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2006-08-02 / Media Watch

Truth and Consequences

The uncomfortable silence at the Richmond Times-Dispatch
by Greg Weatherford

July 12 (Style Weekly)

Truth and Consequences
The uncomfortable silence at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

This isn't the story I had in mind. I'd intended this to be a pretty straightforward description of the Times-Dispatch, Richmond's only daily, as it adjusts to a new editor and a new publisher. But in the process of researching and interviewing for this article, I found the story increasingly entangled in a net of secrecy and fear. The publisher and the editor refused to be interviewed. Some newsroom employees dodged my calls; others called me surreptitiously, speaking in whispers and begging me to keep them out of any article. "I'll talk to you," one T-D newsroom veteran told me, "but you have to protect me. Things are ugly around here." I got a call to write the story about the Times-Dispatch about a month ago and readily agreed. The topic was interesting. Eight months ago, the paper had hired a new executive editor, the first leader in memory to come from outside the newsroom, the first African-American upper executive in the paper's 156-year history. Half the members of the T-D's top management team have been in their jobs for 18 months or fewer.
            I also believed that the topic was important. No matter what people think about the Times-Dispatch, the fact is it's the only daily in the Richmond area. That makes what it prints and how well its journalists do their jobs subjects that matter immensely.
            I thought I'd get a handle on the story quickly. I knew the place because I had worked at the Times-Dispatch for a while, as a reporter in its business section in the late 1990s. More recently I'd written about the paper as the media critic for Richmond magazine. I knew a lot of people in the newsroom, and had met and interviewed many of its executives.
            I'd heard that big changes were in the works---possible staff cuts, fewer pages devoted to news, something about a top-to-bottom reorganization.
            I had heard that Glenn Proctor, the executive editor hired in November, was a sharp change from his easygoing predecessor, William Millsaps. Whereas Millsaps preferred to stay out of the newsroom, delegating day-to-day editing decisions to other editors, Proctor has claimed a newsroom conference room and turned it into his office.
            Whereas criticism of other reporters' work used to be shunned as unacceptably rude, Proctor is an inelegant, blunt and harsh critic---to the point of saying, repeatedly, that some reporters' work "sucks." He's spiked several columns by Michael Paul Williams. He's ordered Pulitzer-finalist city columnist Mark Holmberg to ask him before using "I" in his columns and to write half his columns about communities outside Richmond.
            To make it even more interesting, one of the newspaper's star reporters had said he was so upset with recent events that he would talk with me on the record. If he did, he acknowledged, he might be fired. Nonetheless, the star reporter said the atmosphere in the newsroom had become so tense that he wanted to talk about it.
            With that understanding in hand, I called the Times-Dispatch to arrange interviews with Proctor, the new executive editor, and his boss, president and publisher Tom Silvestri. Silvestri, who became publisher in January 2005 after a respected career as an editor at the T-D and later as an executive with Media General, has announced that the paper will be more accessible to its public. To that end, he's held a number of "town-hall" meetings and discussions with readers.
            Following the paper's new protocol, I called Frazier Millner, the paper's promotion manager, and asked her to get in touch with them. She said she would.
            " What's the story about?" she asked.
            " The new editor and the new management," I told her. I added that Silvestri and Proctor might find the Style article a way to reach readers who don't read the Times-Dispatch.
            " I doubt that," she said. "I'm pretty sure all your readers read us too."
            " Our research says differently." (Scarborough Research, to which the Times-Dispatch subscribes, reports that 52 percent of Style's 73,056 weekly readers do not read the Monday-Friday editions of the Times-Dispatch; 31 percent of Style's readers do not read any day's issues of the Times-Dispatch.*)
            " I don't think you're right about that," Millner said. "Anyway, I'm not going to get in an argument with you. I'll ask Tom and Glenn and get back to you soon." 
            I hung up, surprised at the comment about "an argument." Well, OK. I called some people in the newsroom and left messages on their answering machines. I left another for the star reporter, asking for a time to meet.
            A few hours later, I got in touch with one newsroom veteran. "Morale really sucks," he told me. "We're waiting for this supposed reorganization plan that was supposed to be unveiled at the start of the year, so everyone's jumpy." 
            Then he got nervous. "Look, you've got to protect me on this. They've put in a gag rule, and I've got a mortgage. I can't afford to lose my job." 
            I promised I'd keep his name out. But a gag rule? 
            " Every press call is supposed to go through marketing now," he said. "We're not supposed to talk to the press." 
            The fact that a major-circulation daily feels it needs protection from a journalist struck me as odd. But I assured the veteran I'd keep his name private, and he continued.
