Is the Roadrunner dead?
Butte College’s journalism students wonder what happened to their fledgling paper
Talk about tight deadlines.
There’s just six weeks left in the summer for Butte College students, and staff members of the college’s student newspaper, the Roadrunner, still aren’t sure they have a paper to return to. They’d hoped to publish a back-to-school edition on Aug. 26, but the college’s administration has put the paper’s future on hold—at least for now.
“We’re not really sure where we stand right now,” said staff writer Stuart Kuhlman. “That’s the problem. … We’re trying to remain positive that things will work out, but no one is really sure.”
Little is clear about the future of the student newspaper, but what is clear is this: The administration and the student staff are clearly at odds about the future of the newspaper. The students want an independent paper, free from the editorial control of the administration; but the administration seems to be hesitant to give them that.
To make matters worse for the staff, the paper’s adviser left the college this spring, leaving the paper without a strong advocate at the administrative level, and now the very future of the paper in limbo.
To say the least, The Roadrunner has been touch-and-go from the start.
It was the brainchild of former adviser Linda Meilink, a full-time newspaper editor and part-time college instructor who told her Basic Newswriting students on the first day of class last fall that instead of concentrating on the theory of the news business, they would learn it by practicing it.
The Roadrunner was a strong part of the college’s mix through the 1970s and early ‘80s and an integral part of the college’s journalism program, but it was allowed to die several years ago.
So the dozen or so students who became the newspaper’s staff had no choice but to start it—or restart it—from scratch. They raised money to buy supplies, traded some of their personal computer equipment for staff computers, and say they proudly pieced together the rest of the paper’s infrastructure with the proverbial duct tape and wire hangers.
It was no small feat. The college didn’t provide an office for the staff, so they wrote stories at campus computer labs before Meilink finally convinced the Private Industry Council to donate the use of a vacant office on Otterson Drive.
The first issues are spotty, but evidence of the staff’s hard work behind the scenes is obvious. They managed to raise upward of $5,000 through donations and ads to operate the paper, but while the staff was working hard to improve the paper, relations with the campus administration went from tense to often outright hostile.
Meilink, who no longer works for the college, said that the college administration seemed excited about the prospect of a campus newspaper at first but quickly lost its zeal for the project when it started publishing.
“I think they wanted it to be a cute little place where English students could showcase their papers and the administration could promote Measure A,” Meilink said, referring to the bond measure passed in March that gave the college millions of dollars to expand and repair its aging facilities. “They never wanted it to have any teeth.”
Administrators complained that the paper was full of errors and “an embarrassment” to the campus, Meilink said. They proposed a pre-publication review board to approve the paper, something that Meilink staunchly refused.
“They just kept on saying, ‘This is an embarrassment to the campus community,'” she said. “It was a huge fiasco.”
It was frustrating for the students, too. While administrators were complaining about the errors in the fledgling paper, the staff was working nights and weekends, trying to establish an advertising base strong enough to support the paper. It was initially funded with a $2,000 endowment from the Butte College Foundation, but that sum was quickly eaten up with start-up supplies.
Sally Mau, a 59-year-old student who’s become the paper’s de facto spokesperson, said she’d never thought of becoming a journalist before she joined the newspaper staff. Now, though, it’s “in [her] blood.”
“This class turned out to be not just a normal class,” she said. “We weren’t just doing class work and then going home. … We spent days and weeks and many, many all-nighters trying to put this thing together, and it just seems like we’re getting shut down before we even got a chance to really get started.”
The staff is also chagrined that the college has virtually locked them out of their temporary offices on Otterson Drive, apparently until school starts again. Because they can’t use the computers and phones they raised money to buy, they’re largely unable to make the contact with sources and advertisers they need to put the paper out.
Mau added that the college sorts all their mail, and that the mail they receive is opened first by college officials.
“It makes it hard to know what we’re not getting,” Mau said.
Jim Whitehouse, dean of Butte College’s Transfer and General Education Department, acknowledged that the administration is having “lots of meetings” about the paper but said that the college has every intention of keeping it afloat.
How that will play out, though, and whether the administration will flex its muscles over the content of the paper is still in flux. Historically, courts have held that college-level newspapers have First Amendment protections.
“We’re figuring out now exactly how we can keep it operational,” Whitehouse said. “I wish I could tell you more about the specifics, but we just don’t know them right now.”
He downplayed the reported tension between the staff and the administration and chalked up staff complaints about the perception of the administration’s lack of support to a series of communication errors.
He added that the administration has selected a Butte College English professor to be the paper’s new adviser, even though he won’t be able to start until next spring. His course load is full this fall, Whitehouse said.
While they’re aware that they apparently have a new adviser, the student staff still doesn’t know if they have a paper this fall.
“If they’ve made any decisions, they haven’t told us about them," Kuhlman said.