'The Bark' team from the 2019 Fall Semester. Photo courtesy UMD's Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG)

The Bark and its bite: The battle to save a news organization

There wouldn't be a Daily Planet (@DailyPlanetDC) if not for The Bark, and for that I am forever grateful.

9 mins read

The University of Minnesota Duluth’s (UMD) student news organization, The Bark, allowed me the chance to accept myself wholeheartedly. That’s why Kirby’s decision to evict the student news organization from their office broke my heart. I was angry. I still am.

The Bark serves as the official news organization for UMD and not only informs over 10,000 students and faculty, but the Twin Ports regional community as well.

Growing up, I’ve always had two aspirations: journalism and architecture. My love for architecture stemmed from my affection for art. My love for journalism grew forth from my passion for DC Comics’ Superman.

I made the decision to pursue journalism in college, and my life has been better off since.

I transferred to UMD seeking my bachelor’s degree in journalism after receiving an Associate of Arts degree from Hibbing Community College, located on northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range.

Relocating from my isolated family farm to a city with over 85,000 people was definitely an adjustment. At first I regretted moving to Duluth. I was alone and apart from my grandmother, who raised me, for the first time in my life. 

After about a month at UMD I was ready to go home. I was incredibly lonely and I missed Hibbing. Then I found The Bark.

UMD holds an activities fair where clubs and other student organizations can welcome new and returning students, encouraging them to join in their networks at the beginning of every semester. I approached the table reading “The Statesman” during the 2017 activities fair.

Thanks to one of the guided tours UMD gives to potential students, I knew The Statesman was the school news organization and I wanted to be a part of it. The people tending to the table were Natalie Grant and Becka Kottke.

Former Editor-in-chief Natalie Grant’s congratulatory video on celebrating two years of ‘The Bark.’ Grant loves how ‘The Bark’ continues to push forward, breaking down barriers. Grant was part of the publication’s rebranding team in 2017. Natalie now works as a Weekend News Anchor/ Multimedia Journalist at Duluth’s KBJR 6 and CBS 3 News. Video courtesy Natalie Grant

“You were timid but eager,” 2018 Editor-in-Chief Natalie Grant said. “You were very introverted and I could tell you wanted to belong somewhere. And I could tell you were super eager to learn and help. It was refreshing to see someone who cared so much about the organization. The Bark was your home immediately.”

I remember the moment she was talking about with such clarity it could’ve taken place yesterday. It was a sunny afternoon and I was wandering around without cause. I honestly don’t know what possessed me to walk to the outdoor fair. The only places I would go were classes and my apartment.

“You were quiet yet curious and seemed like you had gathered up a lot of courage to approach our table,” 2018 Art Director Becka Kottke, said. “You signed your name to our little clipboard and showed up to the next team meeting. I remember feeling elated when several people who had put down their names actually showed up, you being one of them.”

Kottke mentioned that having others show up to the team meeting made her feel like more people, then those already involved, cared about the organization. She also mentioned that I was very different. 

“You were timid in meetings at first, but as you became more comfortable in the office you spoke up more often,” Kottke said. “More than anything, as you took on more and more stories, we began to notice the talent shining through your writing.”

One of ‘The Bark’s weekly team meeting’s where members, volunteers and other students could constructively discuss current events. This video was recorded in 2018 by Zack Benz

The reason I remained so meek and confined was because I’m gay. Coming from the Iron Range, where being different wasn’t historically acceptable, I kept that part of myself hidden. I didn’t want anyone else to know because I hadn’t accepted it.

Later that semester, October 2017 to be exact, The Statesman made its rebranding transition into The Bark. A more suitable name for a news organization at a university with a bulldog mascot in the middle of a nature centric city. 

The Bark’s first Editor-in-chief, Ellie Gerst, loved how ‘The Bark’ allows students the chance to participate in the news. It’s a very community centered news outlet and Gerst, who currently works as a Business Support Associate for Wells Fargo, thinks it’s important that people recognize that. Video courtesy Ellie Gerst

It was modern, colorful and multimedia focused. Their main goal was to catch up with today’s era bringing the news that matters to each student and faculty member at UMD. I was honored to be a part of such an organization. 

I flourished there. I broke out of my shell and found my community. As I previously stated during an interview in a Duluth News Tribune article, I wouldn’t have stayed at the school if not for The Bark.

I felt more and more comfortable in my own skin as time went on. I opened up to others and started connecting. I felt so welcomed at UMD, thanks to The Bark, that I came out. The Bark, and those involved, absolutely saved my life. It also helped me grow as a journalist through practice.

“[You became] punctual, reliable, and ethical,” Kottke said about my progression. “You could be counted on, and for a college-student run news org, that was a big deal. You took on harder topics. You covered protests and legal cases. You maintained your strong moral code throughout.”

These were all attributes I couldn’t have retained if not for the work I’ve done for The Bark. I also covered a key component for graduation at the publication: my internship requirement. The Bark offers the opportunity for journalism major students to intern, a convenience for those who don’t have the means for transportation. 

Former editor-in-chief, Sam Church, also filmed a congratulatory video celebrating two years of ‘The Bark.’ Sam was an integral component to the team for years and loves ‘The Bark’ and currently works at the Center Against Sexual and Domestic Abuse (casda) as the Sexual Assault Campus Advocate in Superior Minnesota. Video courtesy Sam Church.

As time progressed, I was promoted from intern to reporter and advanced all the way to print managing editor, all phenomenal titles for my resume. My work with The Bark also rewarded me with seven Minnesota Newspaper Association College Better Newspaper Contest awards.