            " There's a lot of rhetoric coming down," he said, explaining that the new editor and publisher were going out of their way to make the T-D's journalists aware that their jobs were no longer assured. "They're saying it's a 'soft newsroom,' we've had 'grade inflation' for a long time. We're 'flabby'---which to some extent we are. But now it's different, because we have these clearsighted visionaries who see us as we really are." The veteran's sarcasm came through clearly here.
            We spoke a while longer. He said he was encouraged by the new editor's emphasis on local news on the front page, but annoyed at the amount of "hysterical," high-profile coverage given soft-news stories such as the deaths of the Maymont bears and Elliott Yamin's run on "American Idol," both of which got Page One play for weeks. (Yamin was on the front page a total of 12 times between January and July; the bears were on it 13 times.)
            I spoke to a number of Times-Dispatch reporters, all of them insisting on anonymity. One called on his cell phone from the paper's parking garage---he was afraid he'd be overheard. The ones I spoke to described a frightened, demoralized newsroom.
            Some bitterly described a new personnel-review policy that all staffers are to be graded on a scale of 1 to 5; it mandates that, until otherwise proven, all will be rated a 2. (Clark Bustard, who retired in March as the newspaper's music critic after 32 years, said it was explained this way: "As long as circulation continues to drop, we are all by definition below average.")
            After we hung up, I thought about one thing I'd been told about more than anything else: the gag rule. The very idea of it seemed peculiar, especially for a newspaper.
            Later, I ran the paper's no-comment policy by Earle Dunford, a retired Times-Dispatch city editor and former journalism instructor at the University of Richmond. A few years back, Dunford had written a book about the corporate history of the paper.
           " What? That's bull____!" he snapped. "Your reporters are asking people to comment all the time, and you won't let your reporters comment at all? Judas!" After a moment, he sighed. "I'm glad I'm gone." 
           Dunford, as the newspaper clich√© goes, is not alone. Financial and other pressures are hitting the newspaper industry hard, leading to buyouts, layoffs, job cuts, reduced hiring and sales of whole newspaper chains, as in the case of the venerable Knight Ridder.
            That's led to a level of uncertainty and outright fear throughout the journalistic community that shocks veterans. In "The State of the News Media" annual report last year, the authors wrote: "[A] newspaper executive, now in the candor of retirement, told us that he thought the newspaper industry was now experiencing a crisis in confidence, no longer fully believing in itself and the viability of what it has to offer---on paper or elsewhere. Our reading of the evidence suggests he may be right."
            To me, this is a tragedy. The protection of a free press was inserted into the Bill of Rights as a check on government's power. True, the press is a private business and must abide by the rules of business---profit and loss, management and employees.
            But it's not only a business, any more than medicine or firefighting is only a business. It's a lot more than that. There's a good reason newspapers were the only industry enshrined in the Constitution.
            In recent years that position has been under attack. Most visibly, The New York Times and other newspapers have been criticized by the White House---for being doubtful about the war in Iraq, for revealing secretive banking investigations the government says are necessary to catch terrorists. Readers, too, criticize the "mainstream media," but those critics usually complain that the opposite is true. They say the press is too lazy, too indulgent, too ready to accept the government's view.
            These criticisms are real, and people in the industry take them seriously, even when they disagree. But these attacks on the press are nothing compared with those in the truly repressive regimes of the world---Tunisia, Singapore, North Korea and so on.
            No, in my view, and in that of many other journalists, the more dangerous attack is coming from inside---from the newspaper industry itself. This attack has been inspired by two of the more unpleasant qualities of human nature: fear and greed.
            The Times-Dispatch's publisher doesn't share this dour view of the industry. In a column published in the paper last month, Silvestri wrote: "Like many of my colleagues here, we're tired of the gloom and doom being flung on newspapers these days. It borders on hysteria, distracting many from seeing the progress that's occurring during the media transition and the steps to be more in tune with our communities." 
            But a few days after I'd called her to arrange an interview with Silvestri, Millner, the promotion manager, gave me the news: Proctor and Silvestri wouldn't be talking with me. "They don't believe it would be to their advantage to participate in a story for Style right now," she said.
            I said thank you. But I was recalling what a former editor used to yell when someone would dodge my phone calls: "What are they afraid of?" 
            What indeed?
            Nothing strikes greater fear into a newspaper magnate's heart than the sight of shrinking circulation. And aside from a few national newspapers (USA Today and The New York Times, most prominently), circulations have been shrinking relentlessly since at least 1988. With cable news and the Internet, fewer people feel the urge to read a newspaper, particularly in its original printed form.
