A data request made by student journalists at the University of Minnesota Duluth has revealed almost 900 pages of staff emails regarding The Bark student news organization.
The emails, many sent by staff members of Kirby Student Center, include comments comparing The Bark to the “Ministry of Propaganda” and stating that if The Bark wants to “play hardball,” then one Kirby staff member has “one f--- of a cutter,” a reference to a specific type of baseball pitch.
“It was extremely disappointing and disheartening to see what administration, who are supposed to be working with us, have to say about us,” said Hunter Dunteman, a managing editor for The Bark and a senior at UMD. “I understand that people have their own feelings. I don't think that a publicly discoverable email is the place to be chatting about those feelings.”
The comments were made after the Kirby Student Center notified the student newspaper in late July that it would need to move out of its office space in 11 days. The student journalists, upset after receiving that news on such short notice, then penned a letter to student leadership and posted it on social media. Kirby staff later extended the newspaper’s stay in its office until Aug. 1, 2021.
The ongoing eviction situation has led to rising tensions between Kirby staff, UMD journalism faculty members and student journalists at The Bark, with numerous exchanges happening among the groups over the summer.
On Monday, The Bark published an article on its data request findings. Dunteman, as well as two other student journalists, reported on that story. The Bark selected the people with the least involvement in the eviction notice to work on the story.
“The No. 1 area we put the most effort in when writing the story was to try to be as objective and unbiased as possible,” Managing Editor Michael King said. “We put a lot of thought and effort into that.”
King was hired at The Bark in December and wasn’t around when the newspaper received the eviction notification, while Dunteman was brand-new to the newspaper at the time. The article’s other author, Madison Hunter, was visiting Alaska.
Hunter said what stung the most about the findings in the data request was when Kirby Student Center Assistant Director Jessi Gile Eaton compared The Bark to a “very wrong” group like the “Ministry of Propaganda,” as well as when Eaton said The Bark was doing “the very thing that generated the concept of #fakenews in the first place.”
“It’s just very shocking to me and hurtful and sad,” Hunter said of the email.
Eaton was referencing the letter The Bark posted on social media and responding to two other Kirby staff when she compared them to those groups, while calling it “sh---- journalism” and saying that “they cherry picked what they wanted the story to say and made their opinion into fact.”
“That wasn’t journalism. We never claimed it to be. It was a letter to the vice chancellors,” said The Bark Editor-in-Chief Heidi Stang. “It was just a really big harsh jump to make on something that wasn't even a piece of journalism work.”
No form of the letter was posted to The Bark’s official website.
On Wednesday, two days after The Bark’s story was published, Eaton apologized for her words in a letter written for students who have since contacted her. In the letter, Eaton thanks those reaching out to her for holding her accountable for her “incredibly bad judgment and behavior.”
“First and most importantly, I would like to apologize for the incredibly inappropriate and unprofessional message that I sent to my colleague,” Eaton said in the letter. “There is no excuse for the language I used, and I am deeply embarrassed and ashamed by its stridency and profanity. Simply put, it was not appropriate, I regret it, and I am very sorry.”
She later adds: “My commitment to you is that I will do my best to rebuild the trust that has been broken between me and The Bark, UMDSA, and any other students. I’m acutely aware that that commitment will only be met through action, and not words, and I ask that you continue to hold me accountable for my actions as you have done here."
UMD did not make Eaton available for comment.
Data obtained by The Bark
In an effort to determine a precise timeline of the events surrounding the office eviction, staff from The Bark filed an information request with the University of Minnesota requesting “Any e-mails, notes, memos or other communication regarding The Bark composed, sent or viewed by Lisa Erwin, Corbin Smyth, Jessi Eaton, Jeni Eltink and Fernando Delgado from July 2018 to the present.”
The data request was filed Aug. 3 and The Bark immediately received acknowledgement of the request.
On March 15, UMD Director of Marketing and Public Relations Lynne Williams sent all applicable data directly to Izabel Johnson, who was serving as a managing editor of The Bark at the time of the initial request and is now a reporter for the Pine Journal and Duluth News Tribune.
