Joshua Smith had only been writing news at Alabama’s Troy University for a few months when he caught his first big scoop.
Smith was following an incident in which one student threatened another on Facebook, the most popular peer networking site for college students, when Rod Anderson, chief of Troy’s campus police, let slip that officers had lately “been monitoring [Facebook] more closely,” according to Smith’s article in the Tropolitan, the weekly student newspaper.
The story, “University Police Monitoring Facebook,” hit the street last Thursday. Many copies didn’t stay long, and not because eager readers were snatching them up. Some time between about 8 and 10 a.m., Tropolitan staffers estimate, 1,500-2,000 of the 3,000 copies distributed vanished. (The papers that remained were those in highly trafficked areas, like the student center and the library.)
Herb Reeves, Troy’s dean of student services, said he reads the “Trop,” as it is known, every Thursday, and when it didn’t arrive, he called the Tropolitan office. Over the course of the next few hours, Tropolitan writers and editors and the paper’s faculty adviser realized that bundles of Trops were not in many of the dorms and buildings they had been delivered to.
“First we got a call asking, ‘where’s our drop?’ ” said Chris Warden, an assistant professor of journalism and the paper’s adviser. “Then we heard a report that a student saw somebody taking a bundle around 9:45 a.m.”
The student was unable to offer any more description of the Trop thief than this: white male, about 6 feet tall, big jacket. Tropolitan staff members went searching dumpsters, but found nothing, and the trail has gone cold. But Warden has his own theory.
The morning the story came out, a member of the university’s police department made an unprecedented visit to the Tropolitan office.
Larry Thomas, a campus officer, had been a Troy student. With his troy.edu e-mail address -- Facebook users must have an e-mail address from, or be connected by a friend to, the institution they want to network in -- he maintained an account on Facebook. As part of his story, Smith searched “university police department” within Troy’s Facebook area. Two people identifying themselves as such turned up. One of them was Thomas. Smith did not say in his article that Thomas had any role in monitoring students on Facebook, but did note the results of his search.
Thomas, unhappy with what he viewed as an implication that he was spying on students, came looking for Smith Thursday morning. Warden said that Thomas’s “basic attitude was that he was ticked off at the story and wanted to talk to the reporter.” Smith was out, so Thomas left his number. When they connected on the phone, Smith says that Thomas questioned how Smith got his name and why he used it in the article. “I told him I got it off Facebook,” Smith said, noting that Dale England, the other officer he found on Facebook, had locked his profile to all but his online friends.
Not a shred of concrete evidence has surfaced to link Thomas, the university police, or anyone at all to the great Trop heist. And the account of the lone eyewitness does not fit Thomas, who is a black man, nor seemingly any of the other officers in Troy’s police department, according to Reeves. But, as Warden noted, the big three of any decent cop show are lingering in his mind: “timing, motive, capability,” he said. “There are those three things.”
Messages left for Thomas and Anderson were not returned.
Thomas’s feathers weren’t the only ones ruffled by the story. Anderson, the police chief, told Smith, Warden and a local newspaper that his statements were misrepresented in the article. “The only time we have been involved with Facebook is from a complaint that involved a student,” Anderson told the Troy Messenger, distancing himself from the idea that students are constantly surveilled via Facebook. All Facebook users can change their privacy settings to restrict who sees their account if they so choose. “It’s not like [the officers] had some clandestine account,” Reeves noted. The officers are both Troy alumni, and many alumni keep Facebook accounts.
Anderson called the Tropolitan office the day after the paper came out to have a word with Smith. Smith said Anderson kept telling him “there are some inaccuracies,” he recalled, but would not elaborate. Smith said he saved all his notes, and he and his editors stand by his article.
Sam Neely, one of the paper’s editors, said there was an outside chance that the thief could have been some person who didn’t think the Trop got his or her good side in a photo, but said that the Facebook article “was the biggest thing in the paper.”
If the plan of the Trop-burglar was to keep the story out of sight, the crime didn’t pay. The Tropolitan staff is planning two follow up stories, one on student reaction to the original Facebook story, and another on the missing papers. Plus, at least two other news media outlets, including this one, have now referenced the story.
Reeves said that there will be serious consequences if it turns out any university employee was involved. For Smith’s part, he said that the great Trop heist will probably remain forever unsolved….