            According to data released March 31 by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, a company that collects circulation figures for the newspaper industry, the average daily circulation of the 770 newspapers reporting their circulation fell to a combined 45.4 million, down 2.5 percent from a year earlier. That's on top of a 1.9 percent drop in the previous year.
           " Circulation is continuing to fall, as it has been since the late 1980s. But the decline does seem to be accelerating," newspaper analyst John Morton told Media Life magazine.
            Falling circulation translates to fewer readers, which in turn means fewer people looking at each advertisement. This gives pause to current and prospective advertisers: Why should they pay for ads in a medium that seems to be becoming obsolete?
            To combat this image problem, newspapers have started to downplay their paid-circulation figures in favor of touting their "market penetration" or "readership" scores---how many people have access to the newspaper or who pick it up at the doctor's office or read it online.
            In its latest annual report to stockholders, for example, Media General boasts that the Times-Dispatch reaches 72 percent of the households in the Richmond area. Note the terminology: It emphasizes households, not people---and access, not paid circulation. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations' latest information, the Times-Dispatch's average daily circulation of 186,922 (as of the end of March 2005)---was down 1.7 percent from the previous year. Sunday circulation of 225,713 was down 1.6 percent. The Times-Dispatch clearly reaches a lot of people---just fewer than it used to.
            Circulation numbers are holding "relatively steady in [a] volatile marketplace," Millner writes in an e-mail. She also cites recent daily circulation figures, which have yet to be audited by ABC, that show daily circulation is up over last year for April, May and June. She emphasizes the T-D's increasing online readership as well.
            The greed part of the equation is particularly powerful for publicly traded companies such as Media General. Looking at declining circulations along with increasing prices for newsprint, investors have been punishing newspaper companies. On average, their stocks dropped 26 percent last year from their two-year highs. Media General's stock dropped from $65 a share in September to $41 last week.
            Last month, Marshall N. Morton, president and chief executive officer of Media General, said during an industry presentation in New York: "We're a bit puzzled, frankly, by the degree to which our industry is currently out of favor on Wall Street." 
            With so much of their financial future in the hands of Wall Street, these public media companies feel they must show they can maintain a healthy rate of return on their investments. Many newspapers are cutting costs by reducing staff, shrinking page size and cutting down on the number of pages they print.
            The Times-Dispatch is no different. Silvestri and Proctor have told the newsroom that they will have to cut an average 48 pages a week from the paper. About half of that presumably will come from dropping its daily stock tables (they'll be available by special subscription and online), but other cuts will have to be made---the Weekend section is on the chopping block, for example.
            This sounds like things are dire. But when you check the numbers, you realize that financially the newspaper industry is strong. Sure, circulations have dropped, but most daily newspapers are essential monopolies---like the Times-Dispatch, they're the only dailies in the area. And their profit margins are, by business standards, huge---on average, dailies keep 20 percent of every dollar they bring in. By contrast, Fortune 500 companies average an 11 percent profit. Many others do fine with less.
            Facts like that don't register with Wall Street, though. "We've been hugely profitable in the past, and Wall Street only knows one mantra: 'More, please, more,'" Conrad Fink, a professor of newspaper management and strategy at the University of Georgia and a former Associated Press vice president, recently told American Journalism Review.
            As long as the pressure remains to keep profit that high, the newspaper industry will be pushed to cut costs---and risk cutting the news along with them.
            Does this matter? I think it does, in Richmond and elsewhere. Only newspapers have the staff and the space to devote to topics that are important and complicated such as economics, foreign affairs and social problems.
            Only the daily paper in Richmond would cover all the area's supervisors' meetings, print its letters to the editor, analyze the state budgets or delve into the fine print of insurance regulations that affect the region. Local television news won't spend the money to do it and can't devote the time. Local radio news operations are minuscule compared with the daily newspaper---not enough money in it for them. Small community papers, magazines and weeklies would pick up some of the slack, but they don't have the reach or the resources to do it all.
            Because the daily-newspaper business looks like it's shrinking, Media General has resolved to find money from other sources. Media General CEO Morton has said the company will make 5 percent of its income from new ventures. For example, the Times-Dispatch is trying out the alternative-weekly market with a publication tentatively called Brick. At this writing, it was scheduled to be launched in August, and to be run by Pete Humes, a recent Flair section writer and the former editor of Punchline. The T-D has also begun a weekly Hispanic paper, a coupon circular and a magazine for nurses.
            Media General keeps buying newspapers and TV stations, too, but it's emphasizing its Internet options. Last year, the company bought Blockdot, a Dallas-based business that creates "advergames," online ads that double as free games. In its public filings, Media General notes that revenue from its online division increased 47 percent last year, to $20.5 million. That's an impressive jump, but it's still just 2 percent of the company's income.