The Bark received an email from UMD’s Kirby Student Center July 21. The email was sent by Assistant Director of the Kirby Student Center Jessica Gile Eaton who gave The Bark nine days to vacate their home. 

“Kirby is now the home of Bulldog Beginnings,” the email read. “Rather than just welcome week, this program is expanding to become a full-year first year experience. Because of this change, we find ourselves in the unfortunate position of needing to use The Bark’s current space for our program.”

The email continued on stating that Kirby needed the space for their student workers. 

“We have explored other alternatives in the building, but we simply don’t have the space to run it anywhere else,” the email stated. “As you can imagine, time is of the essence as welcome week approaches, so we need to take residence in the office by August 1”

Former ‘The Bark’ and current Daily Planet contributor, Rikkia Walker, using The Bark office as a place of study while eating lunch in the fall of 2019. Photo by Zack Benz

The email also stated that since The Bark has made its transition to a digital first news source they hadn’t been utilizing the space. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As a former student worker at The Bark, I can attest the office was used often.

It was a space for meetings, interviews and always remained open to the campus community. It was a space for everybody, and everyone used it.

Worse yet, The Bark thought the office was part of their rental agreement with Kirby. The student news organization pays $10,000 for their office and Kirby services annually. 

“We did pay for the space according to Jeni Eltink,” former Business Manager Courtney Cornelius said. Jeni Eltink is the Director of Kirby.

“In prior years we did not have the funds to pay but we did this year,” Cornelius continued. 

Cornelius stated that it was extremely frustrating to hear of the eviction with no prior communication.

“It was a shock to hear a staple of the university [could] be so easily pushed aside,” Cornelius said. 

According to Cornelius, the eviction was especially upsetting because she worked so hard to ensure the publication’s survival. 

“After all the financial downfalls The Bark had received in recent years, it was left at a very promising point regardless of COVID impacts [at the end of Spring 2020].”

The “financial downfalls” Cornelius noted were a drop in advertising revenue and major budget cuts to the magazine from Student Services Fees. 

“I genuinely hope that the university starts to show more love and appreciation to the students who make up The Bark organization,” Cornelius said. “Several colleges are represented within The Bark office and that shouldn’t go so unnoticed and unappreciated.”

Former UMD student, Kathy Peterson, who studied Political Science, French Studies and Journalism, didn’t even work with The Bark. She used the office for homework because of the spaces welcoming environment. Photo by Zack Benz

After receiving the alarming email, the current Bark staff didn’t know what to do. With most preparing for the upcoming school year during a pandemic, staff members were caught off guard.

“I had no warning or idea that this could happen to us and happen so fast,” current Editor-in-Chief Heidi Stang said. “I was also just immediately distressed because I had no clue where we were going to go or how we were going to keep track of everything. I immediately called Grace Henriksen [the current Business Manager] and told her what was happening.”

The Bark has meant a lot to Stang. It’s where she cemented some of her best friendships and allowed her the chance to advance in her field of study. Something we both have in common. 

“It allowed me to try something I was interested in and since has helped me meet some of my best friends and grow exponentially in my field,” Stang stated. “It’s given me so much practice at talking to people and speaking up with my ideas.”

This passion helped spark Stang’s choice in response. Stang reached out to the university’s Board of Publications, a committee created to protect The Bark, who advised that she draft a letter of response.

We view the eviction as an attempt to suppress our First Amendment rights.

The Bark 2020-2021 Staff

Kirby later responded after the letter gained some publicity. 

According to The Bark, Kirby permitted the student publication to stay in their office for the upcoming school year, or until a new home was found. The fight continues for the publication to secure a permanent home. 

This eviction felt like a final nail on what would’ve been The Bark’s coffin at UMD. After continuous pressure, obscure obstacles and what seemed like impractical hoops for the paper to jump through, support from UMD felt scarce. Any community without access to fair, unbiased reporting suffers from misinformation. 

‘The Bark’ logo mounted in the office in the Kirby Student Center. The logo was created by Becka Kottke and Will Madison. Becka Kottke and Will Madison co-own and manage Good Grief Goods. Photo by Zack Benz

The Bark’s introduction to their code of ethics describes the importance of press best:

“The First Amendment protects freedom of expression. The United States Supreme Court, almost without exception, has reinforced that freedom. That freedom demands media responsibility, with priority assigned to certain standards of fairness and integrity.

The Bark is a publication created by students and published by the University of Minnesota Duluth Board of Publications. It seeks to provide fair, informative, responsible and professional coverage of UMD students, faculty, staff and their surrounding communities.”

“I believe, very much, in the role of the news,” University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel said during a recorded 2019 conversation on recent events that affected The Bark. “It’s a difficult time, nationally, around freedom of information and respect for the role of journalism and journalism with integrity.”

Gabel stated that properly reported news is important to society but budgets can be a really tough conversation to have. Gabel thinks many of society’s “critical functions” have to rethink what they do in order to be efficient. 

“The hope would be that [news organizations] wouldn’t shut down,” Gabel said. “That’s a sincere hope. Before we would reach a critical point like [a shut down] we should be able to have ongoing conversations.”

For me, having the opportunity to record history while also providing a voice to those in need was incredibly insightful. The Bark was my home away from home, and even though I’ve graduated from UMD, I’ll continue to assist in the fight to preserve the organization.

There would not be a Daily Planet if not for The Bark, and for that I am forever grateful.

Zack Benz

Zack Benz has been a fan of the Daily Planet since he was eight years old. The Daily Planet has always been a beacon of hope for him and it’s his life’s mission to make it shine in a similar light to so many around the world. Zack graduated with a degree in journalism and art from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2019.

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