In the fallout from a conflict between Quinnipiac University officials and student journalists over posting breaking news stories on the Internet, members of The Quinnipiac Chronicle staff left to form the Quad News, an independent online publication.
According to a Dec. 2, 2007 story in The New York Times, the dispute between the school’s administration and The Chronicle dates back to 2006, when the school prohibited The Chronicle from posting stories on its Web site before they were published in the weekly print version of the paper. The policy was instituted after The Chronicle posted a story online about players on the men’s basketball team. Administrators had not seen the story before they were contacted by local reporters asking about the incident.
According to an Oct. 24, 2007 story in The Chronicle, editorial staff members approached the administration in August 2007 about posting an story relating to a racial incident that occurred on campus in the first week of the semester. Because The Chronicle’s first issue was not set to be distributed until Sept. 12, 2007, the post would have violated the agreement between the Quinnipiac administration and the student newspaper.
“My reaction was absolutely no,” Quinnipiac President John Lahey said, according to the story. “The student newspaper is for students. It should come out when it normally comes out.”
The Oct. 24, 2007 story was written following a university meeting for student groups on campus. “I guess the challenge for us now is how in today’s world we can really have a good discussion with the students about important topics, but not have it be a press conference to the world, where I have absolutely no control,” Lahey said, according to the story.
Chronicle Editor in Chief Jason Braff was openly critical of the school’s policy, and repeatedly protested the rule, including in a Sept.19, 2007 editorial in The Chronicle and in an interview with The Waterbury (Conn.) Republican-American.
According to The New York Times story, Braff said that, although the paper had adhered to the online policy, doing so prevented the paper from reporting breaking news. He also said that the administration had threatened to fire him for speaking out against the policy.
Lynn Bushnell, the school’s vice president for public affairs, denied that such a threat had been made. “We do not discipline students who criticize the university or its policies,” she said in a statement. “We do discipline students who fail to follow clearly established policies. However, student leaders, especially those in paid positions, are expected to generally be supportive of university policies.”
In May 2008, Braff and most of the rest of The Chronicle’s staff decided to leave the paper with the goal of launching an independent, student-run news Web site, according to a story in the May 3, 2008 New Haven (Conn.) Register.
The walkout came in response to the administration’s plan to appoint the paper’s editorial staff, the story said. “We kind of decided to move on, so we are done with The Chronicle and the school can have it,” Braff said, according to the story. “We don’t want to be part of what they’re doing right now.”
Lahey had appointed a three-member task force that recommended The Chronicle “become totally independent of the university, functioning entirely on its own and generating all of its own revenues to cover all of its expenses,” according to an April 9, 2008 story in the Register, partly because of concerns that the university would be legally liable for anything it printed. Although the university senate unanimously voted to reject the task force’s recommendation and maintain the paper’s current status, Lahey approved the plan, which included administrative approval of The Chronicle’s editor and publisher for the 2008-2009 school year, spurring the staff walkout.
The Quad News Web site was launched on Aug. 27, 2008 and Braff published a story in the opinion section of the paper welcoming new readers to “the independent voice of Quinnipiac.”
“The structure of the website will include constantly updated and live breaking news stories and Quinnipiac Bobcats’ game updates, and story topics similar to those that have previously appeared in The Chronicle once a week,” Braff wrote.
The Quad News staff was greeted with a “cold shoulder” by the University, according to a Sept. 13, 2008 story in the Register. Quinnipiac athletes and coaches were prohibited from talking to Quad News reporters, and the campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) was threatened with loss of their official student group status for cooperating with the Quad News.
Lynn Bushnell, vice president of public affairs at Quinnipiac, said in the story that the SPJ and the Quad News had used “subterfuge to attempt to gain access to university space and resources.” According to the story, the Quad News staff had written stories about overcrowded campus housing and Quinnipiac’s top ranking by U.S. News. The university would not comment for either story.
Gemma McFarland, Quad News lifestyles editor, said, “As an editor, this situation is frustrating … I have two writers working on a story about the meal plan, and the administration won’t even comment on that.”
An Oct. 26, 2008 editorial in The New York Times said that the gag order has since been lifted, and on November 10 the Yale Daily News reported that the Quinnipiac administration had officially retracted its threat to ban the SPJ chapter from campus.
The Daily News story called the retraction “an attempt by the Quinnipiac administration to finally quiet a small national scandal” over the events, and speculated that the removal of the SPJ threat and gag order could indicate the end of the ordeal. “It’s difficult to understand some decisions that were made,” Braff said. “But things have been getting better with us.”
Meanwhile, an all-new staff of The Chronicle published its first edition on Sept. 17, 2008. Quinnipiac hired Michael Riecke, a former Syracuse, N.Y., news anchor, as manager of student media organizations, including The Chronicle.
“We were starting fresh,” said Riecke. “Ordinarily at the end of a semester there would be some sort of staff in place, at least an editorial board in place.” In the 2008-2009 school year, the editor and publisher were appointed by the administration, and most of the rest of the staff were freshmen.
The first issue of The Chronicle contained an op-ed from Stacy Kinnier, the editor-in-chief, saying that, “while some may feel that The Chronicle has been taken into the hands of administration and that our content will be closely watched and controlled, I can assure you that this is not the case. We are still a student-run newspaper that covers, and will continue to cover, hard news. As journalists, we have a responsibility to inform our readers of what is happening on this campus.”
Although Quinnipiac is a private university and the situation does not directly implicate the First Amendment, Margarita Diaz, chair of the journalism department at Quinnipiac, said that the incident is “about curtailing access to information and preventing members of the press from doing their job,” according to a Sept. 19, 2008 column in the Hartford Courant. “If that’s not an attack on the First Amendment, I don’t know what is.”
The October 26 New York Times editorial had criticized the school’s policy and called on the paper to withdraw its threat against the SPJ. “Such intimidation does not speak well of Quinnipiac’s commitment to freedom of speech, open-mindedness or academic inquiry,” the editorial said. “Instead of encouraging the students for their remarkable initiative, the school tried to retaliate against them for resisting its control and not toeing the line.”
– Jacob Parsley
Silha Research Assistant