Last week, as nearly all University of Minnesota Duluth students remained away from campus, an email landed in the inbox of Heidi Stang.
The new editor-in-chief at The Bark, UMD's student-run news organization, learned she and her colleagues had just 11 days to vacate the publication's office in the Kirby Student Center.
"I didn't see this coming," said Stang, who is currently in her hometown of Annandale, Minnesota. "I didn't feel like we were at all threatened in that regard."
Student staff was told the eviction was necessary to make room for Bulldog Beginnings, a new full-year program to help first-year students transition to academic and social life at UMD.
For The Bark staff — suddenly left without a permanent space to hold meetings, conduct interviews or recruit new students — it set off a scramble to preserve their place on campus just weeks before an already unprecedented academic year is set to begin.
After an appeal from Stang and fellow staff, Kirby officials on Tuesday granted a slight reprieve, informing The Bark that it can remain through the next academic year or until a new office space is secured, whichever comes first.
"I think the kids were just blindsided by it," said Mark Nicklawske, a freelance journalist who has served as The Bark's editorial adviser for two years. "They weren't asked any questions about it; they weren't drawn into any surveys. I understand Kirby is a busy place and in high demand, but they just made the decision without consulting anybody."
The Bark will now be forced to find a new home elsewhere on campus, with both Stang and Nicklawske saying it would be impractical to go without a permanent office. But the staff has been informed that it won't be in Kirby, a particularly busy area of campus that has housed the newspaper for many decades.
"Kirby Student Center exists to foster community on campus," said Jennifer Moore, an associate professor of journalism at UMD. "How does evicting student media from the heart of campus serve Kirby's mission?"
'Sense of community'
The Bark was notified of the decision in a July 21 email from Kirby Student Center Assistant Director Jessi Gile Eaton, who acknowledged the "difficult news" but explained that the office space needed to be cleared out quickly due to the approaching freshmen Welcome Week.
The Bark is not technically a Kirby program, Eaton said, but does have an agreement to receive some advisement services from staff. Bulldog Beginnings, on the other hand, is a Kirby Student Center initiative that requires an office space.
"I truly believe that this move will not be a major detriment to the Bark or the journalism program," Eaton wrote. "As the Bark has become more and more digital, we have observed the use of the office decrease dramatically; the students are able to work from anywhere, with their own technology, so I hope that this will be nothing more than an inconvenience."
Stang acknowledged that the news organization has operated remotely since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced a shutdown of in-person activities at UMD. But she disagreed with the suggestion that a permanent office may not be necessary in the long run.
"We're in there all the time," Stang said. "That's where we hold our weekly budget meetings. If someone is doing an interview, they can come to the office; we know we have a space that's quiet for them. Classes come in there. People write their stories in there. It's a really valuable space for us."
Ken Risdon, a professor emeritus of writing studies, said he recalls the student newspaper occupying a central location in Kirby throughout his 44 years at UMD.
Zack Benz, a December 2019 graduate, was disappointed to learn about the change. He held many roles at The Bark, from volunteer to print managing editor, and said he found the office to be an important place to collaborate and learn from his peers.
"I don't think I would've stayed at UMD without The Bark," said Benz, who now works at the Hometown Focus publication in Virginia and runs the online nonprofit Daily Planet website. "I wouldn't have had that sense of community if not for the school paper."
Era of challenges, changes
The student media organization has experienced a rather tumultuous half-decade.
The publication, then known as The Statesman, was forced to relocate during a major renovation project in Kirby and now occupies a much smaller space than it once did.
The Statesman was rebranded as "The Bark" in 2017, moving to a digital-first model that prioritizes web content. Instead of a weekly newspaper, the team now produces a monthly magazine-style print edition to be distributed around campus.
Meanwhile, The Bark's funding was slashed from $35,000 in 2017-18 to $20,000 in 2019-20. Funding is allocated by the Student Service Fee Committee, which concluded in a March 2019 report that staff "was not able to provide a complete picture of their current operation, nor a clear picture for what their model will be for next year."
The committee also disagreed with Nicklawske, a non-university employee, serving as adviser.
Nicklawske said significant time has been spent in recent years stabilizing the publication's finances. With an improved presentation, The Bark was able to convince the committee to increase its funding to $25,000 for the coming year.
Despite the challenges, Nicklawske noted the staff took home 10 awards at the Minnesota Newspaper Association's College Better Newspaper Contest this year. But the adviser lamented that it has been necessary for students to put so much effort into defending the publication.
"They aren't really learning journalism skills," Nicklawske said. "They're learning to deal with bureaucrats."
Reporting amid a pandemic
As one of the staff members in town, The Bark's business manager, Grace Henriksen, went to the office last week to start boxing up and removing items. The staff had been told that any remaining equipment would be moved to storage by next week.
As it turned out, Henriksen's efforts were premature. The Bark received notice of the extension on Tuesday afternoon, a day after students sent a written appeal to Fernando Delgado, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, and Lisa Erwin, vice chancellor for student life and dean of students.
"It's been a hectic couple days," Henriksen said, noting the staff hopes to meet with administrators soon to start finding another location. "Obviously, it's really important for us to have an office. Ideally, we'd just be able to stay here."
UMD spokeswoman Lynne Williams confirmed the extension.
"While the need to discuss and balance the needs of our limited Kirby Student Center space remains, we fully acknowledge that the timing of the notification caused difficulty and concern," she said Tuesday. "Students were informed of this decision this afternoon and asked to engage in further conversation."
The office still shows signs of a working media organization — albeit one that appears frozen in time. Eraser-board walls feature notes and story ideas from a March planning meeting, the last to occur in person before the pandemic hit.
Stang said reporters and editors are starting to make plans for The Bark's first edition this fall, to be distributed around the time of Welcome Week. They're adjusting to videoconferencing but looking forward to once again having the opportunity to gather in an actual newsroom.
She said The Bark will always be there "to provide a voice for students," describing independent news coverage as a paramount concern for students and staff returning to campus amid a global health crisis.
"At any point in time it's important to have student media," Stang said, "but especially this year when a lot of things are going to be different."
This story originally listed an incorrect title for Jennifer Moore. It was updated at 9:39 a.m. July 29 with the correct title. The News Tribune regrets the error.