Collegian editor at La Salle gets his point across

Vinny Vella, executive editor of the Collegian, the La Salle University newspaper, said, "You need to stand up for yourself every once in a while. You can't let authorities intimidate you."
Vinny Vella, executive editor of the Collegian, the La Salle University newspaper, said, "You need to stand up for yourself every once in a while. You can't let authorities intimidate you."
Posted: April 15, 2011

The editorial staff of La Salle University's weekly newspaper, the Collegian, spent Wednesday evening plotting a mildly subversive act.

For more than a week, they had been negotiating with officials at the private Catholic university over a potentially embarrassing article about a business management professor.

Vinny Vella had the story first. (Click here to read the Collegian's story and here to read an editorial about the the Collegian staff's relationship with administration.)

On March 24, three days after the professor held an off-campus symposium using exotic dancers to demonstrate a point, Vella, the paper's executive editor, received a tip.

A junior majoring in communications, Vella, 20, assigned the story to Luke Harold. Harold interviewed two students who had attended the symposium and spoke on the record. He also sought comment from university officials and talked to the professor, Jack Rappaport.

The story was written, edited, and ready for publication April 7. "We were planning a four-column banner headline," Vella said.

But the dean of students told Vella the story would have to wait until the university completed its own investigation into the matter.

On April 8, a City Paper blog broke the story. Reports of lap-dancing and strippers were based on anonymous sources and conflicted with eyewitness accounts that Harold had heard.

Carlo Palencia, a junior who attended the symposium, told Harold that the dancers, who wore miniskirts and high heels, "would mainly walk around doing a sexy walk," but "no one was sexually or provocatively touched."

As other news outlets picked up the City Paper story, all Vella could do was prepare the more authoritative article for April 14.

But James E. Moore, dean of students, again said no, not yet, because the school was still investigating.

"At this point," Vella said, "the news had already been broken by multiple news sources. A television crew was interviewing students, and most of La Salle was aware of the story."

After arguing strenuously, Vella and Harold left the meeting dispirited. But that afternoon, the dean said that permission was granted as long as a university lawyer read the article first.

On Tuesday evening, Vella said, "We were told it could run as-is." Wednesday, he sought permission to run the story across the top of the front page. Permission was denied.

The dean said the story should run "below the fold" - on the lower half of the front page, which cannot be seen from a vending box or in a stack of newspapers.

"I half expected it," Vella said. Twice before, he had been instructed to run unflattering stories below the fold - one about a university administrator accused of embezzlement and another about a student charged with murder. This time, however, he said, "We felt the university was trying to control us too much."

Still, Vella and the staff were afraid to just forge ahead. Although the administration had never issued an ultimatum, no one wanted to risk whatever consequences there might be.

"We have a professional relationship with the dean of students, and, to his credit, he's done a lot for us," said Kevin Smith, the Collegian's managing editor. "I am slated to take over as editor-in-chief next year, and I want to keep our relationship with the administration professional and largely pleasant because they do pay our bills."

The story ran Thursday on the bottom half of the front page: "La Salle launches 'full-scale investigation' into off-campus seminar."

The top half was left blank, except for four small words: See below the fold.

Moore declined to comment, and La Salle's spokesman did not return a call Thursday. The Collegian's faculty adviser, Robert O'Brien, said, "This is a private university. La Salle publishes the paper and is responsible for its contents. There was never resistance to the idea of doing the story, only to publishing it prematurely."

O'Brien, who teaches public relations at La Salle, is a former spokesman for AT&T. He has no experience working for a newspaper.

"Sometimes it is quite frustrating when the students run up against this kind of censorship," said John Kennedy, an assistant professor of communication and a former staff writer for the Boston Globe. "It's not unusual for a private college to exercise that kind of control. It has that legal right. But more progressive institutions understand that you want the students to try to replicate what they will face out in the real world."

Vella, who plans a career in journalism, said he did not know how the school would react to Thursday's rebellious issue, his last as editor.

But, he said, "You need to stand up for yourself every once in a while. You can't let authorities intimidate you."


Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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