Liberty students create independent news outlet
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.”