Since Johnson was no longer employed at The Bark at the time of Williams’ response, she forwarded the 865 pages of data to her former student colleagues.
Johnson contributed to this story. She interviewed UMD student Gabbie Raymond and has written part of this article.
Emails revealed in the data showed exchanges between Kirby faculty and staff members surrounding The Bark’s operations, budgets, advisers, office eviction and more dating back to July 2018.
Email exchange raises alarm
After Eaton informed The Bark in July that the newspaper needed to move out of its space, which was to be used for UMD’s expanding “Bulldog Beginnings” program, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Life Corbyn Smyth forward the news to Vice Chancellor for Student Life and Dean of Students Lisa Erwin.
Erwin’s response was: “Thank you for letting me know. This seems pretty straightforward. I think this could be controversial, however, and if it is, I can honestly say I wasn’t involved.”
Mark Nicklawske, freelance journalist and outgoing editorial adviser for The Bark, said that, to him, that was the most concerning piece in the data request.
“Somebody who's in charge of student activity not knowing what's going on is, to me, really shocking,” Nicklawske said. “Someone in Lisa Erwin’s position needs to take responsibility for a major decision … obviously she knew it was going to be a controversial decision, but she did nothing to stop it and in fact, washed her hands of the whole thing.”
Nicklawske had encouraged the student journalists to submit the data request in August.
The email that caught the eye of The Bark, in which Eaton discredited the newspaper’s journalistic integrity, was in response to Mat Gilderman, the former business adviser for The Bark, who’s also the communications manager for Kirby Student Center.
Gilderman had sent Eaton and Kirby Student Center Director Jeni Eltink a first draft of the response he wished to send to The Bark after they posted the letter calling out Kirby staff for the short notice on the move.
Eaton then responded saying the letter was well-written, but to wait to send it. Later that day, Eltink begins a separate email thread with Gilderman and Eaton, sharing the comic pictured below and calling it “ironic.”
Then Gilderman started another thread with Eltink and Eaton that included an updated draft of his letter, with the subject line “Please let me send this.”
His second drafted letter voiced sympathy for The Bark and apologized on behalf of the student center for asking them to move on short notice.
He wrote in the second draft: “I can appreciate going to social media out of pure frustration after being asked to move instead of talking directly with me first, but I genuinely hope it wasn't because you didn't feel it was worth your time to talk with me.”
Gilderman explained in both the drafted and finalized letter that Kirby staff were scrambling to keep up with changing plans during the pandemic and got “sidetracked” with other projects instead of requesting The Bark to depart from its office sooner.
“Pretty quickly we realized we might have to 'eminent domain' Bark office space. It sucked even CONTEMPLATING THAT, especially now that it was the 11th hour,” Gilderman’s draft read.
In the draft version of the letter, Gilderman said he was resigning from his role as business adviser of the student newspaper immediately to keep Kirby “impartial” to The Bark. That news was not included in the finalized letter sent to the student newspaper.
A little less than an hour later, Eaton responds by saying the letter is good, but that she has no desire to make nice.
“Making nice is what has caused this problem in the first place,” the email read.
Eaton then makes reference to The Bark’s recent budget deficits and mentions unprepared presentations made by the group in front of UMD’s Student Service Fee committee, which allocates funding to student groups and organizations at the university.
“Twice in five years, they sent unprepared editors in chief to the SSF committee and forced Corbin and me to intercede on their behalf then had the unmitigated balls to b---- that they didn't get enough money,” she said in the email. “We had zero obligation to do either of those things; after I left as the office manager, we had zero obligation to help them with the SSF at all. You and I were/are marketing advisors, not financial. Read the f------ agreement. NOT. OUR. JOB. But we did it anyway, and this is the thanks we get. No good deed, indeed.”
Since the News Tribune did not have access to an interview with Eaton, UMD spokesperson Lynne Williams clarified what Eaton meant by those statements.
