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Hiring and firing editors

November 6, 2019
How is a student publication hired or selected? More interesting than that, how do you fire one?
The latter question was the gist of a conversation I recently had with one California community college student publication adviser. The adviser was getting subtle pressure from the college administration to fire an editor, who, by the way, appears to be doing the job just fine.
The adviser wanted to know
  1. If he/she could be pressured to fire an editor,
  2. Who has the authority to fire the editor, and
  3. Under what grounds can an editor be fired?
Over my 40-plus years of advising community college student publications I “hired” upwards of 100 editors, both newspaper and magazines. Twice I had to fire an editor and at least two other times had to replace editors mid-semester because their life circumstances changed and they had to step down. (And I had the painful circumstance of losing one recent editor –from the semester before– who perished in a tragic off-road vehicle accident.)
I’ve always operated on the policy of the one who hires needs to be the one who fires. And I always felt that part of the reason the college hired me as the student publications adviser was because of my experience and expertise of what the job of editor required and how to train editors as leaders. That meant that the decision to hire fell in my lap.
I know that other California community college advisers have a variety of ways of making editor selections, so I specifically asked them in a SurveyMonkey poll and have summarized some of the results below. Fifteen responded and I have included some of their responses below. Bottom line: All but a couple indicated that the adviser is the one who hires. Several do so with the help of an advisory committee –usually former editors of the publication. Almost all indicated that editors are hired for one semester. I also know from another Journalism Association of Community Colleges initiative that about a third of the programs hire co-editors.
But sharing others’ responses, let me talk a bit about my experiences and policies over the years, especially since I had to actually fire two editors
The adviser I mentioned above was getting pressure from college administrators to fire the editor, who was actually doing his job. But that job included running a series of sensitive stories that for various reasons upset the administrators. That is the wrong reason to fire an editor; it flies in the face of freedom of speech and press.
California Education Code for high schools and colleges protects advisers who defend their students’ First Amendment rights.
And because both school administrators and the adviser at public institutions technically are government employees, I consider it to be illegal to fire because of content decisions. A trickier question has to do with the role of the adviser vs. the role of the adviser in editing or influencing content.
I remember one community college publication –not mine– where the editor(s) of the student newspaper were Holocaust deniers and used the publication to promote that view.
In another case, I heard of a student-written anti-Holocaust editorial being rewritten by the adviser to say exactly the opposite. That example was one I used to justify my hardline policy of not even reading stories before publication unless specifically being asked by an editor –the reporter had to go through an editor to get me to sit down and review a story. Once you start looking for spelling, grammar, style and factual errors where do you stop?
It is important that the adviser realize that he/she is NOT the editor. There is case law that addresses who has the right to act as publisher of a student newspaper at public schools and colleges. Even though the institution “owns” the publication, the institution and its administrators, as government employees, do not have the right to control content. It seems that the student editor is to be the final arbiter. (I recommend that you check with the Student Press Law Center at http://www.splc.org for specifics.)
I often pointed out that half the college –including many administrators– think as adviser I controlled content of the student publication, the other half thought I OUGHT to control content. And because so many of us are math challenged, I then said that the other (third) half knows better. Advising required a constant education of the college community as to the role and rights of a student publication and moving people to that “third half.”
But back to the topic of hiring and firing editors.
The two editors I fired were let go because they stopped attending class and running the publication in a manner consistent with a college class. (I was the adviser in charge of the class, but the structure we established a structure where the student editor ran and made content decisions for the publication.)
When a student editor has stepped over the line of missing class and doing his/her job is an individual decision and should be considered deeply. Give the errant editor ample warning and opportunity to correct the situation before taking the serious step of firing him/her.
When I started as an adviser selection of an editor was a seat-of-the-pants process that occurred in the first week(s) of a new semester when I saw who enrolled for the staff class. Over time, though, I discovered that a better process was to identify and train leaders the semester or school year BEFORE. And then I hired editors in a proscribed process spelled out by our written policy. To be sure, in a “two-year” community college (students often were there longer), there were still times when I had to draft an editor at the beginning of a semester, but most of the time after refining my process I had multiple qualified applicants each semester for the next semester.
Believe me, selecting a qualified editor toward the end of the previous semester is FAR SUPERIOR that last-minute drafting of an editor.
I also felt that even when there was only one candidate for the job, a proscribed process not only helped me make a wise decision, it helped the candidate develop a mindset to be editor. It also helped ward off interference from the college administration.
This is the process I used:
  1. The interested student submitted a simple letter indicating an interest and explaining why he/she wanted to be editor. I actively encouraged students to apply, even if only to get interview experience from the next step.
  2. I then assembled a committee of former editors to interview the candidates using a list of questions developed over the years to explore the thoughts and plans for the candidate toward editorship. It was constantly tweaked as the publication evolved and was designed to get the candidate to think about being editor. I sat in on the interviews*, but mostly tried to be a fly on the way rather than a participating member, though I sometimes intervened with followup questions based on some of the answers I heard.

