Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The End of an Era

Katie Harmer, the current issues and ideas editor at The Daily Universe, was kind enough to ask if I wanted to draw a cartoon about the recent news about the news.

For those of you who don't know, by the end of this semester The Daily Universe will transition from a daily print newspaper available around campus to a weekly print paper, with the daily news appearing on the website and on mobile apps.

It's been very hard for me to reconcile my thoughts and feelings about this. What I say here is the best I can do, but really it's still a rough draft.

While I've been stewing over this, some colleagues have beaten me to the punch and said things better than I could. Most of my sentiments I can express by concurring with what Alex Hairston said in his two blog posts:

The End of The Daily Universe: An emotional response

The End of The Daily Universe: A less emotional response

And by concurring with what Erin Kulesus said on her blog (although with a caveat that I'll get to later):

Censoring censorship, Part I

Censoring Censorship, part II

Alex and Erin bring up two different issues, so I'll try to address each one.

I. A. ) When I first saw that The Daily Universe was going digital, it was a shocker.

I was sad to think of the paper edition no longer being there for BYU every day. Human beings in general have a lack of interest in the world around them, and not all BYU students are immune to the ignorance. A free newspaper ready to grab on the way to class could remedy that somewhat.

Are students going to think of the BYU student newspaper when they are curious about the news? Maybe for Police Beat or letters to the editor. You know, the parts people remember when they erroneously claim The Daily Universe is silly or irrelevant. (But that's a topic for another day.)

When news is only online though, here's a possible scenario: half of the student population will rarely even read the news online.

Half of the remaining population will get their news through late night monologues (not that there's anything wrong with that).

Half of what's left will get their news through a channel that already agrees with them, like Fox News or MSNBC.

Half of who is leftover will get local news from the Deseret News or the Salt Lake Tribune. (And by "news" I mean the comments section on BYU sports stories. In fact, maybe instead of Deseret News or Salt Lake Tribune I should just say Cougarboard.)

Half of who's left after that will get news from KSL or KUTV while they are waiting for the late night monologues to come on.

That leaves 937.5 people on campus who will think of The Daily Universe when they've got a hankerin' for news.

(Oh, except they won't think of it until their friend or family member who writes for The Daily Universe posts a link to his or her latest article on their Facebook news feed. And even then only half will click on it.)

I'm exaggerating, and maybe being a little facetious. And I'm sure efforts will be made to advertise the new website and apps, and of course, I hope students and readers do adapt their routines to check The Daily Universe online, even when there isn't a paper waiting for them in the newsstand. The Daily Universe won't be destroyed.

But I do think the overall readership will go down until the next outrageous Police Beat or the next ridiculous letter to the editor.

And haven't The Daily Universe's previous attempts at online only ideas fizzled out? "Beyond the Universe," anyone?

And will a weekly publication turn into something like the BYU Political Review or The Student Review? There's nothing wrong with either The Student Review or the BYU Political Review, they're both great. But their aim is different from The Daily Universe's original aim. They are both more similar to the average campus newspaper, and The Daily Universe model was something else.

I. B. ) I'm all for technology and innovation. And it's the only stuff saving the journalism industry so far. So part of me knew the change was necessary, whether I liked it or not. And, I admit, a smaller part of me was excited for the upgrade to the 21st century. But that was quickly quelled after some secondary news came out. (More on that later.)

I actually like the Wordpress system, and even defended it when the copy desk objected to the change. In theory, it was great to give reporters a way to write and publish an article right at the scene. But what The Daily Universe needed to do was put it into practice.

Even with the ability to update our website 24/7, we weren't taking advantage of that ability. Our basic schedule was still waiting until around 4 p.m. every day when the articles started rolling in, just like when we only had a print deadline.

Our sports reporters had some experience with getting articles in ASAP after a game was over, or the Arts and Entertainment reporter watching "The Sing-Off" on Monday night.

