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Suspended Minnesota Daily editor resigns; why?

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 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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Comments (6)

Welcome to the news business, you kids. How do you like it so far?

Bob, I highly encourage you to take a tour of the Daily and then re-weigh the intended humor in your comment. Nobody could ever appreciate the scope of that newspaper until you've looked behind the curtain (although alums of the Harvard Crimson can likely grasp the complexities). Running a newspaper is tough - running a full-time, daily newspaper with a staff of 100% students all working towards earning their degree is a miracle with each publication.

As a former Daily alum, though not an OP, I really think that the $3,000 bonus isn't something the board nor the staff nor the OP takes lightly. Calling it a bonus is more of a formality; it should be seen as a retroactive pay adjustment for a position that's only paid 30/hrs a week but is expected to contribute 50/hrs each week. (Though there are others at the Daily who put in more time for less - the night production team, who deserve endless respect)

If anything, David's article and this controversy bring to light just how serious the Daily is about their publication and maintaining their credibility. If more print publications replicated the action and transparency the Daily demonstrates each year, then I suspect the industry would be in a much better place.

Last fall, while reporting a story on future journalists, I spent a couple of months inside the University of Minnesota journalism school--my alma mater. Much of that time was with Vadim Lavrusik. I don't know the details of his news-sharing with the Star Tribune...or whether he planned to accept a bonus he had previously said he would not take...but the suggestion by some Daily staffers that Vadim is greedy and duplicitous is at odds with the impression I have of him. Their airing of an internal dispute via an open letter to readers is childish...but it wouldn't hurt for everyone to take a deep breath and remember that those involved are, in fact, young and inexperienced and still apt to make the occasional less-than-mature decision. Best result would be for Vadim Lavrusik's resignation to be rejected and for all concerned to chill out.

As Eric Caron correctly notes in an earlier comment, being editor of the Daily carries with it a level of responsibily and a commitment of time far beyond what is stipulated in the contract. Whatever Vadim Lavrusik has fairly earned for his work, what he's ended up with isn't right.

Back when I went to college, we had an underground newspaper *not* funded by tuition fees. It was funded the old fashioned way--gritty reporters working to fill a real demand for information (as opposed to spin) and advertising revenue.

It was much better than the student fee funded papers you write about.

[Golden] would not disclose pay, stating "as a nonprofit independent organization, we have no obligation to disclose salaries and compensation."

I'm stunned by this inaccurate statement --especially coming from a journalist -- and even more perplexed by Brauer's choice to run this quotation without fact-checking.

Contrary to what Golden's statement would lead readers to believe, this is not private infomation. Staff compensation is on pp. 21-24 of Minnesota Daily's 990 for 2007. Per the IRS, this is PUBLIC information and is available online.

In the 2007 tax return for MN Daily, Perez, Scholz, and Lavurisk were each paid $10,866 for working 5/13/08-8/31/08. (The fiscal year is Sept-Aug, but positions turn over in May.) The people named as Editor in Chief, Chair, and Business Manager from 9/1/07 until 5/12/08 earned $22,578 each. Add those two figures together, and the annual compensation paid out for each position during the 2008 fiscal year was $33,444.

If Golden didn't want to disclose salaries, she should have been clear that *she* was declining to answer the question directly, rather than implying that nonprofit status protected and/or prevented her from having to do so.

Hiding behind nonprofit status as the justification for non-disclosure of financials is entirely inaccurate. I'm left wondering if her statement was meant to deliberately mislead readers, or if Golden and the other directors who are leading the Minnesota Daily need to brush up on their understanding of the organization's rights and responsibilities as a nonprofit.

Abigail - you make a good point, although this was breaking news and didn't really have chance to fact-check. (There's always another call or three to make.) That's why I presented it as Golden's version and not my own.

Mike Rose had the best figures and I presented them in the story. I didn't want to mingle 2007-08 and 08-09 numbers because we were only speaking about the current crew's contract and Golden (who joined the board this fall) didn't know previous year figures.

Also, because of unaccepted fall bonuses, it's probably wrong to meld two year's figures.

If your info is correct, you're right, the Daily board should be criticized. (Golden checked with someone else in the org, but not sure who.)

Certainly, I should go back and make a more formal request for the data, just to make clear the Daily can't hide it.

Thanks for the careful reading and a reminder of the power of 990s.