A&E: R.I.P.

A&E editor Laura Czarnecki and 11 colleagues lost their jobs after the Minnesota Daily published its last arts section
Michael Dvorak

Legend that Bob Dylan once wrote music reviews for the Minnesota Daily has never been confirmed. But Garrison Keillor did edit The Ivory Tower, a predecessor to the paper's current arts and entertainment coverage. There's been a lot of similar name-dropping this year on the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus because the Daily, which bills itself as the "nation's largest college newspaper," is currently marking its 100th anniversary.

Two weeks ago, though, there was little celebration. Managers at the Daily announced the demise of the paper's weekly arts and entertainment section, which has existed under various names and in different forms since 1966, but has most commonly been called--as it was this past school year--A&E. (The twelve staffers who lost their jobs were not consulted before the shutdown, and in the wake of the decision letters of protest poured in while flyers--posted anonymously and reading "Where's A&E?"--went up around campus. In the Daily offices on University Avenue, staff is still arguing over management's judgment and how news of A&E's demise was handled in the pages of their own paper.

In two articles published last May in a commemorative magazine in honor of the Daily's 100th anniversary, Julia Grant--who edited A&E last year--chronicled the financial ups and downs historically associated with the section. According to Grant, she had helped reverse its fortunes. "A&E began to break even," she wrote. Grant reported that after weathering budget cuts in the late Nineties, "A&E rebounded. Ad sales flourished," and she concluded that the section "certainly seems to be on the right track."

But on Wednesday, October 25 Grant, now the editor in chief of the Daily, president Kevin Nicholson, and business manager Sam Rosen--together the three make up the paper's Office of the Publisher--announced that A&E's days as its own weekly pullout were over. The 12 part-time staffers who were working on the section were fired and given two weeks' severance pay. The final 12-page issue ran the next day, accompanied by a brief item on the front page of the Daily explaining management's financial rationale. Readers also learned that later in November the U of M's student paper plans to start publishing a page of art coverage per day.

News of the closing of A&E immediately brought cries of foul. By the following Monday, a note on the Letters to the Editor page reported that some 95 letters on the topic had already poured in (some supported the decision, many more denounced it). Advocates for the local arts community worry they have lost an essential publicity tool. Daily alumni lament the disappearance of a critical training ground, pointing to a host of local and national writers who began their careers at A&E, including current St. Paul Pioneer Press pop critic Jim Walsh and his Star Tribune counterpart, Jon Bream. (Current City Pages staffers who worked for A&E include David Schimke, Peter Scholtes, and the author of this article.)

Contrary to Grant's account in the Daily's anniversary magazine, newspaper management now claims A&E was a money loser. According to business manager Sam Rosen, the section lost between $50,000 and $150,000 in each of the last five years. The paper's current annual budget is approximately $2.6 million, roughly 15 percent (or $400,000) of which is made up of student service fees. The bulk of operating revenue is generated by advertising sales. The Daily, which is essentially a break-even operation, prints 31,000 copies a day during the regular school year and employs 175 part-timers. Despite A&E's deficit, though, Rosen maintains that the paper as a whole has not lost money for two years.

Grant recalls that she initially made a recommendation to shutter A&E while she was still editor of the section, but says that the previous editor in chief didn't want it to happen on his watch. Grant's argument then and now is that having a page of arts reporting in the paper every day ensures improved coverage: "This is not about 'How can we cut back arts readership?' This is about how can we cover everything better in a more efficient manner," says Grant. "This is how we can have one better publication." Total arts pages will drop from 12 per week to about five. (When asked about her rosy account of A&E in the Daily's anniversary publication, Grant backpedals: "We had individual issues that would break even. Overall, we weren't breaking even.")

"This wasn't an easy decision to make," Grant says when asked why, as editor of the Daily, she decided to fold the section midsemester rather than at the end of fall term. "I hope people understand that this was years in the making and it came time to act on it, rather than passing it on to the next person."

Laura Czarnecki, who had been A&E's editor for just six weeks before the ax fell, says she and her staff were blind-sided by the decision: "No one was consulted in A&E or anywhere," she says, making a charge that Grant confirms. "They claim that they have marketing figures that they're basing this on, but they didn't make them available to anyone who was asking to review them." Czarnecki adds that A&E is an especially vital training ground for new writers because the university's journalism program offers little arts-writing education. And although Grant is already looking to hire four new reporters to do art coverage for the daily paper, Czarnecki has no interest in applying.

Staffers at the Daily are also learning some tough lessons about newsroom politics. After the paper published a followup on A&E's closure on October 27 ("Daily management, staff clash over end of A&E"), Grant signed written warnings to the associate editor Craig Gustafson (who penned the piece), managing editor Sarah McKenzie, and news editor Liz Bogut. According to Grant, several Daily board members wanted the trio fired.

"I think this is really a slam against the integrity of the Daily," says Gustafson, a senior in the school's journalism program. "Who else is going to write the story? The Daily should write the definitive story of what happened." McKenzie says that the office mood has soured: "There's a lot of tension and bitterness right now."

Grant apparently agrees with her managing editor. Late last week she withdrew the warnings. "I made a mistake," the editor says wearily.

Professor Dan Sullivan, a professor of media management and economics in the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, says it's these kinds of real-world experiences that make the Daily, which predates the school, so valuable. While the newspaper operates completely independently of the journalism program, Sullivan serves as an advisor to the Daily. He wonders if the Daily's board of directors may want to review the decision, so that students can learn something from the process. "It's clear that there are a number of employees who are upset, it's clear that there's been a lot of outcry," says Sullivan. "That suggests it could have been handled better." Sullivan adds that as a nonprofit organization, the Daily is fiscally stable. "It's not as though the A&E section was threatening the financial viability of the Daily," says Sullivan. "I am concerned that, in the press release, they put all the focus on the financial element, when I don't think you'll find in the Daily's mission that its supposed to make a lot of money."

Outside the offices of the Daily, campus arts organizations are openly unhappy. Dale Schatzlein, director of the Department of Concerts and Lectures at the university (which programs and manages Northrop Memorial Auditorium) says that almost every newspaper of consequence has a separate arts section, including the New York Times's Living Arts section. "What is the Daily saying? We've got the Dead Arts?" wonders Schatzlein, who worked as the paper's business manager in 1968. Back then, he says, advertisers welcomed the emerging section. "What we found was that the advertising actually increased by arts-related businesses, because they had their own section." Schatzlein speculates that Northrop will now do less advertising in the Daily. Karen Casanova, director of public affairs at the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum on campus, echoes Schatzlein's sentiments about advertising: "We probably won't do as much, because it won't reach as targeted an audience."

Many past Daily staffers have also voiced their unhappiness with the decision. R. Scott Rogers, now associate editor of the Chicago-based Corporate Legal Times, served as editor in chief of the Daily during the 1997-98 school year. Rogers says that there has been a historical tendency for those on the business side of the student newspaper to unfairly view A&E as a separate, money-losing publication, rather than being an integral part of the organization. "Obviously the photo department doesn't make any money either. Nobody buys ads for photos," observes Rogers.

One long-term Daily staffer figures that A&E will rise again, simply because that's the ever-cyclical nature of a campus newspaper, where students spend a few years and move on. John Slothower served as the Daily's production manager from 1981 to 1996. In that time, he says, the paper's arts coverage expanded and contracted with the times. In the early Eighties, when the section was called d'ART, its efforts to break away from the Daily itself collapsed and A&E returned to the paper. Slothower figures the cycle will continue. "I sort of view it as life as usual, and that's a very long-range historical perspective. You know, A&E happens," he concludes. "It wouldn't be the Daily if it didn't."

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