Signal magazine removed from Orientation by new VP

Students at Orientation table
Students register for class at New Student Orientation last year. Photo Courtesy of Georgia State University PR & Marketing Communications

Since 2012, Georgia State has followed a tradition of sharing The Signal’s journalism with new students. This year, Signal staff spent months preparing and creating the annual edition of The Urbanite before it was printed in early May. And then that tradition was broken.

The Signal has published this annual summer magazine, The Urbanite, to be distributed through New Student Orientation since 2014.

The magazine is typically placed in the bags given to every new freshman attending Orientation throughout the summer, and it’s the only piece of student-produced content included in Orientation.

This year, the sixth edition of The Urbanite was bigger than ever: 52 pages, 10,000 copies and a production cost of nearly $8,000. Last year’s edition was only 32 pages and 8,000 copies, with a cost of just over $3,000.

But The Urbanite won’t be distributed at this year’s Orientation due to a decision made by a newly appointed university administrator, and concerns about the magazine’s content may have played a role.

The Investigation

Signal Editor-in-Chief Daniel Varitek and Director of Student Media Bryce McNeil were notified on June 3 of that decision. Heather Housley, director of international student and scholar services, sent an email disclosing that Orientation organizers had been reviewing their practices and processes this year.

“This review includes consideration of all the information we provide during orientation, including how to avoid using paper as much as possible,” Housley said. “We have thus decided to not include the Urbanite in the bags provided to new freshman [sic] this summer, but welcome you to retrieve them and distribute them publicly on campus instead.”

At the time Housley sent her email, the magazine’s 10,000 copies had already been printed three weeks prior and delivered to the Orientation office.

Through an open records request, The Signal discovered that the first communications begin in early March. Housley commends The Signal for last year’s magazine as an “outstanding job” with “excellent content,” noting that she was “impressed with how useful it would be for incoming students.”

She also wrote to Varitek, requesting to receive the magazine as early as May 8, if possible.

“I have been in communication with the Signal about the publication to ensure that it will remain in the student bags this Summer,” Adriann Stinson, an Orientation coordinator, also wrote in the initial email chain.

A Decision Made

After receiving a copy of the magazine, Allison Calhoun-Brown, newly appointed vice president for student engagement and programs, shows a turn in her opinion of The Urbanite. In an email to Boyd Beckwith, the Student Center director, on May 23, Calhoun-Brown included a scanned image of the article on page 33, titled “Students with alternative jobs.”

The article, which served as a dichotomy to another, “On-campus jobs for everyone” on page 36, featured a stripper, a sugar baby and a marijuana dealer.

“I am reading the Signal’s Urbanite and have some questions about how this publication [sic]. Please see the attached page as an example of my concern,” Calhoun-Brown’s email stated. “Black marketing selling is not an alternative job, it is a crime.”

A scanned image of page 33 in The Urbanite
This scanned image was copied on Allison Calhoun-Brown’s original email. It was obtained through an open records request.

That same day, Calhoun-Brown sent an email with her decision that they would “not use the Urbanite publication for new student orientation this year.”

When Varitek received the notice on June 3, the cause for removing the publication didn’t mention Calhoun-Brown’s concern about the article on page 33 at all.

In fact, it was described as a result of needing to decrease paper usage.

“The abrupt nature of this decision deeply concerns me,” Varitek replied in an email to the decision. “Our talented staff spend months strategizing and producing this magazine specifically to be distributed via [Orientation].”

In the emails obtained through the open records request, a discussion of paper usage as it pertains to The Urbanite was never mentioned prior to the decision.

Hamza Rahman, Atlanta executive vice president of the Student Government Association, later emailed Calhoun-Brown, advocating for The Signal and requesting to meet with Calhoun-Brown to have a discussion.

“Recently, it was brought to my attention that The Urbanite, the Signal’s independent magazine was pulled from the New Student Orientation Bags,” Rahman said. “As a member of Student Government, this is quite concerning.”

