Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Daily Editor Resigns - Why?

David Brauer writes in Minnpost:

By David Brauer | Published Wed, May 6 2009 6:25 pm

According to the Minnesota Daily, editor-in-chief and co-publisher Vadim Lavrusik resigned Wednesday, just days after being suspended for impermissibly sharing content with the Star Tribune, where he was a journalist on classroom assignment.

Lavrusik was suspended for a week as of last Sunday. On Tuesday, he went into the paper's computer system and downgraded "to less prominent placement on the Daily homepage" a letter written by two Daily editors criticizing management bonuses.

The Daily story notes Lavrusik's resignation "came before The Minnesota Daily Board of Directors determined whether or not this action violated his suspension."

Lavrusik told the Daily that he re-ranked the online piece to "the way [it] would appear in the paper." The implication is that staffers left the letter in a more prominent position than it otherwise would have been.

Contacted shortly before today's story appeared, acting editor-in-chief and letter co-writer Mike Rose would not comment on what was afoot, so I was unable to ask him about the placement issue.

Gayle Golden, a U journalism lecturer and Daily board member, said her group would meet Wednesday to discuss the matter, adding, "Vadim has been a highly effective leader the lion's share of the year, and his instincts have been great. Beyond that, I have no other comment."

The resignation caps a tense several months at student-run media organization, where plunging revenues forced cancellation of the Friday print edition as some staffers absorbed 50 percent pay cuts.

Lavrusik's fall began in the late hours of April 24, when more than 500 revelers from the U's Spring Jam tore down street signs, built fires, damaged cars and battled police. Lavrusik helped coordinate the Daily's coverage, sending out Twitter updates as the breaking news rolled out.

A Star Tribune staffer saw the tweets, and knowing Lavrusik worked at that paper, asked an editor to contact the student for more information. Lavrusik shared details; as an unasked-for reward, the editor gave him a byline, Strib managing editor Rene Sanchez says.

In an interview before Lavrusik's resignation became public, Rose said some Daily staffers were outraged, feeling Lavrusik had shared proprietary reportage beyond his own fact-gathering. The Strib later amended the story to credit the Daily staff.

In a pre-resignation interview, Lavrusik acknowledged mistakenly wearing two hats that evening. "I've been sick about it all week," he said, adding that he apologized, held a meeting with the reporters directly affected, and staged an open newsroom discussion.

Sanchez defends the young journalist, saying "We had a pressure-packed situation and simply a miscommunication on a hasty phone call after midnight in the middle of a growing street disturbance. I don't believe either the editor or the intern intended to have any of the facts misplaced or not credited the right way."

Nevertheless, Rose says some staffers wanted Lavrusik's resignation immediately; others were impressed with the editor's apology and contrition and felt it was "time to move on."

For his part, Rose says he believed "some kind of punishment was necessary."

The board independently levied the one-week suspension. (Sanchez notes no one called him for the Strib's perspective.) Lavrusik said he also lost a $3,000 bonus the board had awarded just days before.

Similar bonuses — given to the two other member of the Daily's "Office of the Publisher," or OP — touched off the controversy's next phase: the front-page letter from Rose and city editor Andy Mannix.

In it, the pair contrasted the bonuses with "massive pay cuts ... discontinuing a Friday print edition and cutting entire departments and sections of the newspaper."

Rose says most reporters now work for $3 a published column inch. "You cut an inch off a story, that's a meal," he notes.

Meanwhile, Lavrusik and business-side co-publishers John Scholz and Robin Perez were working under employment contracts signed before the economy tanked; Golden says the deals were not renegotiated. She would not disclose pay, stating "as a nonprofit independent organization, we have no obligation to disclose salaries and compensation."

However, Rose says the three OP members' pay was approximately $16.50 an hour for a 30-hour week, or about $500 a week.

As part of that agreement, the triumvirate was also eligible for summer, fall, and spring bonuses, though Golden indicates it was more like base compensation.

The bonuses were "put in place, quite frankly, to make sure seniors don't slump in the spring," she says. "There might be a better word than bonus, but that's the word we're using."

In solidarity with other Daily employees, Lavrusik, Scholz and Perez voluntarily gave up their fall bonuses; Lavrusik indicated in a December email to the newsroom that spring bonuses would be given up as well.

That expectation helped fuel the outrage that erupted on the Daily's pages this week.

Rose says the staff swallowed the pay cuts and elimination of publishing days and sections "under the premise that the OP would forgo bonuses; Vadim indicated it would be for spring."

It's unclear whether Scholz or Perez agreed to give up the money; speaking for both, Perez declined comment beyond a statement published Wednesday that does not address the decision.

Golden says she had no discussion with OP members about giving up the spring bonuses. For his part, Rose says if there was $6,000-$9,000 available at year's end, "it should compensate the folks making less than minimum wage."

From the board perspective, Golden says awarding the bonuses was practically mandatory.

"Despite going through a really difficult time, the OP left the organization [with a] $47,000 [surplus], created new revenue streams and significantly improved the product," Golden notes. "They met their goals."

Rose says he has some second thoughts about giving his and Mannix's letter such prominence, which unintentionally became Lavrusik's undoing.

Rose acknowledges the controversy might have been better covered as a news story, though he wasn't sure who would write it. And he notes that that he gave Scholz and Perez the opportunity to publish a side-by-side rebuttal Tuesday; they passed, only to respond the following day.

Still, given the Daily's $500,000 from student fees, he has no regrets about publicizing the financial dirty laundry. "Institutions cover themselves all the time; think of Par Ridder, or the Star Tribune's bankruptcy. We just felt it was something readers should know."

As for Lavrusik, he almost made it to the finish line in tough times that have stressed experienced professionals; his resignation came just two days before the Daily's final issue of the semester.

I don't know Lavrusik well; we met for the first time that fateful Spring Jam night at a Daily alumni banquet. He struck me as a bright, earnest guy. Speaking to him this morning before he resigned, I could feel the agony of a guy beating the crap out of himself for a boneheaded move, which only helped enable a second boneheaded move. At least to me, he seemed genuinely chastened and also a bit at sea.

As a former Daily section editor, I can tell you the paper was my best college experience because it was so real: the fights with the business side, trying to manage peers — and yourself — while thousands of students, hundreds of faculty, and dozens of administrators examine your words with a microscope.

The Daily is an awesome finishing school, as editors nationwide can attest. Many current staffers will kick ass in the real world, whether in journalism or someplace else. It would be a damn shame if a few bad days doomed the career of one of them.

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