Conflicts with media coordinator lead editors at Macon State to resign

GEORGIA -- After a year of personality conflicts and budget disputes with a newly hired student media coordinator, the editors of Macon State College's weekly student newspaper decided not to reapply for their positions next year.

Jenny Murr, who was editor in chief of The Matrix this past school year, announced the departures in an April 28 column, calling the work situation at the paper "untenable."

The school created the student media coordinator position a few years ago -- and filled it for the first time this year -- to make it easier for students to seek advice and get approval to spend publication funds, said Lynn McCraney, Macon State's dean of students. Previously, student publications did not have a standard process for getting spending requests approved, McCraney said. She said students in previous years also had asked that someone with a professional background in journalism be hired to work with student publications full time. The school ultimately hired Ray Lightner, a former reporter for the Houston Home Journal in Perry, Ga.

But some Matrix staffers said Lightner was "condescending" and difficult to work with. John Stephen Massey, the paper's former photo and art editor, called Lightner "abrasive" and said the media coordinator often came across as "derogatory" when advising staff members.

Murr and Massey also complained that Lightner failed to approve legitimate requests to spend Matrix funds.

One of the biggest sticking points involved Murr's request to spend $500 for new newspaper racks to place in campus buildings and local businesses. Currently, papers are distributed to outdoor bins, but Murr said she thought more students might take copies if the papers were available near indoor lounge areas. Murr also wanted to expand the paper's distribution beyond campus into the surrounding community.

The paper's faculty advisers approved the purchase, Murr said, but Lightner denied the request. He told Murr the Matrix "was not good enough" to justify the expense or to distribute off campus, Murr said.

When contacted by the Student Press Law Center, Lightner referred all questions to McCraney. McCraney said she had simply told Murr that the Matrix should improve its circulation on campus before spending money on bins for wider distribution. For example, McCraney said the paper had not been distributed consistently on Macon State's Warner Robins campus.

Murr and Massey said the paper did have some circulation problems on the main campus in the spring, but only after the Matrix's circulation manager resigned over a clash with Lightner. And Massey said circulation on the Warner Robins campus was supposed to be handled by the college's Plant Operations department.

Murr and Lightner continued to clash over Lightner's authority to approve all expenditures of Matrix funds, including both college-provided funds and the paper's ad revenue. For example, Murr said Lightner denied her request to be reimbursed for travel expenses between two journalism conferences because she changed her travel plans without preapproval -- even though her new plans were less expensive.

"I was afraid to buy a bag of chips for the office or copy paper because I didn't have prior approval for that expense," Murr said.

McCraney said Matrix staffers simply were not used to following standard financial procedures that other student groups had long had to comply with, including the requirement for expenditures to be approved in advance. Those financial controls do not interfere with the paper's editorial freedom, McCraney said, and neither Lightner nor other administrators have any desire to censor the paper.

"The media coordinator does not have, and this particular man I do not believe would accept, the responsibility for prior review," she said. "That's inappropriate."

But Murr said the college's control over the Matrix's funds is simply another form of censorship.

"We're being censored because as long as they hold the purse strings, they drive the publication to be what they want," she said. Student editors or the faculty advisers should be able to approve the use of at least the paper's ad revenue without administrative interference, she said.

Not all student media had the same experience with Lightner. Brandon Thompson, who was program coordinator this past year for the student television station, said he supported Murr but "we haven't seemed to run into as many problems" with Lightner as the Matrix has. But Thompson added that, because he plans to continue working at the TV station, he did not want to say anything that might "cause friction" with the administration or Lightner.

Murr and Massey said by the end of the year, they had both had enough. Murr said she might return as a writer next year -- but mainly to preserve her right to challenge in court any attempt by the school to censor the Matrix.

The school has not yet picked a new editor in chief for the Matrix, and McCraney said the college plans to revise its publications policies -- modeling them on other schools in the University System of Georgia -- before selecting someone for the post.

For his part, Massey said he definitely will not return.

"I wish them the best, but it's a stretch for me to believe there are going to be that many qualified people who want to work on that paper right now," he said.

Georgia, Macon State College, news, The Matrix