Stealing newspapers in a social media age

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Only the old issues (on the bottom) remain.

In less than an hour, 1,550 copies of Lee University’s student newspaper, the Lee Clarion, were stolen from campus newsstands this past April. Not to be outdone, the newspaper’s editors utilized social media to redistribute the issue to students and lead the investigation into who stole the papers and why.

My cell phone rang. Always such the interruption.

It was the web designer calling to resign. Not exactly the most comforting call to receive in the middle of an editorial board meeting for the most important issue of the year.

One of the perks of being managing editor is getting to pause meetings at any time and this was one of those times. I excused myself from the makeshift board room and answered the phone.

“I heard you’re doing a story about the Greek clubs; is that true?” he asked. I confirmed the information and he continued, ending on what might have been a threatening note, “If you run the story, I won’t work for you,” and pausing just long enough to allow me to back down.

I thanked him for informing me of his decision and we ended the call.

The web designer for the Lee Clarion was an active member of Pi Kappa Pi, one of the Greek clubs included in the lead story I was working on.

A week prior a student employed as a campus safety officer came into the newsroom, asking to see me under the condition of anonymity. He had found a Pi newsletter that mentioned trying to send new taps to the hospital during inductions, among other content that did not cast the club in a positive light.

I made several copies of the newsletter and stored them in various locations after talking with the student media adviser about how to handle the case. It was at that point that the main focus of the pending story was realized. The newsletter, if indeed legit, was only one piece of evidence pointing toward a larger suggestion: Greek club reform by the school administration two years prior may not have seriously changed the attitude and reputation of the organizations after all, as originally intended.

The story was bigger than one Greek organization. It was every Greek organization. Were the clubs as wholesome as their founding members originally intended? Or had generations of members shifted priorities and principals?

Job number one was to determine if the newsletter was in fact legit.

I called Pi Kappa Pi’s president to ask him some questions about the organization and he confirmed the existence of the newsletter. He said that the ER quip was a joke but that he had addressed it with the dean of students after it was published.

Hours of research and interviews later, the resulting 1,500 word story went to press and was delivered to campus newsstands on Thursday evening. The story ran on the front page of the last issue of the year.

A dream or a nightmare

Twenty-four hours passed until I noticed an empty newspaper stand in the student union. For an editor, an empty stand is either a dream or a nightmare. And in this case, it had to be a nightmare.

No matter how hot the story may be, no one picks up 200 copies of an issue in 24 hours. Thirty maybe, but not 200. Something was wrong.

It was Friday night and most students had left for the weekend. By now campus safety would be circling the grounds, locking up most buildings until Monday morning.

I ran at a brisk pace from building to building, peering through locked glass doors into lobbies, entryways, hallways… hoping to get enough of a glimpse of the newspaper stands to determine how big the loss might be.

As the numbers mounted, I rang the media adviser on the phone.

“I thought this might happen,” he said. “But I thought it would happen last night. Call campus safety and file a report, but there’s likely nothing that can be done until Monday morning.”

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The missing issue.

How clever. It the thieves had struck on Thursday, an investigation would have launched immediately. But by acting in a window between the end of classes on Friday and the lock-up of buildings for the weekend, it guaranteed not only a three-day head start, but a convenient lack of witnesses.

I made a beeline for the campus safety office, informing the officer at the desk of the crime. He said he’d “look into it.”

Looking into a situation is obviously not the same as filing a report. Campus safety, it turned out, didn’t really know how to handle such an incident because “stealing something that’s free in the first place” doesn’t really count as a crime. That also happens to mean a cleaner slate in the crime statistics the school reports to the TBI and publishes online. Never mind that hundreds of dollars go into printing and delivering the papers as well as funding the reporting and editing.

Checking in with campus safety over the weekend yielded few new results, so as Monday morning arrived, it was time for the newspaper to take action.

The social dialogue

The Lee Clarion newsroom was alive with activity; the media adviser was discussing the theft with faculty, editors reviewed details of the crime, and the laser printer in the corner was spewing eye-catching signs to replace the missing issue:

“Due to theft, this week’s edition of the Lee Clarion is not in newsstands. View the issue online at”

Within an hour the signs were taped to 19 newspaper stands around campus, the PDF of the full issue was uploaded to the website, and news of the theft was broadcast from the paper’s Twitter account.

The newspaper’s web designer had even e-mailed to assert that he wasn’t at fault.

“I haven’t heard anything about it,” he wrote. “This is typically the sort of act that someone would brag about.”

By the time afternoon showed its face, a news story about the mass theft was published online at Total damages were estimated at more than $300. The article asked for any tips leading to information about the person(s) responsible.

That evening, the first tip came. A student worker in the recreation center said he saw someone hauling a stack of newspapers out of the building. The suspect was identified as the upcoming vice president of the Greek club that had printed the newsletter in question.

Social media dialogue about the Lee Clarion theftIt didn’t take long to find out that other members of Pi Kappa Pi were using social media to spread a negative message about the newest issue. Club members wrote comments deriding both the issue and the author on the wall of the Lee Clarion Facebook page.

By Tuesday morning Facebook had become a hotbed of dialogue about the thefts. Social media emerged as the medium of choice to attack or defend, depending on which side you were on.

Some students typed heated status updates while others continued to comment on the newspaper’s Facebook page and a few published verbal attacks on my wall, as the author and managing editor of the publication.

Several comments that attacked rather than discussed were deleted from the newspaper’s fan page as they did not fit in with student media guidelines.

