Swimming with sharks

octopus

This story has legs.


Exactly a year and a day ago, Nicole DeCriscio was editor of the student newspaper at DePauw University in Indiana.

Exactly one year ago, she was fired.

The circumstances were both suspicious and audacious, but the whisper-quiet senior’s first reaction was the most common one I’ve seen in 18 years of working with college journalists. She did nothing.

Eventually, she did something brave and rare. She defended herself. SMACK wrote about her twisted tale in a long post called Fishy at DePauw.

That story ended with SMACK using DePauw’s own rules to pay DeCriscio to speak at a college media convention in New York City – about how DePauw wrongfully fired her. It was a weird and wonderful weekend.

So what happened after? Well, despite DePauw officials dropping huge hints that she was jeopardizing her journalism career by, you know, sticking up for journalism, DeCriscio landed a job as a reporter for a small Indiana daily. Interestingly, DePauw boasted about this in a news release that mentions she was editor – but not that she was fired.

So all’s well that started stupidly, right? Sure, but at a cost.

SMACK exists to defend college journalists willing to defend themselves. Alas, few do. Even if it all works out in the end, there’s much to fear in the beginning and fret about in the middle. So DeCriscio asked us to post her story below. She wants college journalists to know the emotional toll  that being right can take – and that it’s still worth it…


nicole

A year ago today, I was fired as Editor-in-Chief from my campus newspaper, The DePauw, for alleged ethical violations that SPJ’s own ethics chair couldn’t fathom.

And with the exception of accepting interviews about what happened and speaking at CMA’s NYC16, I’ve remained quiet on the issue. That silence ends today.

The Background:

If you would’ve told me in August 2015 at the start of my term that a few months later I would be wrongfully fired, I would’ve called you crazy.

DePauw had and still has a long, rich history in producing strong, successful journalists despite the lack of a journalism school. I would have told you that the newspaper was completely independent of the university, and there wasn’t a story that we weren’t allowed to do. I was wrong on both counts.

While the newspaper had a standing contract with the university to rent the space for the newsroom and paid for production through advertisement sales and a fund set up in Barney Kilgore’s name, the university absorbed all of the tax liability for the newspaper, paid for a faculty adviser and had faculty members sit on a Publication’s Board that acted as a publisher for the newspaper.

That Publication’s Board selected the Editorial Board, and they were the ones to vote for my removal as Editor. And to sum up what happened, I was fired for writing a story with an unpopular opinion. (You can read about what happened here.)

The Experience:

I cried, a lot.

Like most college journalists, I spent more of my waking hours in the newsroom than anywhere else on campus. I did homework in the newsroom. I slaved over the campus newspaper twice-a-week from the start of my freshman year until I was fired. I was a staff member of The DePauw first and foremost, and then I was a student at DePauw University. My identity was not rooted in the university – it was rooted in that publication, so being fired meant that I lost not just my job, but my identity and my home. The newsroom was my safe space.

People thought I was still editor.

Because the campus newspaper never wrote a piece about my firing and the SPJ piece didn’t come out until well after my term would have been over, much of the campus thought that I was still Editor. And the Editor that replaced me made some judgment calls that I was continually questioned about because nobody knew I was fired. In fact, I had professors and peers who asked me the last week of school, seven months later, how things were going at the paper.

I was scared of backlash.

When I finally decided that I wanted to go on the record with SPJ’s SMACK on what happened. I was afraid of what the university or the key players would do to me. I prepared myself for things like a journalism professor intentionally failing me or the university withholding my diploma. And I prepared myself to fight those things.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the emotional warfare that ensued.

The university didn’t have to do anything to me to make my life miserable. I had members of the DePauw community send me mean emails questioning me for speaking to a reporter. I was called a liar, among other things. Rather than looking to those who made the decision to fire me for answers, people blamed me for the spotlight that was cast on the university. Somehow, even though SPJ had determined that I should not have been fired, I was still “in the wrong.”

I was slandered, and the reasoning for my firing changed with every interview.

