FLORIDA — The former editor of Florida A&M University’s student newspaper was not rehired after he and the rest of the paper’s editors were forced to reapply for their positions.
Former Famuan editor Karl Etters interviewed for the position Tuesday afternoon and learned of the decision in an email sent late that night by Kanya Stewart, who informed him after the interview that she was the paper’s new adviser.
“It was a pleasure to interview with you,” Stewart wrote. “I regret to inform you that after careful consideration I have selected another applicant.”
Etters said he does not know who the new editor is, but believes at least one other person applied for the position. Stewart could not be reached for comment. Journalism school Dean Ann Kimbrough declined to comment on the selection of the new editor or adviser.
Stewart confirmed in a tweet she posted Tuesday that the paper will resume publishing on Jan. 30, almost two weeks after Kimbrough suspended the paper’s publishing and removed the paper’s adviser. Editors were told then that they would have to take part in training sessions and reapply for their positions.
Etters said he was disappointed but not surprised to learn he was not rehired. He served as the paper's top editor last semester and in December, reapplied and was hired to serve for this semester as well.
“To me it seems like this was all a ruse to put somebody else as editor,” Etters said. “That’s how it feels. A horse is a horse no matter which way you look at it.”
He said he asked Stewart for feedback as to why he was not rehired Wednesday afternoon.
“The short answer is I didn’t fit into the vision of the paper,” Etters said, noting that Stewart objected to one of the answers he gave in his interview.
“I said something along the lines of ‘we publish the truth whether it’s positive or negative, good or bad,” he said. “She said that she didn’t like my answer about negative stories. … I would never say that’s a goal, writing negative stories. But holding people acccountable doesn’t constitute negative stories."
Kimbrough and other school officials have been tight-lipped since the initial announcement that the paper’s publishing schedule had been suspended. Both Kimbrough and representatives for FAMU have given a variety of reasons for the decision to delay printing.
Kimbrough said she began a review of all student media organizations upon taking office as dean in August. During that review, she discovered that some former Famuan staff members did not meet eligibility requirements, according to a statement from the school.
Kimbrough said she learned that the paper was being served with a libel lawsuit after a story the paper published in December 2011 that said Keon Hollis, a drum major with FAMU’s marching band, had been suspended for his role in the hazing death of Robert Champion, another drum major. Both The Famuan and FAMU are named in the suit.
Hollis was not suspended, and the paper printed a correction in February 2012.
Once she learned of the lawsuit, which was filed electronically Dec. 3, Kimbrough said in an interview that she met with faculty and school administrators to “ascertain the facts.” She said she learned that the student reporter who authored the piece was not enrolled at FAMU and didn’t make reasonable attempts to verify the information before publishing it. The paper was relying on anonymous sources, she said, whom the reporter would not identify.
It’s not clear who the reporter was and whether he is on staff currently. A few other current staff members were working for the paper at the time but not in leadership roles.
Kimbrough said in an interview that when she learned of the libel lawsuit, she began researching ways the school could help editors prevent future problems by looking on the Student Press Law Center’s website and concluded that more training could be beneficial.
“I know that we could always use additional training,” she said.
Since news of the publishing suspension has come out, financial problems and a lack of student interest in the paper have also emerged as possible motives for the suspension.
In an interview with Richard Prince in his Journal-isms column, Kimbrough is quoted as saying administrators were also trying to address the paper’s “financial distress.” In an email, Kimbrough told the SPLC that she learned of the paper’s financial distress right around the time editors learned that the paper’s publishing would be suspended.
Kimbrough declined to comment on whether the “financial distress” had prompted the two-week delay, during which editors were not paid but were instructed to attend training sessions on reporting and editing, as well as media law and ethics. She also would not comment on whether the distress was prompted by decreases in the amount of money given to the paper each year by the university.
The paper is supported by a mix of advertising and student fee money that is distributed by FAMU’s student government. The amount of money from student government has been declining over the past several years, Etters said.
