OCCC to shut down paper, replace Pioneer newspaper adviser weeks after reporters win state awards for controversial coverage

Just days after his reporters were notified that they had won state journalism awards for their controversial coverage of the college administration’ harassment and discrimination, Vice President for Academic Affairs Vincent Bridges, April 29, notified the Pioneer student newspaper Adviser Markus Zindelo that a new faculty member would be hired to replace him as adviser, according to emails obtained by the Pioneer.

This comes at the end of one of the most contentious years for the college when the student news gatherers fairly and honestly reported about issues of discrimination, harassment, targeting, and the culture of fear that administration perpetuated at OCCC for years.

The journalism students won multiple state awards for their coverage.

Zindelo was told through an email by Bridges he would need to apply for and be chosen for a different faculty position if he were to continue in his role as adviser, according to emails obtained by the Pioneer.

In a media release sent to the college community, Monday, after the news broke that the college was shutting down the paper, the college said Zindelo’s replacement had been in the works for a while.

“This position, long requested by the Division of Arts, English, and Humanities, included the responsibility of overseeing The Pioneer, and had been frozen due to budget constraints over the last year, but has now been unfrozen and can be hired in time for the new fiscal year beginning July 1, 2021.”

Zindelo also serves as the only fulltime faculty member in the journalism and broadcasting program and as the program chair.

He said he had no idea the college was going to hire a new professor for the position he holds. He said as program chair (who oversees the program, curriculum, adjunt faculty) and as someone who already holds the adviser position, he was surprised no one had told him he would need to apply if he wanted to continue his adviser duties which include instructing the student journalists, laying-out the paper, copy editing, photography, video and audio work and managing the staff.

Many on campus and across the state said OCCC was trying to destroy student media because of unflattering, but true, coverage.

“Happens all the time, unfortunately. OCCC has just joined the list of tyrannical administration who fired their advisor and shut down student media. It’s sad that the new Academic Affairs vice president approved this, especially when Bridges campaigned for openess and respect for students and faculty,” said one former OCCC administrator. “He’s a fraud and should be doing just the opposite. He should be protecting the advisor and the students. The college clearly made a mistake in hiring him.”

After Bridges notified Zindelo he was being taken off his adviser post, early April 30, Thomas Harrison, the dean of Arts, English and Humanities canceled Zindelo’s summer journalism courses, fired the summer staff of the Pioneer (who had been approved to work for the summer and were counting on the jobs to advance their journalism careers) and announced a shutdown of the paper effective the end of the spring semester– in just two weeks, according to emails obtained by the Pioneer. Instead of pushing back, Bridges approved the changes.

After news spread about the firing of the staff and the ordered shutdown of the paper, the dean reversed his order and said the paper could continue publishing until the end of June, according to emails obtained by the Pioneer.

Harrison was relieved of his duties Monday morning, according to an email from OCCC Human Resources.

The college, Monday, also said the students could continue to hold their positions. The students were unable to publish stories or information about the college online, in print, or through social media platforms.

“The Pioneer staff, some of whom graduate next week, were already promised by the faculty adviser that they would be paid through the end of the fiscal year, and we plan to honor that commitment,” the college said through an email.

These decisions come after Zindelo abruptly stopped collaboration with the college’s Public Relations and Marketing department when he discovered they were actively working on branding and redesign focused on turning the newspaper into a quarterly magazine without his or the staff’s knowledge according to emails obtained by the Pioneer.

Zindelo said he had one meeting with employees of the Public Relations department to discuss a new look for the online Pioneer site, and shortly after he was told by marketing department head Erick Worrell the paper was going to be published once every eight weeks instead of twice-monthly.

Zindelo said he will leave the journalism program but not leave OCCC. He will teach English and Humanities courses starting in the fall.

He said he would no longer serve as program chair and does not know who will lead the program.

“The Pioneer has changed so many lives of the students who have been reporters and editors, changed the culture of OCCC, and has been the longest serving chronicle of developments and changes at OCCC. It’s been around since the 1970s, so to see this happen is just perplexing.

“I’m just an employee of the college and despite what I feel, I have to step back and let the administration do their work. I’m honored to have been a part of such an amazing newspaper for so long,” Zindelo said.

“I wish the program and future journalism students and staff great luck, and I hope the college doesn’t turn the Pioneer into a magazine. It’s all out of my hands now. I appreciate having had the opportunity to serve.”

Zindelo was hired as fulltime adviser a number of years ago after an interview process with the former Vice President of Academic Affairs Greg Gardner and former Associate Vice President of Academic affairs Kim Jameson who said they wanted to “know his heart”, according to emails obtained by the Pioneer.

He had served as the Pioneer summer newspaper adviser for many years, first starting 2004.

“When a new journalism professor is hired, that individual will be responsible for overseeing The Pioneer, assembling its advisory council, and determining the appropriate path for the paper, all with the aim of ensuring students are prepared to enter the workforce, well-equipped with the independence and ethics of great journalists” according to a media release sent to the college community from OCCC.

“We thank The Pioneer’s existing staff and faculty adviser for their hard work, dedication to independence and integrity, and perseverance during a trying time. They have done award-winning work all of us celebrate,” the release states.

Many local and state journalists and state organization leaders have expressed outrage at what they see as the college’s attempt to stifle negative news coverage as the college faces an accreditation examination this fall.

Zindelo said he appreciates the support from the many news outlets, professional organizations, and collegiate media organizations from Oklahoma and all over the country that have contacted him for comment. He does now worry that sharing information about the situation will result in his firing from OCCC, he said.

“I feel like I have a target on my back and I’ll be set up for termination. I hope administration can appreciate that my students were taught to be independent, ethical and honest fact finders. That’s what the college put me in this position to train them to be, and that’s what they are,” Zindelo said.

“I’d hate to see myself unemployed for doing the right thing in teaching the students to hold truth to power and follow the story where it leads you. If I get fired, I hope someone can help me find a job.”

This story has been updated to include the college will now allow the Pioneer to publish until the end of June at which time the student staff will be terminated and statements from the college included in an OCCC news release.