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Man in the Middle

By Jon Reidel Article published January 31, 2007

Chris Evans
Chris Evans (R), assistant director for student media, and Austin Danforth III, managing editor of The Vermont Cynic, talk about upcoming issues of the student-run newspaper. (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

Chris Evans, assistant director for student media, doesn’t read The Vermont Cynic before it goes to press. That would seem unwise considering his job is to help improve the 125-year-old student-run newspaper. But from where Evans sits, which is somewhere between the students at the paper and the administration that hired him, it seems a very wise choice.

Here’s the daily dilemma. If Evans, hired in July 2006 by the Department of Student Life, interferes with content and layout prior to publication, student staffers — some of whom think Evans is an instrument of an administration that has no business meddling in the affairs of a student-run newspaper — would accuse him of influencing the final product. On the other hand, if an article runs that slams the administration or disparages the university, Evans, who says he’s never received pressure from an administrator, is off the hook, so to speak, because you can’t stop what you don’t see.

As the first full-time person in the new position, Evans is left to navigate these untested waters on his own and figure out how to accomplish his primary directive to improve The Cynic, radio station WRUV and UVMtv. His basic strategy: educate the student journalists about sound editorial practices and let the presses roll.

Evans comes to his new role at UVM with an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Kansas, where he worked on the school newspaper, and a master’s in fine arts from NYU. In addition to spending two years in the Peace Corps, Evans worked for the Stockton Record, St. Joseph News-Press and Florida Today as a reporter and news bureau chief. While in Florida, he also wrote a novel titled God’s Cellar and worked as news advisor at Valencia Community College, where he was credited with turning around the school newspaper.

Finding the right balance
“There’s been tension with students,” says Evans. “But I’m huge about protecting students’ First Amendment rights, and they know that. I see the paper when it hits the newsstand, which some weeks is a terrifying moment, but most weeks it’s a great one. The institutions are very established here and have a long history of being student-run, so when I make suggestions they are only that. Students can choose to ignore them or tell me that they’re insane or inane or whatever. Some suggestions stick and some don’t, but if the rate of improvement stays even marginally the same, I can hardly imagine how great they are going to be in four or five years.”

Like Evans, current members of The Cynic editorial staff acknowledge that the transition from very little oversight to having a full-time, experienced advisor has been a challenge. “There’s been a lot of conflict since he arrived,” says Chase Whiting, editor-in-chief. “Despite that, we really do respect him as a journalist and as an educator. He has a lot to offer and really has a lot of knowledge, especially about the mechanics of writing, and we look forward to working with him. We just don’t want to compromise the integrity of a newspaper that has been student-run for 125 years.”

Pat Brown, director of student life, says that any time you hire someone in a student advisory role it’s going to "take time to find common ground,” adding that Evans faces a “double-layered challenge” in that he’s new and is being asked to carry out a new institutional effort to help a student-run newspaper.

A new look
One of the most visible improvements since Evans' arrival, aside from content, has been a redesign of the entire look of the newspaper. Cynic design editor Lily March played an integral role in the new and improved look. She took a layout course from Evans and attended a design conference in St. Louis with him, both of which she says were helpful. A new section called “The B-Side” allows for more editorial opinion-based content and serves as a clear divider from harder news in the front section. “There wasn’t a real culture of attributing sources here, so there’s been a lot of opinion mixed with news. When I look at the newspaper this semester, I see a whole new product with much stronger attribution,” says Evans.

One of the ways Evans hopes to get his knowledge across without preaching it directly in the newsroom is through two new courses. With the help of Jane Kolodinsky, professor and department chair of Community Development and Applied Economics, and Lynn Gregory, assistant professor in CDAE, Evans started “College Media Internship,” which is open to staff members of radio, television or newspaper and “Newswriting Across Media.” Students can apply the information as they see fit when they head back to ”The Cynic or WRUV offices.

Looking ahead, Evans plans to spend more time at another long-standing UVM institution, WRUV radio, and the more recently developed UVMtv. He notes that all of UVM’s media outlets have felt somewhat ignored in the bowels of Billings for many years and that the upcoming move to much nicer, more prominent offices in the new Dudley H. Davis Student Center will help alleviate that issue.

“I have to do a lot of listening and make suggestions when necessary,” says Evans. “My biggest challenge is to pay attention to the ideas that stick and develop them. There have been some great improvements already, and I think as we figure things out it will only get better. I’m amazed at what they’ve done already.”