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2006-08-02 / Opinions

MEDIA WATCH

Missing a good story
Greg Pearson

In the past couple of weeks, the Richmond Times-Dispatch (RTD) missed a story worthy of front page coverage. It's a story of "secrecy and fear" from "demoralized" workers who are prohibited by a "gag order" from telling others about their plight in the workplace lest they lose lest they lose their jobs. But admittedly, it's a story not likely to appear anywhere in the RTD since Publisher Tom Silvestri and Executive Editor Glenn Proctor are at the center of this journalistic storm.

Style Weekly kicked off the hullabaloo with its July 12 cover story entitled, "Truth and Consequences." Quoting unnamed sources from the RTD (they were allegedly too afraid to talk on the record for fear of losing their jobs and retirement), Greg Weatherford's piece spoke of a "frightened, demoralized newsroom" chafing under Proctor who was brought in last year, in part, to shake up the complacency.

In a follow-up story by Editor & Publisher, a trade publication, Silvestri defended the newspaper for its new communication policy even though reporters have a fondness for free speech, the next door neighbor to freedom of the press.

A December 13 memo dictated how the RTD should handle media inquiries, including "We will gather information, formulate a response and a strategy for responding." For outside media seeking a story, there were a number of steps to follow including submitting written questions in advance - something good reporters are loathe to do.

So why does the RTD feel the need to stifle the free speech of its employees? Well, these are troubled times for daily newspapers, long accustomed to being news monopolies and getting first crack at advertising expenditures.

As younger readers turn to the Internet for news, circulation is declining, forcing daily newspapers to downsize their staffs and trim the number of pages they print. They now have to compete for attention from readers and advertisers alike. Welcome to the marketplace.

Silvestri and Proctor refused to answer questions from Style for its story. Silvestri told E&P the daily paper was like any other business that needed to control its message.

The gag order (that's what Style and E&P said the daily paper's reporting staff call it) is being questioned by the union attorney for the newsroom employees. Both publications reported an internal employee computer bulletin board was shut down after the Style article ran, perhaps to put down dissent. Silvestri, Proctor and Managing Editor Louise Seals also held a newsroom meeting to remind staffers not to talk to the outside media - an interesting twist on freedom of the press.

Earlier this year, Silvestri and Proctor began a series of community meetings with its readers about public issues and how the RTD reports on crime, sports and other matters. The RTD has suggested the Chesterfield government has not been open (which the county disputes), but now, ironically, the daily paper finds itself answering that same charge. Imagine what would happen if Chesterfield County placed a gag order on its staff, preventing them from talking to RTD reporters? How many stories and editorials do you think the daily paper would write? Perhaps the daily paper should hold a community meeting with the public to discuss its own policy on openness.

Editor's note: To read the Style and E&P articles, visit www.chesterfieldobserver.com and click on "Media Watch."

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