Some posts charged the paper with misquoting while others accused the author of “stealing private information” or using drugs and alcohol, which are against the university’s community covenant.

Ironically, many of those panning the newspaper actually became a “fan” of the Lee Clarion just to leave their comment on the official page.

Realizing just how big the story had become due to the controversy, Lee Clarion editors began posting and retweeting the link to the PDF of the stolen issue and the hot story itself.

Those unhappy with the article still found a way to fight back, using the “report” button to tell Facebook that the links were viruses, causing a warning window to pop up and block access to the webpage.

Good signs and bad signs

While a virtual battle raged online, another battle was beginning in reality. The signs taped to newsstands around campus had disappeared seemingly overnight. And so I began to circle the campus between classes, checking each of the stands, and reposting signs where they had been forcibly removed. In some cases, by the time I finished one round of reattachment, it was time to begin a second.

Coming to the realization that there had to be a more intelligent way to corner the enemy, I asked campus safety if we could use the security cameras on campus to locate the culprit snatching the signs.

The reply? There are only two working security cameras on campus, both in the auditorium lobby. And, as fate would have it, the auditorium newsstand stood in a blind spot. Moving the stand into view of the cameras, I placed yet another sign as bait. A few hours later, once the sign had been removed again, I asked to see the recording. Alas, the only person who knew how to operate the system was out of town for a week and the tapes were not recorded.

By the end of the day the commentary had moved from the social web to a highly critical blog post that has since been deleted by the author. The post called the Greek story “a train wreck of an article.”

The next day, however, two students apparently determined that the train did not wreck, but instead needed a bit of extra help down the track.

Advocating for the Lee Clarion, they reprinted the Greek article and the related theft story on computer lab paper to distribute to students who had not yet heard of the swelling brouhaha.

One of them was my suitemate, the other my friend. Fearing that their actions would be taken as an official Lee Clarion move to strike back at the Greek club, I respectfully asked the two to desist their heroic efforts to keep the matter from getting worse.

The highly critical blog post.

During dinner in the dining hall, four members of Pi Kappa Pi invited me to join them for a conversation regarding the issue, questioning the point of the article and why their club was “attacked.”

One asked if I was going to graduate only to become like “every other journalist with a negative view of the world.” They also wondered why the good things that their club did never received attention; I encouraged them to let the newspaper know in the future.

Later that evening not one, but two, confessions appeared, both on Facebook. One sent me a private message: “I just wanted to confess that I stole all those newspapers. Where to you want me to bring them?”

The other was a public announcement by status message: “I stole the free Lee Clarions. Is that possible?”

All factors considered, I responded to the private message, asking the student to return the papers to the media lab. A reporter would talk to him about his motives when he came. Neither the 1,550 papers nor the confessor would ever arrive.

Vandalism and fire

Friday, a week after the theft, a more substantial attack was made. Student automobiles parked behind a men’s residence hall had been desecrated with car-chalked images of male sex organs on the windows… and the Greek letters of Pi Kappa Pi.

The story continued, it seemed. Brandishing a notepad and a camera, I reported on the vandalism that occurred overnight before breaking to have lunch in the dining hall.

While I was eating, the vice president elect of Pi asked to have a private conversation with me, noting that he heard I was working on a story about the vandalism. He insisted that the club had no part in the stunt and repeatedly asserted that if the published story mentioned Pi “there will be fire.”

He proceeded to claim that his dad was friends with the university president and that his parents’ lawyers would take legal action to sue me if the upcoming story mentioned his club.

Nevertheless, the story was published the next day, noting that students believed Pi Kappa Pi was framed in the incident. And several times more, I was invited to additional private conversations with the same Pi guy in the dining hall, who intensified his threats and scare tactics.

I had kept detailed notes on the conversations since the first incident and had shared them with the media adviser, who in turn asked to show them to the dean of students and the campus safety director.

One of several vandalized cars.

Campus safety had made little progress identifying the culprit of the theft, turning the formal investigation over to the dean of students, who received copies of any suspicious e-mails or Facebook messages Lee Clarion editors found. Over the next few days the dean pulled several Greek club members into his office for interviews regarding the incident.

As the probe continued, fellow editors and student media staff members became increasingly aware of how dangerous the situation could become, urging me to lock my office door and not to walk home alone, especially after dark.

If nothing else, I learned that the life of a journalist isn’t always that glamorous. There were many people throwing insults in my direction because of what I wrote, but I received just as much support and encouragement. The media adviser repeatedly asked how I was holding up, considering the personal attacks, online and in reality. And at one point, a vice president at the university sent me a message apologizing for what I had gone through and complementing me as a journalist.

Unsure of what to expect, I visited the chair of the Communication and the Arts department the following Monday at his office. He invited me to offer his protection and said I could file charges due to recent events.

Four days later the dean of students contacted the newspaper to say that, after meeting with the threatening Pi member, the missing papers would be returned to his office… more than two weeks after they were first stolen.

The dean forbade the Pi member and myself from communicating with each other again. The spring term ended as peacefully as it had begun, and summer classes began. Yet guess who sat across from me in Foundations of the Modern World. Thankfully, it was just a really awkward month, not a whole semester.

The social web truly played a large role in putting the pieces together. In a world where social media has become an extension of reality, newspapers live despite theft and perhaps thrive online in the face of censorship. The dialogue is now recorded, the characters frame themselves, and the story lives beyond the printed page. Facebook became a crucial tool in investigation and redistribution. You can’t beat the news when the news is social.

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