Northern Michigan University, campus paper face off

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Marquette — When the student newspaper at Northern Michigan University looked into the school's relationship with Starbucks, it didn't find anything earth-shattering.

But fallout from the November story is endangering the North Wind's freedom and had two editors worried about their careers, said the paper.

One editor said she felt threatened by an administrator. Another quit partly because of run-ins with the school. The school charged the paper for records requests that had been free.

An administrator on the paper's board voted against spending money to search administration emails, including his own.

"(It's) a battle for the soul of this campus," said the newspaper's adviser, Cheryl Reed, an assistant professor of English.

In December, the paper sought the emails of seven university administrators to see if there was an organized attempt to intimidate the editors.

The 1,073 pages of messages, some of which were redacted, don't show collusion but reveal an increasingly contentious relationship between an upstart newspaper and a school unused to such scrutiny.

Even noncontroversial stories are affected.

In one email, Chris Greer, dean of students and student affairs, declined to be interviewed about her experience advising the student government.

"The headlines are sensational," Greer wrote to the paper in October, "the editorials are sometimes nonsensical and some of the stories use wording that makes it sounds like there's a problem."

It's hard to imagine now but politeness once pervaded the school's rural, pine-laden campus in the Upper Peninsula town of Marquette.

During basketball games students are stone silent during the other team's free throws, a show of civility unheard of in the noisy ramparts of Ann Arbor and East Lansing.

The genteel tableau was upset last year by a reinvigorated North Wind.

The paper began taking a hard look at the school, writing about the prices of textbooks at the university bookstore, the number of sexual assaults on campus and a program that gives laptops to every student.

During the hullabaloo over Starbucks — Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz is an alumnus — the paper further tweaked the company by running a student taste test won by another coffee brand served at the school.

"The previous paper had cupcake stories," said Brice Burge, 26, a senior who writes a blog about the school and Marquette. "They're pushing the right buttons. They're doing a good job."

The aggressive coverage sometimes dips into sensationalism, such as a September story that referred to a spending account controlled by the student government as a "slush fund."

A survey by the student government last month found that most students thought the paper was doing a good job, although some found it too critical.

"They are like Fox news, but instead of hating democrats they hate NMU," wrote one student.

The paper's newfound combativeness reflects its adviser, who was hired in August, said the staff.

Reed, 48, is a former investigative reporter who quit as editorial page editor of the Chicago Sun-Times in 2008 after the paper rewrote her staff's endorsements in the two presidential primaries.

In emails and interviews, Reed's young charges use her words and expressions when discussing the need for an unfettered press.

But the adviser has exacerbated the paper's fraught relations with the school by being unduly confrontational, said administrators.

When an administrator objected to a reporter trying to interview the suspended school hockey coach by going to his home, Reed criticized the complainant's lack of journalism knowledge.

"I don't know how to impress upon you, a lay person, that this is what is expected in the real world beyond the gentle confines of NMU," she wrote in a January email to Alan McEvoy, head of the Sociology and Anthropology Department.

'Sounded like a threat'

In September, the North Wind wanted to see if Starbucks had received preferential treatment when the school closed a rival coffee stand.

The paper sought a copy of the contract and, after several delays, the school said it couldn't release it because of a confidentiality agreement, according to the school and the paper.

The school then said it had misspoken and would provide the contract as soon as Starbucks was notified about its release.

The paper received the contract Oct. 28, six weeks after requesting it.

School spokesman Derek Hall said last month it's "possible" the school could have moved faster in providing the contract. "We could have pushed harder with legal counsel," he said.

On Oct. 30, the paper published a story, "NMU Signed Secret Starbucks Deal," referring to the confidentiality agreement.

As for the closing of the rival coffee stand, it turned out the stand was a makeshift operation and its brand, Stone Creek, is still offered at various eateries on campus, the paper reported.

Ten days later, Emma Finkbeiner, the paper's news editor, was talking to an administrator about another issue when he brought up the newspaper.

Jim Cantrill, head of the Communication & Performance Studies Department, told her he had just been contacted by an unnamed administrator who wanted to meet with Cantrill to discuss the paper, according to Cantrill and Finkbeiner.

Finkbeiner, a junior, is a public relations major whose main courses are in Cantrill's department.

Cantrill told her the paper needed to ensure its stories were accurate and fair because, if they weren't, the paper could lose its funding from the student activity fee, according to interviews with the pair.

"It sounded like a threat," Finkbeiner said last month. "I'm a 20-year-old student. It feels like David and Goliath."

She filed an intimidation complaint with the school's equal opportunity office, which ruled the charge was unfounded.

Cantrill said he wasn't trying to threaten the student, only that he was concerned for her welfare. "Students are in a powerless position," he said last month. "Part of our role is to help them out."

As for the meeting with the administrator, Cantrill said the official was seeking Cantrill's expertise in how the school could improve its relations with the newspaper.

More pressures

Meanwhile, another North Wind editor was dealing with pressures of her own.

A week before Cantrill's talk with Finkbeiner, a professor in his department, Tom Isaacson, called Editor-in-Chief Katie Bultman into a meeting and criticized the paper, said Isaacson.

Isaacson, assistant professor of communication studies, questioned what subjects the paper chose to write about, whether it covers them fairly and whether the headlines were accurate.

Bultman became so upset by the conversation she reported it to Reed, believing her work on the paper would hurt her chances of getting a job after graduation, said Reed.

Bultman, 20, a junior, was regularly bumping heads with administrators over the paper's struggles to obtain information for several stories, according to the emails, which were released in January.

When school President Fritz Erickson closed a meeting with student veterans to the press, Bultman protested and was rebuffed by Hall.

"Accusing the (school) President of infringing on Open Meetings law is serious and I assume you had a basis for doing so or you wouldn't have made such an allegation," Hall, the school spokesman, wrote to Bultman in a Nov. 14 email.

One week later, Bultman announced in an email to the newspaper board she would leave the paper at the end of the semester. The note attributed her departure to the pressure of the job and a heavy course load the following semester.

"I have been contemplating my position here for some time," she wrote. "This job can be very stressful at times."

In a brief interview last month, she said most of the stress emanated from the Starbucks story.

After the two editors were approached by Cantrill and Isaacson, the newspaper sought the administration emails. The school, which didn't charge for earlier records requests by the paper, requested $613.

The paper's board turned down the editors' request for the money. The no votes included Steve Neiheisel, vice president for enrollment and student services, who also was the administrator who had met with Cantrill and Isaacson to discuss the paper.

Neiheisel said in a statement he didn't believe it was a conflict of interest to deny funding for a search of emails that included his own.

After a public outcry, the school waived the records request fee.

Finkbeiner, who replaced Bultman as editor-in-chief, said she thinks constantly about following her predecessor out the door.

It would certainly make school a lot easier, she said.

But the daughter of a Marquette police officer said she's not going anywhere.

"We're going to write the bad, we're going to write the good, we're going to write the ugly," she said. "That's just the way the news world works."

Sounding more like a grizzled reporter than a young public relations major, she said the North Wind has no intention of softening its coverage.

The paper recently requested records on the school board of trustees' spending on travel and other expenses. The story will be running imminently.

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell