Friday, October 05, 2007

Demoted journalism chair speaks out

As many of you know, the chair of the journalism department at California State University, Long Beach was forced out of his position last month after criticizing a dean's proposal to eliminate the print edition of the campus newspaper, the Daily 49er. (For background see previous post on this issue and story in the Long Beach Press-Telegram.)

William Babcock, who remains a tenured professor in the Journalism Department, told me he's not trying to get his chair position back, but he would appreciate support for the student newspaper, which he fears the administration is trying to silence. He notes that the four-day daily publishes about 10,000 newspapers a day, Monday through Thursday. The Web site, meanwhile, gets an average of 800 hits a day.

He shares the column below, which was first published Sunday as an op-ed piece in the Long Beach Press-Telegram.

In journalism, and specifically in college media circles, there is great debate about the move to online-only publishing. Some think it's the wave of the future; others think online newspapers, particularly at the college level, still don't attract sufficient advertising dollars and readers to survive and thrive. But most of us agree on one thing: Such a decision shouldn't be made from the top down. It's too easy for administrators to use online-only publishing as a ruse to quiet, if not silence, the student press.

If you're concerned about what's happening at CSU Long Beach and want to do something, write a letter to:

William A. Babcock
Professor, Department of Journalism
& Executive Director, Southern California News Council
1250 Bellflower Blvd., SS/PA 024
California State University, Long Beach
Long Beach, CA 90840-4601

He'll collect them and present them to the appropriate administrators at CSU Long Beach.

How to resolve the 49er dispute
By William A. Babcock

Faculty members at California State University, Long Beach's Department of Journalism have a two-fold task: to help students understand the mass media and prepare them to survive and thrive in their chosen media field.

One of the best ways journalism instructors can foster the respect for a free and ethical press to both journalism majors and students from all academic disciplines is to provide them with opportunities for publication, be it in traditional print or photojournalism or online writing or graphics or streaming video. Nearly all comparably sized universities in America thus have hefty print and online daily campus newspapers.

Since coming here as department chair six years ago I have seen the number of majors in CSULB's Department of Journalism nearly double as the department has implemented a new student-friendly curriculum, brought in outstanding faculty with professional experience and doctoral degrees and recently become the home for the Southern California News Council. Earlier this year the Department of Journalism received a strong vote of endorsement by an Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications pre-accreditation team that came to Long Beach to assess Journalism's program.

The ACEJMC team, however, was critical of CSULB's lack of support for the campus newspaper, the Daily 49er, saying, "The University needs to face up to the challenge of sustaining a first-rate, independent campus newspaper." The ACEJMC report added, "Virtually no such independent campus papers can and do survive in U.S. universities on advertising revenue alone."

Unfortunately, the Daily 49er now survives almost exclusively on ad revenues, which lately have totaled about $300,000 per year. Thus, the print campus daily newspaper often consists of only a few pages of tabloid-sized newsprint. The Daily 49er generates nearly all of this advertising revenue. By comparison, the online version of the newspaper attracts about $500 in advertising dollars.

CSULB's Department of Journalism is one of nearly two-dozen departments in the College of Liberal Arts, which at one time paid the salary packages of two full-time professional Daily 49er employees and, more recently, made up for any red ink the paper incurred - a figure that often was between $20,000 and $30,000 per year, according to Daily 49er financial records.

Recently, CLA Dean Gerry Riposa said he is considering eliminating the daily print campus newspaper or reducing it to a weekly print paper, and plans to conduct a study to see if this might be feasible.

When he came to the Friday, Sept. 14, departmental meeting in Journalism's conference room to discuss such a study, three student journalists from the Daily 49er newsroom across the hall entered the conference room. A reporter from Long Beach's Grunion Gazette weekly also came into the conference room.

After a few minutes Riposa left the conference room, and was widely overheard in the hallway saying he did not want to discuss a feasibility study with student journalists present, and left the building. Two hours later a Sept. 12-dated memo from Riposa was hand delivered to the Department of Journalism announcing that as of September 2007 CLA would no longer cover cost overruns for the paper from its general funds.

The next working day Riposa said he was removing me as chairman of the Department of Journalism at the end of the week, even though I had been re-elected in May by Journalism faculty to another three-year term. I requested that he retain me as chair until the end of the 2007/08 academic year to avoid disruption to the Department of Journalism. He denied this request.

The purpose of this op-ed piece is not to argue with a dean's ability to dismiss a departmental chair, as chairs serve at the "pleasure" of deans. Rather, the hope is that:

1. Dean Riposa will once again decide that CLA has a stake in having a strong, vibrant, informative daily print and online campus newspaper, and that the college will help fund this daily newspaper accordingly.

2. Provost Karen Gould realizes that a strong, well-funded campus daily newspaper provides an invaluable service to and for all students in a way that is impossible for a journalism class- or lab-newspaper produced as the result of a course assignment for journalism majors.

3. President F. King Alexander exercises his ability to have students pay a modest $4 per semester "circulation" fee for receiving the print Daily 49er, and also provides university funds to offset the salary package (about $75,000) each year of one professional daily campus newspaper employee.

With a campus faculty and student body as large and diverse as that of CSULB, we can't afford to close this vital avenue of dialogue within our community. Riposa, Gould and Alexander are relatively new in their respective positions. The hope is that they all will understand the benefits of fiscally supporting a strong, non-lab print and online daily campus newspaper to which all 35,500 students have been welcome to contribute and of which everyone at CSULB will be proud.

William A. Babcock is a professor in CSULB's Department of Journalism and executive director of the newly formed Southern California News Council. In a former life he directed the University of Minnesota's Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, served as senior international news editor and writing coach for the Christian Science Monitor and was on the faculty of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

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