout was a much more mature decision than anything I experienced in earlier life (I have to credit Jimmy Cornfoot for alerting me to this rich little nugget of media news). According to follow-up stories about the walkout, the student staffers’ actions made a profound statement that caused board members to essentially meet all of their demands with little to no reprecussions for the paper or the students. So why did it work?

The walkout was legitimate

According to a story reposted by The Huffington Post on August 21, the newspaper “has operated independently from the university since 1980.” Editorial staff, including photographers, designers and reporters, has traditionally been comprised of students, who use the experience for professional growth and, like most J-schools, as coursework. However, the paper is overseen by a board of directors, which consists of “more than 10” non-student staffers, that according to Slate and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Here’s where everything begins to get murky. The Athens Banner-Herald reported that, among many changes scheduled to take place this fall, non-students were appointed by the board to positions such as editorial director, marketing and product managers, multimedia director, business manager and a creative director.

Students claimed such appointments effectively removed editorial control of the paper from their hands, leading to the mass walkout. And here, it’s fairly simple to justify walking out. The standard – that a paper for students be produced and edited by students – was overturned. The students in charge left. And this forced the “new management” to recognize the central importance of a student staff.

Good timing

There was probably no better time for the student walkout than early August. The fall semester was about to begin, traditionally the starting point for campus newspapers as well. The first issue greets incoming students happily with summer news and fall semester forecasting. The pulse of the campus is captured in those first pages, opinion pieces and editorial cartoons. Readers get their first feel for how the paper will function in the weeks and month to come and a decidedly student vision is applied to national events.

The fact that this has been an politically charged summer makes that first issue much more relevant. The tone with UGA students may begin interpreting November’s election is implanted early in the semester.

With the walkout, student staffers effectively pointed their paper to the gallows and the board was forced to face the reality that there might not be a paper come fall. And that is a sobering fact. The students recognized that, regardless of employment implementations, they still held control over the paper’s fundamental future. By acting at such a crucial time, students reminded the board that it lacked the very power it sought to set forth.

Post-protest tactics

The walkout happened rather quickly, making the students’ actions appear to be instinctually motivated. It’s no secret that college students are often swayed by external influences that seem attractive one moment and old the next. The Red and Black staffers, however, executed a post-walkout plan that sealed the success in a matter of days. According to several reports, the student staffers set up a Twitter account (@redanddead815) only to have their efforts suspended for unknown reasons, took to Facebook, and constructed RedandDead.com, as well as reached out to alumni for additional support.

The walkout, then, takes shape as a sober-minded activity meant to prove a point while forcing a strategic response from the controlling board. It was reported that board member Ed Stamper resigned following his drafting of the memo that sparked the students’ protest.

Conclusions

The students win. And, not just for their own sake, but for the sake of the campus. Around this time last year, the Red and Black became a once-per-week print publication with the majority of editorial efforts focused on the web. While innovative, this response is in line with how many print-based media outlets have responded to digital changes and student preferences. Could there be a better time to be a student journalist? Not only must you exercise the journalistic principles learned during coursework, but you must think strategically, flexing mental muscles many students do not even begin to consider until several years after graduation. These students were in a position where their actions would influence the life of the paper for years to come. By walking out successfully, they appear to have defended the paper’s principles and will likely attract future student staffers willing to do the same.

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