Five years and two weeks ago the University of Oregon community woke up to an unusual headline: the newspaper staff of the Oregon Daily Emerald, a student-run organization that operates independently of the University, had gone on strike.
Like so many other newspapers at the time the Emerald was going through a financial slump, with readership and advertising sales in decline as more and more people turned to the internet and social media for instant updates. Its general manager had left the previous summer, so a search was underway to find a new leader for the 501(c)3 organization.
During this time I was the Emerald’s administrative assistant: my desk was sandwiched between the newsroom, advertising and business offices, and my various duties made me the one person in the office who knew everyone on staff (I was really so proud of this).
The editor-in-chief at the time was also my roommate and friend from high school; with her insights as well as my own as a professional staff member (as opposed to a student staff member) I had a very unique perspective on this whole situation.
I will let you read the newsroom’s amazing (IMO) statement on the strike, but will break it down and review the action’s effectiveness below:
What was the goal of the strike? The newsroom wanted to prevent the Emerald’s board of directors from hiring a candidate, Steven A. Smith, under the following conditions: no formal interview would be conducted; job duties and salary would be non-negotiable; and he would be allowed to teach at the Journalism School, a conflict of interest for newsroom employees, also journalism students, with regards to potential censorship of articles critical of the University.
Did it accomplish its goal? Yes: Smith backed out of the “the fray,” as he put it, and after a couple days the newsroom returned to work. A mediator was hired for subsequent talks on how to move forward between the newsroom and the board, and eventually Ryan Frank, an Emerald alum and supporter of the newsroom during the strike (that I can recall, at least), was hired as the Emerald’s new publisher.
What were some positive effects of the strike? The newsroom’s principled stance to protect the integrity of the newspaper was widely acclaimed, with support coming from the student body president and executive staff to the Emerald’s rival campus publication to Eugene’s local newspaper to 33 student publications nationwide.
Word had gotten out to Emerald alumni, too, and comments began pouring in on the newsroom’s independent blog from former students and staffers – including Art Bushnell, the editor-in-chief of the Emerald when it first separated itself from the University.
The ‘strike’ issue of the Emerald went on to win a 2009 Pacemaker award, considered the “most prestigious accolade a college newspaper can receive,” from the Associated Collegiate Press.
What were some negative effects of the strike? Well, most immediately it caused major tension within the office: the ad representatives (who were also students, though not necessarily journalism majors) scrambled to explain the situation to their clients while some production and ad staff grabbed wire content to fill the pages in the absence of news articles.
And while the news staff had a (seemingly) enjoyable time running their independent blog out of a nearby coffee shop, I know firsthand how much they wanted to return to work to cover campus happenings. On the day of the strike one of the photographers came up to the office with a Tupperware full of brownies, hoping he’d be able to grab a camera in order to shoot, like, a volleyball game or something. The business manager (my boss) had to come out and basically shoo him away, as all of the news staff had agreed to the strike.
What were the action’s long-term effects? For starters, in order to cut down the budget my professional staff position as administrative assistant was eliminated and replaced with two(?) non-professional, student staff receptionist positions.
I was laid off the following year, but from what I remember: when Ryan came on as publisher the Emerald got a major facelift, focusing more on online content and creative partnerships with advertisers (at some point the Emerald had a beer named in its honor) and ways to interact with readers (I saw an Emerald photobooth a while back…).
Wikipedia tells me that the Emerald is now an online-only publication, which hasn’t seemed to hinder its ability to deliver quality coverage to its audience: it won the 2013-2014 award for college newspaper of the year by College Media Matters and has been featured by the Huffington Post, Bloomberg Businessweek and USA Today College.
Personal thoughts: I felt very conflicted during the strike as I had strong personal connections to the news staff – and fully supported their reasons for going on strike – but my professional staff position put me on the opposite side of the aisle.
As someone who’s since learned a lot more about nonviolent direct action (and participated in a few protests/tactics myself) what really impressed me was the newsroom’s level of unity and security culture: not one of the 20-something staff members let slip any hint of the strike.
And even just from reading these old blog entries I remember certain staffers displaying what I’d later come to know as a “fierce green fire”: that near-obsessive desire to keep reporting, keep updating for the sake of protecting journalistic integrity in a dying industry.
But what I will always remember most from this whole experience was the reponses from the student ad representatives, which were published the following day of the strike. While a couple expressed disappointment at the newsroom’s decision because of the complicated position it put the in with their clients, the overwhelming sentiment was: if you’d asked us, we would’ve gone on strike with you.