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Staff editorial: where have we been?

Editor’s note: This staff editorial was originally published in print only, in our first issue of the Spring 2022 semester in February, when our website was down. For updates on this situation, see Editor’s note: Where are we now? from our most recent issue.

Tucked back in a corner of the second floor of the University Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County is The Retriever office. In late August 2021, the office reopened for in-person use, and Retriever officers gathered to discuss our upcoming year of bringing student journalism to UMBC’s campus.

Our plan was to return to a pre-pandemic schedule: produce and distribute print editions every other Wednesday and publish articles online every week on our website. We knew it would be a challenge to go from our COVID schedule of three print editions a semester to our pre-pandemic norm of eight, but it was a challenge our officers were ready to take on.

Needless to say, for anyone who asked our staff about the paper last semester, who saw the Reddit post asking if the staff was okay or at least the state of some of our stands in buildings across campus (yes, it is painful for us to see our old headline “Collecting dust” sitting in the stands for months): we at The Retriever did not meet our publication goals for Fall 2021.

While our goals were ambitious for our first semester back on campus, we were rendered completely incapable of normal production operations by one devastating problem: our website has not functioned since summer 2021. 

We do not mind our shabby, windowless office in UC – on the contrary, it is a privilege to have a private workspace, and it becomes a second home on campus for many of our commuter staff. What we do mind is the ongoing series of incidents that started happening last semester involving our online capabilities, including discovering mid-semester (the first time we were able to unlock our server room) that our servers had been doing nothing at all, and our entire web presence had been running on 4 gigabytes of storage space.

It almost goes without saying, but it is worth repeating, that sources of information must be online in order to be widely accessible. At UMBC, many classes remain hybrid or completely online, so many students are on campus much less frequently to be able to pick up a print edition. And even students who are on campus might be hesitant to touch paper copies in the stands. 

So, as UMBC’s student-run newspaper and many students’ source of campus news, The Retriever must be able to publish our journalism online. But since the beginning of the Fall 2021 semester, we have only been able to publish thirteen articles on our website.

The problems with our website began slowly during the summer of 2021, when only a limited number of editors were working and they noticed that they encountered repeated error messages on WordPress. For those who do not know, WordPress is a content management system that allows editors to input article text and photos without needing to know how to code; it is essentially the online behind-the-scenes of our website. 

All of our current staff inherited this WordPress setup, meaning none of us had worked for the paper without it, and it was our main tool for working asynchronously in addition to being the only way for us to upload content onto our website. It was, of course, crucial during the 2020-2021 school year, when online publication was our only option and staff could not gather in person to work collaboratively, so we came to rely on it even more. We thought we had the summer 2021 issues fixed by the time the Fall 2021 semester began, but they only worsened. 

Our normal editorial process goes like this: a writer (Contributing Reporter/Columnist or Staff Reporter/Columnist) copies and pastes their article into WordPress and sends it to their Section Editor, who then edits it (in WordPress) and sends it to our team of Copy Editors, who edit it (also in WordPress) and finally send it to our Editor-in-Chief for approval (still in WordPress). 

By September 2021, the problems with WordPress were so severe that an article would make it to our Editor-in-Chief in its original form by the writer – none of the edits along the way would have been saved – or it might never show up on the page at all. Worse still was that there was no way for any individual editor in the process to tell that a version of an article was wrong, because there was no indication that it had or had not been edited.

We tried different solutions for weeks, with the help of our Technology team and even the UMBC IT team, and tried to make WordPress work, but were ultimately forced to give up online publication for the time being. Without WordPress, the only tool we have to control the content on our website, online publication is impossible.

Perhaps the most demoralizing part of this situation is that we arrived at a solution months ago, but we were stopped from actually implementing it. Our website is hosted on a UMBC server, specifically on 4 gigabytes of space on the server, and we believe that acquiring our own server and hosting it there instead would allow us to work with WordPress support to figure out what the internal issues are – and we have the money to do this. Yet, at first, we were not allowed to do this.

A server counts as an expense for student organizations that can only be approved during the annual budget renewal period, which is not now and was not during the Fall 2021 semester. We even tried requesting the purchase once and were denied, so we sent another request last December with all of the exigence that we are now presenting to you. We received kind and receptive responses from UMBC staff, who assured us that the issues would be resolved before the start of the Spring 2022 semester. 

And here we are now. Our website is still down and we are only now being promised meetings to implement the transition to the new server. 

The Retriever is an entirely student-run organization; we have a wonderful faculty advisor, Professor Rudacille, and work regularly with UMBC faculty and staff to coordinate needs like payroll, but it is undergraduate students who do the vast majority of work toward representing, uplifting and celebrating student voices at this newspaper. 

Moreover, we end up making less than minimum wage for the amount of work we must do (this topic merits further discussion in a future article). As a whole, the staff of The Retriever consists of underpaid, tired and stressed students who decided to learn how a newspaper works by working at one. We are imperfect but dedicated student journalists who have a stake in what we publish (hence us writing an entire article about how sad we are that we cannot share our online articles with you, the UMBC community). 

As imperfect as we are, right now the state of The Retriever is not due to our own faults. We are journalists at the mercy of the bureaucratic institutions at UMBC, which support us and hinder us when communication breaks down on their ends. Communication is what we live and breathe, and we have barely managed to do it on our own website for months at no fault of our own.

We share all this with you because we know that it can improve by making a little noise. We know that making a fuss pushes institutions to act, even if it is just to uplift a student-run newspaper. 

We also share this with you to tell you once again that we are committed to serving the UMBC student body. So, for those of you who wondered where we were last semester, we have been right where we have always been: in the back corner of the second floor of UC. We just hope that we will also be online soon.