Financial turmoil at Virginia Tech’s student newspaper leads to editorial leadership shakedown

VIRGINIA — The editor in chief of Virginia Tech’s student newspaper wanted to write about how precarious finances have left the media organization with an uncertain future. But after leaders in the company heard about the story, she lost her job.

A week after former Collegiate Times Editor-in-Chief Erica Corder was fired, controversy surrounding her termination has not settled.

Amid negotiations between the Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech — a non-profit organization that oversees all student media at the public institution — and university officials over the company’s failing finances and uncertain future, some student leaders argue the company violated its own due process policies to fire Corder.

Kevin Dickel, the co-managing editor appointed to replace Corder, stepped away from the company after a student leaders meeting on Tuesday, adding that if the “shit show” at the meeting was any indication of how the company operates, then Corder’s termination and the rocky financial situation could have been avoided.

Questionable termination

When the Management Advisory Team, a group of student leaders from each student media organization and their advisers, met on March 24 for a weekly meeting, Corder was asked to leave the room so the advisory board could discuss personnel issues, Corder said. Standing outside of the room where the meeting took place, Corder said she overheard board members discuss her finances story and then — to her surprise — her potential termination.

“The story came up way, way more often than it should have,” she said. “I mean, they just kept talking about this story, this story, this story, and multiple times people asked ‘should we bring Erica in to discuss this? Should we bring Erica in and ask her about these things?’”

Lynn Nystrom, the newspaper’s adviser, said she did not attend the meeting and did not know the advisory board was going to discuss Corder’s termination. Although the advisory board didn’t allow Corder to defend herself or ask her about the contents of her story, it voted 6-4 to fire her.

Rob Perry, the president of the company’s board of directors, which includes representatives from each student media organization and the company’s attorney, and is in charge of finalizing all company decisions, sent an email to the board members on March 24 suggesting that they “simply ratify” the advisory board’s decision to fire Corder “due to serious concerns over behaviour, professionalism, failure to communicate with her staff and with the MAT, and for a decreasing paper quality.”

The next day, Perry sent an email to the advisory board members — including Corder — and announced the board of directors had ratified the advisory board’s decision to fire Corder and that the paper’s co-managing editors would replace Corder on an interim basis.

Perry did not respond to emails requesting comment.

Perry’s email was Corder’s only notification that she had been fired, she said, adding that it was “kind of insane that all of this happened so quickly. They wanted to get rid of me as fast as they could.”

A week later, Dickel, who was picked to replace Corder, attended Tuesday’s advisory board meeting, where an advisory board member admitted she discussed the content in Corder’s story before voting for her termination. Dickel said he asked to see the complaints against Corder but was refused.

Anailis Diaz, who serves on the advisory board and the board of directors, said she asked the advisory board on Tuesday to give Corder due process and to conduct an investigation on the complaints against Corder. She, too, was rejected.

After the meeting, Dickel gave his two-weeks’ notice with the paper, ending a five-year run with the Collegiate Times.

A week after a majority of the advisory board members voted to terminate Corder, members voted no-confidence in Perry’s leadership. Among reasons behind the vote, according to meeting minutes, was Corder’s termination.

Failure to follow policies

Diaz said she voted against Corder’s termination during the March 29 meeting because the company had violated several of its own policies.

Diaz said Corder should have been given a chance to defend herself. Additionally, Diaz said the advisory board’s discussion to terminate Corder focused primarily on the content of Corder’s story.

According to the the company’s most recently disseminated Policies and Procedures, student leaders cannot be removed from their job because of a story’s content. The most recent available versions of the company’s Bylaws and Articles of Incorporation grant student leaders control of the newspaper’s editorial content.

Before a student leader is dismissed, Educational Media policies require prior notice about any complaints or policy violations. An investigation into the complaints, which may not last more than two weeks, should then be conducted. The student leader must be afforded a hearing before the advisory board before dismissal.

Additionally, the written policies require that 70 percent of advisory board members vote to dismiss the leader before the board of directors can take action. In Corder’s case, the vote was six to four — a 60-percent vote in favor of her dismissal.

Diaz said she told members of the advisory board and the board of directors they were violating the company’s due process procedures.

“Erica was fired for doing her job, which was being a journalist and getting the truth out there,” Diaz said. “She wasn’t fired for being unprofessional because she wasn’t. These policies were violated, in my eyes, and I think it needs to be addressed.”

Contract negotiations underway

Following discussion about the company’s declining revenue during a February board of directors meeting, Nystrom suggested Corder should write a story about the situation.

Corder said the goal of her story was to explain the relationship between Virginia Tech and the student-media company, the decline in ad revenue since 2008 and how the company and the university planned to move forward.

Corder said the company makes most of its money through advertising, which has been declining since 2008. Ad sales comprise nearly 70 percent of the company’s total revenue. Between 2011 and 2014, advertising revenue dropped by 36 percent.

According to the company’s IRS 990 forms, the company’s total revenue declined 35.3 percent between the 2011-12 and the 2013-14 fiscal years.

The company and Virginia Tech have maintained a contract since 1997 agreeing the company is independent from the university and does not receive university funds. That could soon change, however, as the company works to renegotiate its contract with the university because of its financial burden, Corder said.

An advisory board member put together a renegotiation committee on March 19 to prepare for the discussions with university officials.

As the company prepares for renegotiation discussions with university officials, Corder said she plans to follow through with her story.

“I want to have this story written,” she said. “Maybe I’ll take it somewhere, but I think it will make me feel better to have everything written down in one comprehensive story that just tells it all.”

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