“Her point was they stopped paying for (those financial services) after 2019,” Williams said in response to Eaton’s assertion that Kirby wasn’t obligated to help them with financial advising.
In other words, The Bark has not paid the $10,000 it owes Kirby each year for advising services, Williams said. That administrative support fee was previously $20,000 but Kirby cut in half when The Bark was facing financial difficulties.
The Bark’s current student business manager, Grace Henriksen, confirmed the newspaper hasn’t paid the $10,000 fee this year, but she added no one has reached out to her requesting payment for that.
“I’m not sure if it was intentional or just one of those many things that took a back seat this year with everything going on,” she said.
At the end of fiscal year 2016, the newspaper, then called The Statesman, was $32,000 in deficit. Kirby paid for $11,000 of The Bark’s support costs and then paid $12,000 to help bring the newspaper’s budget back to zero, according to Williams. During that time Eaton served as the newspaper's business advisor.
The student newspaper has since paid Kirby back for that loan.
Continuing on the discovered emails, Eaton reiterates the idea that she will not apologize to The Bark, but that she still wants the group removed from the office space.
“Come midnight of August 1, 2021, their s--- best be out of my Bulldog Beginnings office, or I will personally see to it that it goes,” she said.
Eaton ends the email with the following: “I have moved from shocked to deeply hurt to angry to real f------ I want to have a conversation with them. I want them to say it to my face. And then I want to call them on it, not try to wheedle to make them feel nice. I have hit peak D on this ain't no feelings left, or at least none they will have the satisfaction of seeing. If they want to play hardball, I have one f--- of a cutter. I don't think we should throw them a nice, juicy one right down the middle.”
Gilderman responded to Eaton by saying that she is “1000% right.” Later adding: “And I know we disagreed on letting them back into their office, but I’m with you 100% on this.”
The News Tribune requested an interview with Gilderman. He initially agreed, and then later deferred to providing a brief statement at the recommendation of Williams.
“It's been my immense pleasure to advise and work with the brilliant and talented Bark staff since August 2018, and I want to again sincerely apologize again for any hurt I caused them with their office move,” his statement said. “Their work is extremely important to our campus and I'll continue to support them in every way possible.”
Williams told the News Tribune that the university has opened an investigation to review what happened with the Kirby Student Center staff. Any findings and disciplinary actions that result from that investigation will be public data.
Typically, Williams handles the public data requests the university receives. Asked what she made of the contents of the request that caught The Bark’s attention, Williams said her initial reaction was that they were inappropriate.
“I'm not surprised that when the students received email exchanges that they wanted to have follow up,” she said. “It’s clear that the tone or the language used there is not appropriate. Obviously the university does not condone those statements or that approach.”
A campuswide reaction
After The Bark published its article about the data request findings, UMD Student Association Representative Gabbie Raymond received comments from students expressing shock and confusion. So she wrote a letter to Eaton penning her concerns.
“It was something that you could definitely tell provoked a lot of emotions in a lot of different people across the campus,” Raymond said. “It’s just … so inappropriate.”
Raymond explained that the purpose of her statement was not to provoke administrative action, but rather to try and understand why Eaton acted the way she did.
She said she does not blame Gilderman or any other Kirby staff for the emails, and will continue to use Kirby Student Center resources as she has in the past.
Jennifer Moore, associate professor of journalism at UMD, said when she read The Bark’s article, it seemed like staff have an expectation for The Kirby to be profitable when in reality its primary mission is to be an educational opportunity for students before they enter the workforce.
She said everything could have been avoided if the student journalists were part of the conversation about their future to begin with, adding that what they discovered in the data request was “disheartening.”
“I have a lot of trouble talking about it because I'm just kind of at my wit's end with what's going on here because it seems all of it just seems so unnecessary … It’s at the expense of students. I know I have a job because students come to UMD to go to school.”
Asked if The Bark could have handled any part of the contention with Kirby Student Services differently, Dunteman said they could have met with Kirby Student Center initially.
“But I think that regardless of that potential meeting, the letter still should have been published on social media to call public attention to the issue,” Dunteman said.