* One semester I was so ill I should have been home. The medications I was taking to stay lucent caused me to fall asleep and snore during one interview. “I’m so NOT getting this job,” the applicant mused. I was embarrassed and apologized. She did not get the job, but not because she was boring. It was a difficult to make a final decision, but I believe I selected the better candidate.

  1. The committee made a recommendation based on the interviews. I mostly accepted the committee’s recommendation, sometimes against my own judgment. Occasionally I overruled the recommendation.
  2. The editor must then commit to signing up for the newspaper class the next semester and if he/she hadn’t already taken our beginning news writing class –it happened from time to time– to sign up for it, next semester, too.
  3. The editor can then select page and other editors. Because the editor hires/selects them, the editor can fire/dismiss them in consultation with the adviser. Even though the other editors are also enrolled in the class the editor cannot kick them out of the class and it is up to the adviser to make sure they get a fair shake in contributing to the publication.
In other words, the interview itself became an important learning experience for the candidate. It was important, too, to engage former editors who had gone through a similar learning experience; one’s job of teaching does not necessarily end when the student graduates.
As I mentioned above, there ARE other ways of selecting editors. My way worked for me and I believe was sound, but I respect other advisers’ policies as well. And I asked for feedback on what those polices involved.
Here are the responses I received from the advisers who responded to my request for a quick summary of their hiring process:
  • Adviser recommends EIC. EIC is interviewed by former EIC(s). EIC and ed board recommend and select section editors.
  • According to the student manual, the adviser selects the editor-in-chief
  • At the beginning of the semester, the EIC chooses likely candidate as front page editor or online editor or other positions. Toward the end of the semester, the EIC and I look at the performances. Usually, it’s obvious. This semester we had two good candidates and the EIC couldn’t decide. So we brought in all the former EICs for a consultation and the decision was unanimous.
  • Often there are bot multiple students vying for EIC so if there is only one, we go with it. If there are two or more students, I have then fill out an application and I and two other colleague interview them. I’m the tie-breaker vote but my colleagues always select the person who I would have chosen on my own.
  • Until last year, we had a formal process with letters of intent and interviews by advisers and outgoing editors. In the past year, we’ve adopted a less formal process because we have fewer students. Advisers will talk with promising students about becoming editors.
  • Three editors and two advisers select the EIC.  Candidates turn in a letter and supporting documents.  The EIC selects all other editors.  Again, candidates turn in a letter and supporting docs.
  • The adviser selects the EIC
  • Select with input from instructional assistants and current/previous editors.
  • Students run and prepare a platform with a slate of editors/staff. The candidates are interviewed by a panel of alumni/professionals (job interview). Advisors are in the interview as resources but non-voting.
  • Selected by the adviser. Students apply, the adviser decides. (In reality, we have not had a competition in year. We usually get only one applicant or get zero and have to beg a student to take on the role.)
  • We have an advisory board of five members. All are former editors-in-chief of the newspaper who work in the media industry. At the end of each semester, they choose the incoming editor-in-chief for the following semester.    Applicants fill out an application followed by a platform statement that outlines their vision and plans for the upcoming semester — the kinds of stories they’d like to do, who they are considering for section editor positions, how they see the role of journalism on a college campus. Those applications and platform statements are forwarded to the advisory board a week before the interviews. The board interviews each candidate, with the advisor(s) joining in a supervisory role but not asking questions. After all candidates are interviewed, the board makes a selection, and then brings each candidate back in for a debriefing and discussion about the selection.
  • Students are apply for editorships the last week of the previous quarter. EIC candidates are interviewed first by a committee of at least one reporter and one editor and the adviser, who has a vote and a veto. Section editors are then interviewed by EIC and at least one editor and one reporter and adviser, who does not vote but can veto.
  • I try to identify the potential EIC or Co-EICs at the end of each semester. Often times this is not possible because students haven’t yet registered for classes.  If this isn’t possible, I have to wait until the start of the semester and then just basically ask who is interested in being the EIC. Typically no more than two people volunteer, so those are the ones selected more or less by default.
  • Seat of the pants – whoever is left standing that will return next semester. Advisor chosen at this point.
  • Students apply, interview, and tested. There’s a committee.

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