But mostly, the schedule revolved around late afternoon, because that's when the reporters set aside time from the rest of the credits they were taking, their jobs, their wedding planning and their family obligations.

It will be difficult to run a 24/7 news cycle as long as The Daily Universe reporters can't be reporters 24/7.

I. C. ) So The Daily Universe had some work to do to keep up with the times. But that means a change in philosophy and behavior, not necessarily a change in organization, and certainly not a change in personnel.

While I initially wasn't sure if the digital transition was ultimately good news or bad news, I could unhesitatingly rule a verdict after I knew the eight members of The Daily Universe's full-time staff would be laid off.

I think the fact that it never occurred to me that these digital changes would mean jobs would be lost shows how senseless these layoffs are. After the announcement of going digital, learning the full-time staffers would be laid off was still just as much of a surprise. In my mind the two things can be completely unconnected.

I never thought Rich, Kaye, Brandon, R.J., Ellen, Daryl, Warren or Shayne stood in the way of The Daily Universe becoming a 21st century newspaper. Never.

If this Daily Universe experiment is going to work, all the digital expertise in the world is nothing without journalistic expertise. I'm not saying all journalistic expertise will vanish after The Magnificent Eight do. But what made The Daily Universe a home away from home will vanish.

The DU newsroom will mean more to me than any classroom, CougarEat table, Marriott Center or LaVell Edwards Stadium seat ever will. For me it was the most comfortable place in the whole state of Utah except for home, the church and the temple. The Magnificent Eight and my many fellow editors and reporters made me feel like I belonged there. The full-time staff had a way of connecting with students and becoming their friends that can never be duplicated. And that sense of home even extended to my wife and baby. The DU Family made my family their family. I will forever be grateful to know them and to have spent time with them. And future generations of Daily Universes reporters will miss out.

It makes me miss them even more to see their gracious and positive attitudes after the bad news. Kaye is keeping an eternal perspective, and Rich is joking about a lifelong dream to be a mime. That they can be so happy, and cheer up other people who are dealing with their bad news, is another testament to how special these people are.

This is more than just saying goodbye to wonderful people though. This isn't high school graduation. The Daily Universe will be losing these people prematurely and I don't think it will be worth it.

II. ) One of the reasons for the change that BYU professor Dale Cressman (more on him later) cited was that The Daily Universe has been losing money. I'm not saying he's wrong, but I do want to say that in the two years I worked there I was never under the impression we were losing money. (In fact, the reason I got to go to Colorado twice for The Daily Universe was a direct result of an influx in advertising revenue.)

Last week's announcement was a sign that the decline of print journalism had reached even the university level. At school, you're supposed to be protected from any recession or economic trends. School should prepare you for the real world. School is meant to be the on deck circle. You aren't supposed to face 101 m.p.h. curveballs when you're on the on deck circle.

I believe even with the journalism world going digital, a reporter should have a background in old-fashioned print journalism. Above all, a reporter needs to know how to write. And the university should protect their investment in teaching reporters to write.

I'm not saying the art of writing is destroyed, or that the new system won't teach reporters how to write. But I think instead of contorting The Daily Universe to fit within financial restraints, the newspaper should be treated like the flagship that it is. I never understood why The Daily Universe was treated like a stepchild compared with the broadcast program (which, by the way, no one watches or even knows exists except for the five minutes before devotional, or Whitney Wonnacott) and the PR program. (Well, actually, I have some theories.)

Right now, everything going on in the field of journalism to try and make it a viable business is in the experimental stage. Nothing is tried and true yet. Let the real world conduct those experiments, and let the real world risk people's livelihoods in the process. Keep those risks out of the institutions of learning. They are institutions of learning, not of profit margins.

The Daily Universe shouldn't be given an infinite budget. But it shouldn't have to kowtow to something uninspiring like financial restraints. (Like Alex said, if the university was about making money there wouldn't be a religion department. Maybe journalism is more dispensable than religion. But then again we need journalism to have democracy, and we need democracy to have our religion.)

