Pa. college editors speak out after newspaper disappearance

PENNSYLVANIA — After copies of The Beacon disappeared from newsstands last month, editor Jake Cochran said he was left asking: “Who would have an interest in not having that news there?”

But with no witnesses and no similar incidents since the March 22 disappearance, pinning down an answer to that question has been difficult.

The Beacon, a weekly newspaper at Wilkes University, is usually published on a Tuesday. Cochran said he saw copies of The Beacon on stands during a walk through campus at about 10 p.m. that Friday — but they were missing from those same locations throughout the student union, the building where communications classes are housed and several other bins the next morning.

Adviser Loran Lewis was the first to notice the newspapers were missing early on March 22, but he said he wasn’t able to immediately look into what happened because he had other commitments related to an event for new students taking place that day. A few days later, Lewis said he also noticed some newspaper bundles in a trash can.

Cochran and adviser Loran Lewis said the staff hasn’t reported the disappearance to police or the administration. Instead, The Beacon published a column calling attention to the papers’ disappearance and underscoring the seriousness of newspaper theft.

The missing editions made up about 20 percent of The Beacon’s press run and likely amounted to a monetary loss just shy of $200, according to the column.

“It is your right to read the news, and it is your right not to read the news,” Opinion Editor Carly Yamrus wrote in the April 1 column. “But it is not your right to interfere with the rights of others by depriving them of their own property.”

Cochran and Lewis speculated someone might have taken the papers in response to a story about decreasing test scores in the school’s nursing program. The disappearance happened the same day as the event to welcome new students, which has lead Cochran to question whether someone affiliated with the university was trying to hide unfavorable information to save face.

School officials denied any involvement with or knowledge of the disappearance.

“If someone from my office did that, they would be fired,” Director of Freshman Admissions Alex Sperrazza said.

University spokeswoman Vicki Mayk said she was surprised to hear about the newspaper disappearance, especially because no one brought it to the direct attention of any administrators. Neither she nor Sperrazza had heard of the disappearance until the Student Press Law Center reached out to them last week.

“This is not something that we would sanction or condone,” Mayk said. “If employees were found to have done this, they would be disciplined… This is not the way the university would choose to resolve any concerns they might have with the student paper.”

Those on both sides — school officials and those connected to The Beacon — said the relationship between the student media and the administration is generally amicable.

Sperrazza and Mayk each said the newspaper serves as a recruiting tool for potential new students, and a strong student press is an asset to Wilkes.

“We use The Beacon as a tool to sell Wilkes, we would want that as visible as possible,” Sperrazza said.

In his four years advising the Beacon, Lewis said things have been “fairly calm.” While newspaper theft hasn’t been an issue at Wilkes, he said there was an incident at his previous university, the University of South Alabama. In that case, he said, the newspaper reported the incident to police — who found out that a fraternity was responsible for the missing copies and reprimanded them.

“I had frankly forgotten about the problem of something like this,” Lewis said.

While Cochran conceded that there’s little conclusive evidence to explain the papers’ disappearance, he maintained that the act seems like a deliberate attempt to censor the newspaper. He said the timing of the paper’s disappearance and the number of copies missing from stands suggest that this was an act of “malicious intent.”

He said he doesn’t have the time or the staff manpower to devote to investigating the issue further, so he hoped the column would be an effective way to call attention to the disappearance.

“We just wanted to make the student body aware that we’re being censored,” Cochran said. “We’re not going to write it off like all of these newspapers blew away.”

Regardless of who is responsible, Lewis said the disappearance is damaging on several fronts: “It’s costing us money, costing advertisers money and stopping the news from getting out.”

This is the third college newspaper theft reported to the SPLC in 2014. Last year, 12 thefts were reported.

Contact McDermott by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 123.