The Torch has been reporting on the St. John’s community for nearly 100 years. As we approach the end of the decade, we reached out to past Editors in Chief about the last ten years. Below are some of the most memorable feats of SJU student journalism, as told by eight of the decade’s EICs.
Bill San Antonio
San Antonio is a marketing/communications professional in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“Perhaps the biggest challenge we faced was organizing our coverage of the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, which for most of us will forever be the definitive historical event of our lives. We determined our best course of action would be to gather as many stories from that morning as we could from as many of our brothers and sisters in the St. John’s community — students, faculty, administrators, public safety officers, maintenance workers, whomever — as would be willing to speak on the record to a group of student journalists. We felt an enormous pressure and responsibility to honor the memories of those who lost their lives that day and in the weeks, months and years that followed. It was also important for us to be respectful of those whose memories of that day were still raw and full of grief. Tragic stories are never easy for journalists to tell, whether filtered through broader reportage or presented directly from the sources themselves, as we did with our ‘man on the street’-style presentation. I’d like to think our reporters learned valuable lessons in sensitivity, patience and compassion that can only be attained by gaining the trust of your sources, and I am forever grateful to those who were brave enough to share their stories — dark as they may have at times been — with us.”
Michael E. Cunniff
Cunniff is a litigation associate at Covington & Burling, a law firm in New York. He lives with his wife, Nicole Valente, former managing editor, and is still a SJUBB season ticket holder.
“Much of my year as editor-in-chief was spent reacting to events – specifically, the trial and shocking death of former dean Cecilia Chang and the fallout that eventually resulted in the “retirement” of then-University President Rev. Donald Harrington and the resignation of his chief of staff, Robert Wile. However, the story that stands out to me was one more focused on the SJU student experience. It is hard to believe in hindsight, but in 2013, the University was perceived as punishing (directly or indirectly) students for being outspoken on LGBTQ+ issues, with one alumnus telling us that he had almost been fired as an RA for writing a Torch editorial on LGBTQ+ issues. We knew we needed to report on this issue, but we struggled mightily to get LGBTQ+ students to go on the record talking about their experiences.
The students were not the only ones uncomfortable with going on the record. The University made key administrators unavailable for comment until after our deadline. We stuck to our guns and refused to push our story. The University quickly scheduled a day-of-publication interview. The ensuing interview (led by Kieran Lynch, our then-features editor/wunderkind) was contentious, but respectful, and made clear to us that the University’s position toward LGBTQ+ students was untenable. Reading it back nearly seven years later, it remains shocking to me how poor the on-campus environment was for LGBTQ+ students.
Happily, regardless of whether our story had anything to do with it, St. John’s established the student group Spectrum the following year. The views on LGBTQ rights were also changing across the nation, with the U.S. Supreme Court issuing its Windsor decision just a few months after our article, paving the way for its Obergefell decision two years later that would make same-sex marriage the law of the land. On campus, things appear to be improving as well; the University even has a preferred name policy, which would have been laughably unthinkable in 2013. The University may never be a leader on these types of social issues, but it appears to have made progress on treating all students with compassion and dignity, which should be the minimum for a Catholic institution.”
Lynch is an audience editor for the New York Daily News.
“Our editorial board was no stranger to big stories and investigations when we took over. Many of us had worked on the previous year’s coverage of alleged corruption between then-President Rev. Donald J. Harrington, his Chief of Staff Rob Wile and former dean Cecilia Chang. But with that mostly in the rear-view mirror, we put together our first three issues as a group and were ready to head into the summer.
Then Harrington resigned.
The seemingly strategic news drop – two days after distribution of our final scheduled issue for the semester – came on a Friday afternoon when the only things on our minds were next week’s finals and playing catch on the Great Lawn.
That became a frenetic few days of deciding whether we should put out a paper and what timeline was possible. Through the hard work of our new staff and some help from the graduating duo of Michael Cunniff and Nicole Valente, we put together an eight-page special edition.
We made the decision to move forward with the special issue the Sunday after he resigned and had the paper on newsstands by that Wednesday morning. In between were story assignments, designing a paper and calling the printer. The pace became possible because of the willingness of editors and writers to put in an extra few days of long hours to report on an essential story for St. John’s.
I was proud of the staff not only for getting out the news story, but for the perspective we brought from every angle – good and bad. The scandal, the development, the future, but also what Harrington had done to transform the school over the previous two decades, most notably ushering in dorm life on campus. Every piece played a part in St. John’s history, and its culmination will be remembered because of our crazy week and dedication to the story.”
Albanese recently graduated from New York Law School and is currently an Empire Fellow with the New York State Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs.
“The most memorable piece from my time as Editor-in-Chief was from the September 17, 2014 issue featuring the interview with the then-new SJU President. It was written by the News Editor Talia Tirella, who followed me as co-editor-in-chief, and I remember it being a time for us to build relations with the administration. At the start of my time as EIC, we had just been moved to a basement newsroom, away from the student hub where we previously were amongst the student population. (Looking at the PDF issue, we addressed this briefly in Flames of the Torch). From what I recall, there was some tension between us and some members of administration because of how unhappy we were with the move. We felt it was retaliation from our honest reporting of some recent scandals that plagued the school at the time. Regardless, at the start of the new semester and for our first issue of the Fall, we were looking forward to a fresh start. The staff was happy to have been granted some time with President Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw, and to get to know him and provide the student body with some information about their new president. I remember our staff was thrilled to have a president of St. John’s who himself perfectly embodies what SJU is all about and was actively meeting with students to get their opinion on how to better the school that they attend, and appeared to have a lot of goals and ideas to implement. There were a lot of moments as EIC that I remember and look back fondly on. Staying at the newsroom until two or three a.m. to get the paper out is truly an experience I will never forget, and it puts into perspective the amount of time and thought put into the traditional journalistic process!”