III. A. 1. ) The other major issue that has come to the surface has been brought up by "the old guard," namely Erin, McKay Coppins, Mike Curtis, Elizabeth Gosney and others. I'm not as qualified as they are to discuss the issue, but I'll put in my two cents.

About two years ago, The Daily Universe got in trouble for a few articles that, basically, made BYU look bad. The biggest one was probably our article that exposed the BYUSA budget. It's ironic that the article might be the closest BYU could get to a Bernstein/Woodward style, and yet that inspiring version of journalism is what got the newspaper in trouble.

Another one was a front page story about a fashion line started by a couple of BYU alumni. Although the article itself had nothing wrong with it, the website for the alumni's business included photos of models wearing see-through dresses.

The wake of the administration's wrath left a lot of rubble. BYU President Cecil O. Samuelson said The Daily Universe was a "disloyal" organization. Ranking faculty members were called in to supervise the copy editing process, and interrupted it on a nightly basis in order to pull stories, for incredibly silly reasons. A classic example was an article about Redbox and Netflix, which included a photo of a Redbox machine. Some of the movies advertised on the machine happened to be rated R, so the faculty member wanted the photo gone. Oh, so we're supposed to pretend like R-rated movies don't exist? (For more examples, see Erin's Tumblr.) Two of our editors were haphazardly and senselessly accused of being pornography users and were investigated by BYU.

After the immediate, horribly messy aftermath and some organizational changes, things calmed down to a normal BYU level. Of course, there is a bubble at BYU and there always will be. "A normal BYU level" will always have a more discriminating filter than the average newspaper.

But I didn't let that be an obstacle. I just made sure to make up for whatever lack exists with a commitment to lifelong learning. (It's part of the reason I wanted to go to New York City for my required internship, and part of the reason I consider BYU a "backup" law school on my list and would rather start an adventure in a new place.) In the meantime, I can laugh at the nuances of working at The Daily Universe.

So even though the trouble from two years ago was at worst censorship and at best annoying, bringing it up two years later, I feel, is an overreaction. It was bad, but it's been long enough now that I don't think it is a primary motivation behind these recent changes and layoffs. I don't let the frustrations from months ago (or the fact that the administration still doesn't seem to understand the mission of The Daily Universe, and would rather perceive it as an outlet for public relations packages than for hard-hitting journalism) affect my opinion of the BYU Department of Communications, BYU itself, and certainly not the Church.

Erin has decided to lead a charge against censorship and to demand answers. I don't feel it's the right fight to have. Maybe I would if my circumstances were different. I was never a copy editor like Erin was, so I was never in the newsroom at the deadline when a faculty member suddenly pulled an article arbitrarily and I had to change my whole layout. And I was never investigated for pornography use like other editors were. I didn't suffer through as much as "the old guard" did. If I had gone through all that, I might be just as vehemently up in arms. If President Samuelson himself fired me for no legitimate reason, I would lose probably all admiration for him. But I would like to think I could still sustain him as a General Authority.

Maybe I'm too eager to please and make peace. Maybe I'm a wuss. Maybe I just want everyone to get along. Maybe they got me and I'm brainwashed, haha.

III. A. 2. ) Although I am not as riled up as Erin and others, I don't mean to diminish what they experienced. What they experienced was real. And though I don't share Erin's sentiments whole-heartedly, I do share her understanding. And I still want to take some time to come to her defense.

Erin got into a Twitter debate with Dale Cressman, a member of the BYU faculty. (It reminds me of a Twitter debate McKay had with Professor Cressman almost two years ago.) He read her side of the Daily Universe censorship story, and in order to explain his side he called her account "stunningly naive."

Though Professor Cressman was right about some things, calling Erin "naive" was not one of them. Even if he thinks the decision behind every Daily Universe change was clearly the right decision and he can't comprehend how anyone can think differently, he doesn't need to belittle her opinion because she disagrees with him. He doesn't need to dismiss her contributions to the conversation.

