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It’s been two years since a change to Loyola’s media policy created a crisis that seriously threatened The Phoenix’s ability to do good journalism.
At the time, Loyola President Jo Ann Rooney’s administration was coming off a high created by Loyola’s sixth NCAA tournament run in 2018. Rambler victories on the basketball court had brought the university an unprecedented level of national media attention. This caused the administration to expand the mandate of its department of University Marketing and Communication (UMC) so that the UMC dealt with all press inquiries of Loyola’s staff, including those from The Phoenix.
This change upset an old norm and made it much harder for The Phoenix to do its job. No longer could student journalists interview or email Loyola’s employees directly. Instead, all questions and answers had to be directed to or come out of the UMC office.
In time, this dynamic created friction, which itself led Loyola’s former communication manager — Evangeline Politis — to send an annoyed email to a Phoenix news reporter after word reached her the student-journalist had been trying to interview professors. In the email, she wrote, “This is the third inquiry on this topic that has been forwarded my way, and I’ve been notified of several others. This is disrespectful and unacceptable. As I indicated in my email this morning (attached), I am the first point of contact for The Phoenix for University-related requests.”
That email led The Phoenix’s Editorial Board to pen an op-ed of its own, in which they castigated the university for its repressive media policy. Within days, a chorus of organizations, ranging from the media watchdogs to student groups, voiced their support for the paper. Some national media organizations even covered the story. The chorus was so loud, that within three weeks, Rooney’s administration changed course, reinstating its former media policy.
Unfortunately, this case is no isolated incident. In a letter to the editor published in 2019, The Phoenix’s staff advisor from 2002 to 2008 alleged the university fired him after the paper published a story proving Loyola had investments in Halliburton — a multinational oil services corporation connected to former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Throughout The Phoenix’s history, its journalistic independence has come under repeated assault from the university’s administration because of the critical reporting it has done.
In fact, the very name of the paper — The Phoenix — came out of the aftermath of one such incident.
In May 1969, the university attempted to take over editorial control of The Phoenix’s forerunner the Loyola News, after the paper ran articles critical of the university’s administration and the Vietnam War. The university’s actions created a rift among the publication’s staff members forcing the paper to shut down.
In its stead, the dissenters created The Phoenix, which started as an independent business, entirely free from the university’s editorial control or financial oversight. They named it The Phoenix because of their hope the paper would rise from the ashes of its predecessor.
Today, The Phoenix still enjoys complete editorial independence, however it’s no longer a separate financial or legal entity. While The Phoenix generates some revenue through advertising sales, according to The Phoenix’s business manager Nick Miller, for years the paper has been reliant on subsidized revenue it gets from the school. Thankfully, Loyola has yet to use the paper’s financial dependence to disrupt its operations.
Unfortunately, a protective university administration and the potential of financial disruption aren’t the only threats The Phoenix faces. In recent months the paper’s coverage of the Our Streets LUC movement has angered many student activists, potentially turning an entire generation of them into staunch opponents of the paper.
Their hostility makes The Phoenix more vulnerable than it might otherwise be, should the university attempt to clamp down on student press once again. As someone who both writes articles for The Phoenix and marches alongside Our Streets LUC, the division between the two groups pains me.
Both sides have more to gain from friendly coexistence than open animosity. The leaders of Our Streets LUC should use The Phoenix as a platform to articulate their ideas and reach new audiences, while The Phoenix should look at the critiques Our Streets LUC is making of the university as a whole and consider what implications they have for the paper itself.
As it stands, nine out of twelve of The Phoenix’s editorial staff are white. That is a problem. According to Loyola’s 2018-2019 annual diversity report, around 41.5 percent of Loyola’s undergraduates were members of ethnic minority groups as of fall 2018. These statistics imply The Phoenix’s newsroom is significantly whiter than the university they’re reporting on.
This disparity only becomes more pronounced when one compares it to the gender balance among The Phoenix’s editorial staff. Today, eight out of twelve, or 66.7 percent, of The Phoenix’s editors are female. According to Loyola, 66.5 percent of the university’s students are female. The numbers match almost exactly.
If it’s possible to have editors who reflect the gender statistics of the university, then it should also be possible to have editors who reflect its racial makeup. In an interview I conducted with Mary Chappell, The Phoenix’s editor-in-chief, she identified racial diversity as one of the paper’s greatest weaknesses.
However, this isn’t a problem The Phoenix faces alone. According to Gabriel Arana of the Columbia Journalism Review, racial and ethnic minorities made up less than 17 percent of newsroom staff at print and online publications in 2018, despite the fact that minorities make up approximately 40 percent of the country’s population.
In the coming weeks and months, The Phoenix’s staff should find ways to close this gap. Not only because this inequity is morally bad, but also because it negatively affects the paper’s quality. More diverse editors will bring in valuable perspectives that may otherwise be overlooked.
At the same time, The Phoenix must continue publishing the hard-hitting journalism that has won it so many plaudits over the last few years, including being twice named the best non-daily student newspaper in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists.
In our interview, Chappell said The Phoenix’s willingness to take on difficult stories was one of its greatest strengths. I must agree with her. Over the last fifty years, The Phoenix has led the way in providing Loyola’s students with information on every topic, ranging from crime around campus to the university’s investment portfolio.
The Phoenix is the only organization Loyola students can reliably turn to — to tell them the truth when the university isn’t. That’s why Loyola’s student activists must do everything they can to protect The Phoenix’s editorial freedom, even when they dislike a specific story, writer or editor.
Finally, to those who read and write The Phoenix, the fiscal independence of the paper must be secured. The Phoenix’s reliance on university grants places it in a vulnerable spot. Should the university’s goodwill run out, or its financial situation worsen, the paper could face ruin.
Disclaimer: Loyola Phoenix Editor-in-Chief Mary Chappell was interviewed for this piece. She didn’t edit this article ahead of publication.