In the letter that they gave me, the reason for my firing was that I had “created a damaging and avoidable conflict of interest,” which they concluded was an ethical breach. After SPJ’s SMACK article on my firing, the reason was that they saw a pattern of uneven coverage from the onset and questioned my objectivity in the first two articles. The same coverage won a SPJ Region 5 Mark of Excellence Award. And finally, it was because I wrote the piece for another publication, which directly contradicted the letter I received when I was fired.

 I felt alone.

I wasn’t alone. I had a lot of support from other journalists that I know that were outside of the DePauw bubble. For a while. I had frequent phone calls and emails with Michael Koretzky and [SPJ FOI chairman] Gideon Grudo. Don’t get me wrong. There were people at DePauw who provided support throughout the ordeal, and a lot of recent alumni offered to do whatever I needed. But there wasn’t any concrete things others could do for me because nobody did anything to me. The only thing anyone could do was try to understand what I was feeling and offer moral support.

With the exception of a friend who worked at a newspaper two hours away, the only support I had from journalists were hundreds of miles away, and that felt isolating. Koretzky and Grudo knew how to help me cope with what was happening because they had experienced similar assaults on college media at Florida Atlantic University, but as they pointed out numerous times, it was so common at FAU that there was this built-in support network that I lacked at DePauw.

The experience tarnished my senior year.

Being Indiana’s Oldest College Newspaper, The DePauw has a lot of traditions, some of which are secret. That being said, there is one particular tradition in which the entire staff gets together, shares memories, talks about those who have come and gone and honors the seniors. The staff recalls first memories of the graduating seniors and says nice things about them. And in return, the seniors pass along advice and encouragement, saying things like, “It may not feel like it, but what you do matters” and, “Keep on fighting the good fight.” The seniors also talk about how, contrary to popular belief, there are jobs in journalism.

Because of my firing, I was never able to experience that tradition as a senior.

One Year Later:

The same people who made the decision to fire me told me that I had ruined my job prospects by the SPJ article coming out. While I knew it at the time because Koretzky told me, I now know they were trying to cover themselves. In fact, in the first 12 job applications that I sent out, I had in-person or phone interviews for four positions. From those interviews, I had one official job offer and one tentative one. I chose to keep looking for a position that I felt would be a better fit for me.

At every job interview, I was asked why I was fired and if I would do it again. And my answers were always the same: I wrote a column with an unfavorable opinion and yes. I was able to say, “Don’t take my word on the situation. SPJ wrote a piece about it. Want me to send you the link?” And at the time, I wasn’t sure if I would because the wounds hadn’t healed yet, but I knew that I didn’t want to work for someone who disagreed with SPJ’s thoughts on my firing.

The 13th application was lucky. Not only was I offered a position, but I accepted a job at a small paper in Indiana where I am the education beat reporter and a designer. Though, at a small paper, beats are really more suggestions, and I pick up a lot of stories outside of my beat too.

And the irony of it all is when talking to the editors who hired me, I found out that the article I wrote a year and 12 days ago, the article that resulted in my firing and led to all of the pain and turmoil, was the same article that was at least partially responsible for their decision to offer me the job. They said that the deeper level of thought and clear writing on a complex issue impressed them enough to hire me.

Now, when people ask if I would give some street preachers a couple sandwiches and write about it, I give them a yes, without a doubt. Because even in the limited retrospective view I have with a year’s distance, I can say that everything worked out, which is why, even after the hell I was put through, tonight when I get off work, I’ll raise a glass and toast to Old DePauw.


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3 Responses to “Swimming with sharks”

  1. Brandon Ballenger Says:

    Thanks for sharing, Nicole. It’s always helpful to see shining examples of people who “made it” despite being bullied by the ones that were supposed to help get them there — sadly, this happens a lot.

  2. Christiana Lilly Says:

    It’s great to see that you’re doing so well a year later! Keep doing what you do.

  3. Chris Says:

    When competent reporters have your back, few things can stand in your way. Keep fighting the good fight Nicole.

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