UM paper's manager focus of profit debate

Diamondback: A $4 million surplus and the pay of its business chief have sparked a dispute over its purpose and quality.

October 05, 2001|By Alec MacGillis and Walter F. Roche Jr. | Alec MacGillis and Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - The University of Maryland campus newspaper, The Diamondback, looks like a shoestring operation, with students toiling long hours in cramped quarters for little pay to put out the paper every night.

That appearance is deceptive. The general manager of the newspaper has turned the daily into a cash machine, running up a $4 million surplus and gaining for himself a lucrative, incentive-laden, four-year pay package.

The $4 million reserve and the pay package for Michael R. Fribush, 52, a UM alumnus who has run the business side of the paper for 29 years, have triggered an acrimonious internal debate over the purpose and quality of the campus paper and led to the resignation of a member of its board.

The Diamondback's finances also have sparked concerns that the tax-exempt status of the nonprofit corporation that owns it, Maryland Media Inc., could be in jeopardy.

Adrianne Flynn, a faculty member at the university's school of journalism, said she quit the board of Maryland Media in May after an unsuccessful move by other board members to remove her. Her transgression, Flynn said, was breaching confidentiality by seeking advice from her colleagues about the appropriateness of the Fribush pay package, which the board passed in April.

"It became more or less impossible for me to serve," said Flynn, adding she was "aghast" when she learned the details of Fribush's salary package.

By one estimate, she said, the package would have boosted Fribush's annual salary over the next four years to more than $300,000 - more than the salaries of the governor, at $120,000; the president of the university, at $257,910; or the men's basketball coach at $188,154.

Flynn's concerns prompted the dean and assistant dean of the UM journalism school, Thomas Kunkel and Chris Callahan, to send letters and e-mails to Maryland Media's board questioning the contract and calling the company's finances "grotesque" and "the worst of all worlds."

The Maryland Media board, which includes Fribush as a voting member, responded with letters and e-mails accusing Kunkel of interfering in the paper's operations "in subtle and not-so subtle ways."

It also hired consultants to review Fribush's salary and then approved a revised four-year contract in August, reducing his base annual salary to $145,000 and restructuring his incentives. Neither Fribush's attorney, Peter Ginsberg, nor the board's attorney, Lee Levine, would estimate the total size of that reduced package.

Federal tax returns show Fribush made almost $180,000 in the fiscal year ending a year ago.

Ginsberg said that was warranted. Fribush "is by everyone's measure the premiere general manager of a college newspaper in the country and he's compensated accordingly," he said, adding that the economic downturn dimmed prospects for future bonuses.

Levine and Ginsberg dismissed criticism of the paper's finances as a veiled attempt by the journalism school to encroach on the paper's independence. They and Maryland Media board Chairman Ivan Penn, a former Diamondback editor who is on leave from his job as a reporter at The Sun, said Fribush earned his pay by building up the paper's profits. "We're getting beat up for compensating someone for making the company what it is and having money in the bank," said Penn. "The reality is, we have someone who's done an awesome job, the company he's responsible for is self-sustaining, and he's being criticized for that. And that's kind of crazy."

But Kunkel and others say Maryland Media's emphasis on accumulating a large surplus has starved The Diamondback of the resources needed to serve its founding purpose: to provide aspiring journalists with hands-on experience and to provide the campus with quality news coverage.

While building its hefty surplus, Maryland Media in recent years has cut back on the paper's circulation and delayed needed equipment upgrades to save money, say former staffers and others familiar with the paper.

"You are doing incalculable damage to your young charges," Kunkel wrote in an April 7 e-mail to a board member, adding that the paper had been reduced to "relative mediocrity or worse."

Said Carl Stepp, an 18-year veteran of the journalism school faculty and informal adviser to many Diamondback staffers: "I've felt for a long time that Maryland Media saved too much and spent too little on student publications. The only reason Maryland Media exists is to serve college publications. I believe almost everything it gets should go into the publications."

Ginsberg dismissed the charges that the paper has been deprived of needed resources. "I don't think you'll find anyone who thinks that he has skimped or held back. That just isn't true," he said.

The Diamondback has been independent since 1972, when the university system's regents granted Maryland Media a nonprofit charter and rent-free office space. The paper receives no university funding and derives its revenue from advertising.

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