News agency ousted from university after critical story

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Reporters and editors for The Lens, a nonprofit online news organization in New Orleans, found themselves working at coffee shops and kitchen tables after losing office space at private Loyola University.

The Lens staff learned they would lose their Loyola office space at about the same time they were working on a December story about the Jesuit university president's tenure on the New Orleans Civil Service Commission, said editor Steve Beatty. The article questioned whether the Rev. Kevin Wildes was too friendly with city officials backing controversial Civil Service rule changes being considered by the board.

Loyola officials say the article wasn't a factor in The Lens losing its space in the building that houses the School of Mass Communication as well as the music school. They say the university's 2012 agreement to house The Lens — a rent-free arrangement that included Lens staffers working with Loyola students, faculty and the student newspaper — expired Dec. 30.

"We were happy to have The Lens over there. But we needed that space for the growth we were going through," said Roger White, dean of Loyola's College of Social Sciences, which includes the communication school.

White said discussions about the space had been going on "over many, many months."

Beatty readily acknowledges that the space at the university is much sought after. And, he cannot say with certainty that the December article had anything to do with The Lens leaving Loyola.

Still, Beatty notes evidence of discontent at Loyola with The Lens' coverage of the Civil Service commission, even before the December article. He points to a Sept. 11, 2014, story that raised questions about the commission's hiring of an attorney, including whether the vote to hire the lawyer violated the state Open Meetings Law.

The day the story ran, Wildes sent an email to the city's personnel director. "I just discovered that the Lens is housed on our campus," Wildes wrote in the email later obtained by The Lens through a Freedom of Information Act request to the city. "I think they just earned a rent increase."

Then came the December story. The Lens quoted emails provided by a leader of the city firefighters union that suggested Wildes — a member of the city's Civil Service commission — was close to members of Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration who favored a broad overhaul of the Civil Service rules. Among the changes that drew the most strident criticism was elimination of a rule allowing city department heads to consider only the top three eligible candidates for a job, based on test scores and other factors. The Landrieu administration said managers need more flexibility in hiring and promoting workers. Critics said elimination of the rule would open hiring to political interference.

The article stated that Wildes had signed a letter expressing the commission's desire to work with the administration to implement changes to the Civil Service. The letter was actually written by a member of the administration and forwarded to Wildes for his signature, the Lens reported.

The Lens said the emails raised questions about a commission tasked with protecting city workers from political meddling and which should have at least "an arm's-length relationship with the administration."

However, the article also noted times when Wildes' bucked the administration, including the commission's challenge of a city takeover of police private-duty security details. Wildes, for his part, said in a public statement that he evaluated information from "stakeholders throughout the city" regarding the Civil Service overhaul.

"We certainly have no animus against The Lens," White said last week after The Associated Press requested an interview with Loyola officials. He praised The Lens' work with students and faculty and noted that the administration has also taken criticism over the years from the student newspaper, housed in the same building.

Whatever the reasons for its departure from Loyola, The Lens' days as a nomad news agency are coming to an end. Beatty said the nonprofit has found rental office space. "We got the keys today," he said Wednesday. He estimated rent and costs associated with moving will run about $30,000 of The Lens' $625,000 budget, which is fueled by donations.



The Lens:

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