Loyola U. declines to renew contract with investigative news organization

LOUISIANA — An investigative news organization was forced to pack up their newsroom and find a new home after Loyola University New Orleans officials ended a two-year partnership in December — a decision the organization’s editor said could have been prompted by their critical coverage of the institution’s president.

Through a two-year agreement, the university said it would provide free office space to The Lens, a non-profit investigative news website, if members of the organization provided internship opportunities, worked with students and spoke with journalism classes.

“We were just a working newsroom in the middle of the school of journalism,” said Steve Beatty, the editor of The Lens. “We were at their disposal. However we could help, we did.”

University officials did not renew the agreement, which expired on Dec. 30.

Beatty said the organization moved into a new office about two miles away from campus on Wednesday. He said $30,000 of The Lens’ $625,000 budget was used to cover rent, utilities and the cost of moving and buying furniture.

Beatty said The Lens began talks with university officials in November to renew the space. However, officials said a dispute existed between members of the communications department and the music department, both housed in the same building as The Lens. The music department, he said, had its eye on the space The Lens occupied.

University spokesman James Shields said the university was happy to support the news organization, but it needed the space back.

“Loyola’s growth, including the expansion of existing programs and the creation of new programs at Loyola required additional facilities and space, including the space that the university has been donating to The Lens,” Shields said in an email.

However, Beatty said The Lens critical coverage of the university’s president, Rev. Kevin Wildes, didn’t help organization with the agreement renewal.

“Whether it hurt us or the issue of fight over space was really the overriding factor, I really can’t say,” Beatty said. “There were indications early on that it would be a difficult renewal and that the space fight was happening. There were also indications that the president was not happy with us.”

In September, The Lens published a story that alleged the New Orleans Civil Service Commission, which oversees the city’s Civil Service Department, violated the state’s open meetings law when it voted behind closed doors to replace the commission’s attorney.

A few hours after the article was published, Wildes, who also served as a civic volunteer for the commission, sent an email to the city’s personnel director to vent his frustration about the article.

“I just discovered that the Lens is housed on our campus,” Wildes said in the email, which the news organization obtained through a public records request from the city. “I think they just earned a rent increase.”

Additionally, Beatty said the Lens published a “scathing indictment” in December that said Wildes had a “cozy, deferential, and even reliant” relationship with top members of the New Orleans Mayor’s administration.

Wildes resigned from the commission a week before the article was published, leaving his post three years before his term expired.

Shields denied the news organization’s critical coverage was a factor when the university ended the agreement.

“In fact, our student-run newspaper, The Maroon, which is housed on campus, has questioned every president and university leader on a weekly basis,” Shields said in an email. “From the university’s perspective, the entire time that The Lens has been housed here has been a positive experience for all parties.”

Loyola student Lucy Dieckhaus, who also worked as a reporter for The Lens, said having a non-profit news organization on campus “is something that I don’t see at a lot of universities. I really would like them to be here.”

Beatty said he regrets that The Lens is no longer on the campus to work with students and faculty.

“It’s a shame we can’t have that partnership anymore,” he said. “Or if we’re going to have that partnership, it’s going to be remotely. We’re not right there in their office anymore, and I regret that.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Mariana Viera by email or at (202) 478-1926.