The Famuan’s former sports editor, Frank Peterman III, told a Society of Professional Journalists representative that Kimbrough said that she didn’t “know if the newspaper serves the students anymore.” Kimbrough declined to comment on Peterman’s statement, except to say that it “may be reported out of its original context.”
Many in the college and professional journalism community criticized Kimbrough’s decision to suspend publishing. Etters said he and most of his staff interpreted it as censorship, and that many are concerned they will face future difficulties from administrators, a fear echoed by former news editor Evan Miles.
Kimbrough has said repeatedly in emails and in interviews that she does not view the suspension of publishing as censorship and prefers to call it a delay, not a suspension.
“I remain fully supportive of balancing students' rights to a free press through this process that includes, but is not limited to, effective training. I am also ensuring that The Famuan continues to receive the proper support from the School of Journalism & Graphic Communication as it serves as a training unit for future, professional journalists,” Kimbrough said in an email.
Etters helped spearhead Ink and Fangs, an underground website he and other editors set up so they could continue publishing news during the printing hiatus. The former Famuan staff issued a joint statement on the website, calling the publishing delay “troubling.”
“We as a staff agree that those actions are ungrounded and arbitrary,” the statement reads.
Soon after the statement was published, Kimbrough contacted the SPLC multiple times asking whether that statement's first sentence had been taken without attribution from the SPLC. Kimbrough said a student told her that the wording “originated from your staff.”
The SPLC reports on issues affecting student media, but its primary purpose is to provide legal assistance to students and educators. SPLC attorney Adam Goldstein said he spoke with Etters but did not believe any part of the students’ statement to have been plagiarized.
“The Ink and Fangs didn't plagiarize anything, as far as I can tell,” Goldstein said. “The only words that came out of my mouth that showed up in their statement were articles and conjunctions.”
Etters denied any suggestion of plagiarism.
“I came up with that sentence, and that’s a mirror of what the staff felt,” he said.
A few days after Ink and Fangs’ launch, two editors decided not to participate in the underground site; Etters said he thought they were “a little intimidated.”
Reaction to the site was mostly positive though, Etters said. Several professors shared the site with their classes and have said they were proud of what the exiled editors were doing. Etters said he will continue posting on Ink and Fangs as long as there are contributors.
“We’ve had a lot of support from faculty in the building, from people who are journalists,” Etters said Tuesday night after he interviewed. “I don’t think they’re happy about what happened.”
Miles, the former news editor, said students in the journalism school and on campus have been supportive of the underground site.
“I can say at least from students we’ve gotten 100 percent support,” she said. “I feel like we’re doing the right thing.”
Little is known about the paper’s next steps. Applications for other editing positions were due last week, but students haven’t learned when interviews will be held, Etters said.
“Somebody asked me today when we’re getting back to work,” he said Wednesday. “I don’t work there anymore, so I don’t know.”
There has not been a formal announcement regarding the replacement of former adviser Andrew Skerritt. Skerritt was removed from the position in early January; Kimbrough said in an interview that the timing of his removal was “just a coincidence.”
Stewart was one of three who interviewed Etters. At the interview’s conclusion, he said, he asked whether she was the new adviser and that she confirmed that she was.
According to her LinkedIn profile, Stewart is co-owner of Proclaim Creative & Marketing Group, a PR firm based in Midway, Florida. She worked at The Famuan for three-and-a-half-years as an undergraduate before graduating from FAMU in 2004.
Staff who answered the phone at the journalism school at various times Wednesday morning seemed at first not to know Stewart. When told that she was the new adviser, they said she was in a meeting and did not have a phone to receive messages.
When asked in an email Wednesday for additional information about the new editor and adviser, Kimbrough responded with an email that said only, “Thank you.”
By Sara Gregory, SPLC staff writer. Contact Gregory by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 125.
© 2013 Student Press Law Center