Lib­erty stu­dents cre­ate in­de­pen­dent news out­let

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - SUNDAY IN VIRGINIA - BY RICHARD CHUMNEY

LYNCHBURG — When Jack Pan­yard re­turned to Lib­erty Uni­ver­sity for his fall se­mes­ter at the end of Au­gust, he found him­self shut out from his pas­sion — jour­nal­ism.

In the spring se­mes­ter Pan­yard had been named the edi­tor-in-chief of the Lib­erty Cham­pion, the uni­ver­si­ty­owned cam­pus news­pa­per.

But as the evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian pub­li­ca­tion World Mag­a­zine chron­i­cled in a re­port in Au­gust, ten­sion soon arose be­tween Pan­yard and the ad­min­is­tra­tion over Lib­erty’s over­sight, even­tu­ally cul­mi­nat­ing in his dis­missal from the news­pa­per in April.

Other ed­i­tors, who said they were con­cerned with the restruc­tur­ing of the pa­per that came with Pan­yard’s dis­missal, fol­lowed him out the door.

Left with few other op­tions, Pan­yard and his fel­low jour­nal­ism stu­dents de­cided to cre­ate some­thing unique for Lib­erty: an on­line stu­dent-run news and opin­ion out­let en­tirely in­de­pen­dent from the uni­ver­sity.

Set­tling on the name The Lynchburg Torch, Pan­yard and his new team of four coed­i­tors went to work build­ing a site meant to “shine a spot­light” on sit­u­a­tions and top­ics that oth­er­wise might have gone ig­nored on cam­pus. Af­ter bor­row­ing $300 from an edi­tor’s sib­ling to pay for a web­host­ing fee, the team en­rolled the site in Google’s ad­ver­tis­ing plat­form and with the help of a hand­ful of stu­dent vol­un­teer re­porters launched The Torch on Oct. 26.

The site, which fea­tures two news sec­tions for cam­pus and off-cam­pus cov­er­age and an opin­ions sec­tion for stu­den­twrit­ten col­umns, is run out of the ed­i­tors’ off-cam­pus homes and re­ceives no of­fi­cial sup­port from the uni­ver­sity.

Un­like stu­dents who work for The Cham­pion, writ­ers for The Torch do not earn course credit or pay­ment for their work.

But the defin­ing dif­fer­ence be­tween the two pub­li­ca­tions is The Torch ar­ti­cles are stu­dent writ­ten and edited while con­tent in The Cham­pion must be ap­proved by Lib­erty fac­ulty be­fore pub­li­ca­tion, ac­cord­ing to Pan­yard and for­mer Cham­pion em­ploy­ees.

In one high-pro­file case of Lib­erty’s over­sight, Uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent Jerry Fal­well Jr. pulled a sports edi­tor’s opin­ion col­umn crit­i­ciz­ing then-can­di­date Don­ald Trump dur­ing the run-up to the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. The col­umn re­buked Trump’s use of the phrase “locker room talk” af­ter a 2005 tape was re­leased in which Trump could be heard de­scrib­ing hos­tile sex­ual be­hav­ior to­ward women.

Fal­well, a vo­cal sup­porter of the pres­i­dent, told The News & Ad­vance at the time he made the de­ci­sion to re­move the col­umn be­cause the pa­per was print­ing a let­ter to the edi­tor from a med­i­cal stu­dent urg­ing sup­port for Trump’s op­po­nent Hil­lary Clin­ton. Pub­lish­ing both the let­ter and the col­umn, Fal­well said, would be “re­dun­dant.”

Pan­yard and his co-ed­i­tors said they en­coun­tered sim­i­lar is­sues dur­ing their time as re­porters and ed­i­tors at the Cham­pion and wanted to cre­ate a plat­form with­out LU’s “bumper rails.”

“[The Lynchburg Torch is] not about get­ting re­venge,” Pan­yard, who wrote for The Cham­pion for nearly two years, said. “It’s not about try­ing to ex­tract some­thing from Lib­erty. Stu­dents have a pow­er­ful voice and there re­ally is not an av­enue for them to get their voice out with­out Lib­erty touch­ing it some­how. We want to be that av­enue.”

Af­ter reach­ing out to the Cham­pion staff for com­ment about the new pub­li­ca­tion,

The News & Ad­vance was redi­rected to Scott Lamb, Lib­erty’s vice pres­i­dent of spe­cial lit­er­ary projects and a con­sul­tant for the Cham­pion. In a pair of short tele­phone in­ter­views, Lamb praised The Torch, say­ing it of­fers another out­let for Lib­erty’s “great writ­ers and as­pir­ing jour­nal­ists.”

When asked specif­i­cally about over­sight of the stu­dent news­pa­per, and al­le­ga­tions made in World Mag­a­zine, Fal­well and Lamb de­clined to com­ment.

Last month The Torch pub­lished a col­umn cri­tiquing the stu­dent honor code, and in an Oc­to­ber re­view of “The Trump Prophecy” — a Lib­erty-pro­duced film about a for­mer fire­fighter’s be­lief that God told him Don­ald Trump would one day be pres­i­dent — Opin­ion Edi­tor Sarah Jack­son de­scribed the movie as “bor­der­line hereti­cal.”

In con­trast, The Cham­pion’s opin­ion pieces this se­mes­ter have gen­er­ally of­fered com­ment on larger na­tional top­ics with only oc­ca­sional ref­er­ences to the uni­ver­sity it­self.

Pan­yard’s dis­missal from

The Cham­pion and the sub­se­quent World Mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle caught the eye of a num­ber of na­tional jour­nal­ists, in­clud­ing Adam Davidson, a staff writer at The New Yorker. In Oc­to­ber, Davidson in­vited Pan­yard and his fel­low jour­nal­ism stu­dents to tour The New Yorker of­fices and dur­ing an ap­pear­ance on MSNBC’s Morn­ing Joe he called the stu­dents “jour­nal­ism he­roes.”

The sup­port, Pan­yard and oth­ers said, has re­in­forced their be­lief that there is a place for young evan­gel­i­cal jour­nal­ists in the cur­rent me­dia en­vi­ron­ment.

“As jour­nal­ism stu­dents from Lib­erty Uni­ver­sity, you won­der how you’ll be per­ceived by dif­fer­ent news and me­dia out­lets, just con­sid­er­ing our school’s rep­u­ta­tion,” said Mikaela Stiner, The Torch’s Lynchburg news edi­tor. “And so to have this op­por­tu­nity to en­gage on these huge plat­forms with these huge news me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions and have them lis­ten to us and hear our story and take us re­ally se­ri­ously has been a re­ally neat and re­ally in­ter­est­ing [ex­pe­ri­ence].”

As Pan­yard and his team pre­pare to en­ter their last se­mes­ter at Lib­erty, the fu­ture of The Torch is still largely up in the air. Though the site has not faced any push­back from the uni­ver­sity, it has yet to pull in enough ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue to cover host­ing costs and its ed­i­tors are all se­niors, mean­ing come May the site may wind down with­out a new team to take their place.

But Pan­yard and his co-ed­i­tors aren’t wor­ried. It’s their faith, they said, that has them con­fi­dent in The Torch’s fu­ture.

“I’m just ab­so­lutely amazed by how gra­cious God has been in all of this,” Pan­yard said, re­fer­ring to the ac­com­plish­ment of launch­ing the site. “There is no doubt in my mind that we were sup­posed to reach this point, no doubt in my mind that we were sup­posed to get to here. And we’ll just see where we’re go­ing from here.”

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