Calhoun-Brown replied to Rahman, “Our hope is that the enhanced small group experience will provide students with a stronger sense of the campus community and that they will get a better feel for where resources are available – including student publications like the Signal.”

Editor-in-Chief and University Comment

“It’s very clear to me that Georgia State has chosen to protect their image over respecting truthful, independent journalism,” Varitek told The Signal in an interview this week. “That is deeply concerning to me.”

He believes Georgia State’s leadership was being dishonest in their reasoning for removing The Urbanite from Orientation.

“Yes, some of our students strip to pay their tuition. Yes, some of them sell drugs, too. As our school’s independent newspaper, it’s not our place to say if we agree with that or not,” Varitek said.

But not reporting on that truth is ignoring The Signal’s journalistic responsibility, according to Varitek.

“Unfortunately, the truth of our student body has been caught in the crosshairs of Georgia State’s desired brand image,” he said.

Varitek sees The Signal’s responsibility as voicing the student experience at Georgia State.

“Silencing — or purposely hiding — that voice in any fashion should be a warning to our student body,” Varitek said.

Varitek noted that Georgia State had an opportunity to show integrity by honoring their longstanding arrangement.

Andrea Jones, associate vice president for public relations and marketing communications, denied claims of censorship.

“As Dr. Calhoun-Brown explained in the meeting with the Signal editor, there was concern about distributing the Urbanite in the bags given to students by the university. It is also true that the university is limiting the amount of print materials being distributed at orientation,” Jones said. “There was never an attempt to censor students or the publication. The Urbanite is still widely available to students.”

Creating The Urbanite

The first Urbanite magazine was published on June 4, 2015 under The Signal’s 2014-15 editor-in-chief, Anna Yang.

Chris Shattuck, 2013-14 editor, was instrumental in creating an unwritten agreement for the magazine to be distributed at Orientation.

The Urbanite summer magazine was not the first of its name. In the past, “The Urbanite” was assigned to the Arts and Entertainment section of The Signal. Later, The Urbanite became a separate publication by The Signal as a pet project of a former editor, according to Shattuck.

“We negotiated a printing budget increase to bring back The Urbanite – as the summer magazine,” Shattuck said.

However, including a product of The Signal in Orientation bags wasn’t a new concept. Prior to this, a summer newspaper issue was included – entirely identical to a traditional issue of The Signal, but written for a summer audience – in the Orientation bags.

This tradition was then carried over to the distribution of The Urbanite, according to McNeil.

“There’s never been a formal agreement to begin with, it’s just kind of been an unspoken understanding,” McNeil said.

The first issue of The Urbanite was developed with special one-time funding and two main goals: finding a new creative way to present content, and increasing advertising revenue.

Shattuck explained that there was an incentive for both sides on this unwritten deal: The Signal had a chance to increase distribution and exposure to their publication, and the university could introduce students to organizations and promote involvement on campus.

Separation from New Student Orientation

As for the decision to pull this year’s issue from the Orientation bags, McNeil said he was not involved with the decision directly and was informed at the same time Varitek was.

However, McNeil had heard about discontent for parts of the article on page 27 and the entirety of the article on page 33, specifically after receiving a call from the director of career services.

The only similar situation that McNeil could recall was when students were tabling at a previous Orientation, showcasing that year’s articles. One of the cover articles featured campus crime and gun safety.

“I just remember hearing murmurings of disapproval, like ‘We don’t want parents seeing that and freaking out,’” he said.

However, no further action was taken at that time. McNeil doesn’t see The Urbanite’s removal as a censorship issue.

“If they told students to pull it off the newsstand, that’s a censorship issue, but not putting it in the bag is just saying, ‘We aren’t going to do the work for you,’” he said.

McNeil has some concern for the official reason – to “avoid using paper” – for pulling this year’s issue.

“It would have been nicer to have those conversations at an earlier time, before the issue was printed,” he said.