Tirella is a booking producer for Maria Bartiromo’s morning show on Fox Business, “Mornings with Maria.”
“Lots of big news happened during my time at the Torch, and we always had so many impactful stories from all of the great editors we had every year!
A singular moment that stands out to me is covering the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. I worked with our news editor Amanda Umpierrez to update the Torch website with information as the attacks happened in real time. We wanted to make sure that parents and friends of St. John’s study abroad students and staff would be able to check a St. John’s source and know that their loved ones were safe on the Paris campus. A former roommate helped me to confirm that everyone was safe and accounted for, which was a huge relief.
Amanda went on to cover the vigil held on the Queens campus and I made sure to get updated statements from the administration about protocol and activities at the Paris campus in the weeks after the attack.
I hope our reporting that story helped to inform the St. John’s community and reassure parents and friends that study abroad students were safe. An event like that makes you realize how small the world really is and how important it is to communicate information in your personal life or through a free press.”
While Ciechalski’s favorite job will always be the one she had at the Torch, she is currently a social newsgathering reporter at NBC News, specializing in digital verification and social discovery.
“There were so many events and stories during my time at the Torch that helped shape the culture of St. John’s that we know today – it’s hard to choose just one that might be considered my ‘favorite.’ But of all the stories we covered, one I can’t shake is the year Desiigner performed at the St. John’s basketball tip-off and quite literally took Carnesecca Arena by storm.
Desiigner, who was just 19 at the time, had his mic cut and was ushered out of the arena in the middle of his performance that night, after he went into RedZone’s section of the stands, ripped off his shirt, jumped on the DJ stand and, finally, encouraged students to storm the court (I checked our story to make sure the sequence of events was correct). SJU later said they were looking into safety changes for future Tip-Off performances.
“I love St. John’s,” Desiigner told the Torch in a statement, after the fact. “Thank you for turning up with me! You already know what time it is!”
If you visit the Torch office, you’ll see our sports editors that year proudly hung his email on a bulletin board above their desk. It’s still there and we still talk about it way more than we probably should.
I wasn’t at Tip-Off that year, but received more texts than my phone could handle from friends asking if the Torch was there, and my eboard, who were describing the scene.
We were all obsessed with it, and still enjoy recounting every bit of it – from the night it actually happened, to our (award-winning) issue and front page that week.
It was a night that went down in St. John’s and Torch history, and easily one of my favorite stories of all time.”
Angélica M. Acevedo
Acevedo is a reporter covering western Queens for the Queens Courier, TimesLedger Newspapers and other local newspapers owned by Schneps Media.
“As the EIC for the 2018 – 2019 school year, there was no shortage of memorable stories that I wrote and edited for the newspaper. One of my most memorable stories though, was the article I wrote in response to #SurvivingSJU, which was a hashtag started by SJU students on Twitter to reveal the devastating stories of sexual assault that they experienced on campus. It all began after the documentary, “Surviving R. Kelly,” premiered — but no one could’ve foreseen the hashtag trending nationally and receiving coverage from national news outlets as well. This all caused the university to look into the many sexual assault claims that past and present students shared, but there were still many questions left unanswered.
The Torch continued to cover any updates that came as a result of #SurvivingSJU, such as a panel the university held a few weeks after spring classes started and providing students with outside resources they could use if needed. Personally, I wanted to focus on something that addressed the university’s data from the Clery Report, which many students were questioning at the time. After looking through it and other reports, such as the anonymous student campus climate surveys, I noticed that there were indeed inconsistencies with the reported numbers and stories from students. Although I couldn’t get in-person interviews, I did manage to get answers via email to my questions from the university’s spokesperson, Student Wellness’ director and Public Safety’s director. I thought a Q&A format would be the easiest to read and organize, especially for a topic as complicated and data-heavy as this one.
In the end, I’m happy with the coverage we dedicated to this particular issue.There’s always so much more we can look into as journalists, but when you’re juggling so many responsibilities as student journalists, every story that we can do responsibly counts for a lot.”
Morgan C. Mullings
Mullings is the current Editor-in-Chief of the Torch and an intern at Rolling Stone Magazine.
“My term as editor-in-chief started off with a breaking story that I felt wildly unprepared for. I guess you’re never prepared for the gravity of a big story – election cheating allegations against the current SGI executive board. When I was first elected as EIC I had a lot of development goals for the upcoming year and they were all kind of thwarted by this moment where I was responsible for setting the record straight on a campus-wide controversy. In the next decade, I’m wondering what will stop the staff in their tracks; a story that will call for emergency meetings, an extra hour in the office, an impromptu meeting with a source. It all seems so small in hindsight, when I’m sitting in DAC Living Room and a friend asks me, “do you think they did it?” I smile politely and tell them “It isn’t my job to weigh in. If I wanted to, I would write an editorial,” knowing fully that they may not care about the difference. After all of the stress of making tough decisions on deadline, I cherish just educating people on what student journalists (and professional journalists) actually do. Because a lot of people simply don’t know. It’s caused tension between the Torch and many people at St. John’s: lack of understanding. And while it would be easiest for me to be upset (and I do get upset, I’m still a regular student here too, part of my own readership) I just choose to understand where the disconnect is coming from and try to bridge the gap, and lead my team in the same way. I let people know what I’ve learned from these past editors. I’ve expanded on some of their dreams by securing small things like a custom sign on our office door, meetings with administrators who have never even seen our office, an updated constitution and style guide, new staff membership requirements and biweekly meetings, and educational workshops. We do this, every day, and we work incredibly hard at it. I’m excited because it isn’t just for the current staff, it’s for the next decade of Torchies that will use these resources, as well as the legacy that I am so grateful to even have the privilege to contribute to.”