(In reflecting on Professor Cressman's two Twitter fights I've observed, I can't help but wonder why he's made himself a spokesman for The Daily Universe. In the two years I worked there I never would have guessed he was involved enough in the newsroom goings-on to take that responsibility. I, for one, never felt his influence when I was there.)

III. B. ) All that said, I am sure the decisionmakers behind cutting The Magnificent Eight loose haven't forgotten those days when The Daily Universe was "disloyal." Giving the faculty tighter control over The Daily Universe's content is likely seen by them as an advantage. I won't go so far as to say the conversation behind closed doors went something like, "Now, we can get rid of Rich, Kaye, and everyone else, once and for all! Bwahahahahahaha [thunderclaps]." But I will say I wouldn't be surprised if the thought, "Hey, come to think of it, maybe a secondary effect of this is that we can keep a closer eye on this whole operation. Bonus!" crossed multiple minds.

Professor Carter, Professor Campbell and even Professor Cressman won't be stooges for some Thought Police. They still know what good journalism is and will promote it. I think they will be more "careful" than Rich and Kaye and everyone else would be (as the "powers that be" might put it), but that doesn't necessarily ensure doom and gloom for freedom of speech at BYU.

I just wish Rich, Kaye, Brandon, R.J., Ellen, Daryl, Warren and Shayne weren't seen as a liability. Even if no one says they are now, without a doubt they used to be a liability to some people.

They were only assets to The Daily Universe, and have been and always be assets in my life and the life of my family.


At least I got my hard copy clips while I still could. Now I'll be able to show them to my grandkids, along with my cassette tapes and my 35mm camera.


  1. Great read JJ. Better yet, great points. I really don't understand the twitter battles, either. Did Cressman even exist in the eyes of the DU?

  2. I saw Dr. Rawlins, Dr. Stephen Jones and Dr. Walton around the newsroom and in front page meetings way more than I saw Dr. Cressman. Doesn't mean he is disqualified to talk about the issue or that he's a horrible person. It just made me wonder.

    (I also think it shows his "out-of-touch"ness when he thought @itsamisa was a boy: https://twitter.com/#!/cressman/status/158369861322539008 and when he stands up for Derrick Lytle against Rich: https://twitter.com/#!/cressman/status/159166773504126976.)

  3. Did you see this response? http://cressman.tumblr.com/post/15979402686/universe

  4. I did, and in fact I retweeted the link earlier.

    It's nice to have more information and more details. It's fine for him to think the digital changes are what's best for the newspaper. They very well could be. It's not like I hope it fails. Besides, this is the direction every newspaper is going, and whether we like it or not The Daily Universe shouldn't be left behind.

    It still bothers me that he's sticking to his "naive" statement. He can say Erin is overreacting, and can disagree with her on what's best for the paper. But to call someone on the front lines of the censorship, editing, or whatever you want to call it "naive"? Like Erin said, I think he really dug a hole there. He can call me "naive" if he wants, I was just observing from a distance. But Erin was there, she didn't make this stuff up.

  5. As someone who has taken Cressman's Twitter wrath before, I will tell you he's not always particularly pleasant.

    I guess I'm part of the "old guard" that suspects some kind of untoward motivation here stemming from perceived past slights, even if only peripherally. Based on my interactions with the administration after my BYUSA articles, there was no shortage of anger and embarrassment in the ASB -- and they definitely made that known to the Comms faculty. I would be very surprised if it had dissipated so quickly.

    1. Agree 100%.

      Did you see Cressman's latest low? He's counting Hearst awards the broadcast side has won vs. the Hearst awards The Daily Universe has won.

      Completely irrelevant to this digital transition or the censorship of the past, unless he's trying to explain why The Daily Universe should be treated like a stepchild. But of course he does it with absolutely no grace. He might as well be on a playground telling me his dad can beat up my dad.


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