            The company has posted some disquieting numbers lately. It reported a loss of $243 million last year (it blamed a change in accounting rules that erased what would have been an $82 million profit, and projects far better results this year). In late June, its use of debt to buy four prominent TV stations from NBC Universal for $603 million prompted Moody's to downgrade its bonds to "junk" status.
            I wanted to talk to someone at Media General about its strategies. I called J. Stewart Bryan III, whose family has owned the Times-Dispatch since 1887. Bryan stepped down as Media General CEO in July 2005 but remains chairman of the board.
            He declined to be interviewed. "I think you should talk to Tom Silvestri about that," Bryan said.
            " He says he won't talk to me," I replied.
            " Maybe that's because he knows what sort of article you're writing," Bryan said.
            I was taken aback. "Why do you say that?" 
            " Well"---Bryan was sounding more heated now---"why don't you take a look at the sorts of things you've written about him? That should tell you all you need to know." 
            I stammered that I didn't know what he was referring to. Was Silvestri angry about something I'd written? After getting off the phone with Bryan, I e-mailed Silvestri directly, asking for clarification.
            By the next morning, Silvestri---signing himself TAS, his nickname because of his initials---had written back: "This is not a personal issue. I am simply not inclined to talk about this newspaper with Style as I am not sure what benefit that would bring us or your readers." He had cc'd Millner, the promotion manager. I still don't know what Bryan was referring to.
            Bustard, the retired music critic, moved from Ashland to Richmond earlier this year and now lives in a book-lined one-bedroom apartment a few blocks from the Times-Dispatch, where he spent 32 years working. His father worked there before him. He settled at a dining table, occasionally shooing his cat away from my notebook.
            I asked him what the newsroom recently felt like. He told me he didn't think things were nearly as bad as they were just before the merger of the old afternoon Richmond News Leader with the Times-Dispatch. That 1992 merger resulted in the loss of only about a dozen newsroom jobs out of more than 300.
            He called the current situation "a mild culture shock," with an aggressive editor confronting a staff of long-timers. The shock is particularly potent, he adds, because Proctor is an ex-Marine who "organizes his forces pretty much along military lines"---that is, he gives the orders and expects them to be followed. Period. The problem is, as Bustard points out, "reporters are by nature rebels and contrarians" who bristle under that sort of command. Or, sometimes, crumble.
            Bustard said he has no issue with Proctor's demands. "It really is Journalism 101, a lot of it---get it first, get it right, lots of sources." The paper is to focus on local stories for the front page, and on "human-interest" stories---that is, stories such as Elliott Yamin and the Maymont bears. Last week, the June 7 top-of-the-fold, front-page story was "When Doody Calls," about a pet-waste removal business.
            (Other former T-D reporters say there's been too much emphasis on lighter fare. Dunford, the ex-metro editor, says that by pushing stories of national importance inside the paper, "you're almost telling the readers, 'We don't think you're as intelligent as readers of the big papers.'" On May 11, for example, readers would have had to go to page B4 to find a story on a proposed end to a ban on offshore drilling; to B1 to find an article about an influential judge, Michael Luttig, who quit the courtroom for corporate life; and to B4 to find an article about Senate candidates. That day's story on Yamin's selection as one of the final three "American Idol" candidates was on A1.)
            One of Proctor's main peeves, Bustard added, is stories in which a source cannot be reached for comment. I raised my eyebrows. How, I asked him, does he think that squares with the company's no-comment rule?
            Bustard smiled. "I don't know," he said.
            But in some ways, the newsroom is indeed being affected by the changes. Lately the Times-Dispatch hasn't been covering the area as thoroughly.
            The long-discussed newsroom organization that Proctor said would be unveiled in January got postponed until June, and then until...someday. While the paper awaits its reconfiguration plan, several reporters who covered the surrounding counties have moved to other papers but haven't been replaced. Coverage of Goochland County, for example, largely has been delegated to reports picked up from the Media General-owned Goochland Gazette. One reporter covers what had been two beats in Henrico County, government and schools; the Hanover and Chesterfield beats are similarly under-covered. (The paper has hired a second NASCAR reporter, though.)
            Early in his tenure, Proctor dismantled the paper's Special Projects Team, which had been responsible for many high-profile investigative series; according to some people close to the team, he said its handful of reporters would be more effective working with the rest of the metro-news department. For now, three of them are pitching in by covering county government. 

Meanwhile, I'd been trying to get in touch with the star reporter. He hadn't called me back for a while, and I began to wonder why. Finally, I saw him in the express line at the Carytown Ukrop's and waited until he bought his sushi lunch.
            " Greg!" he said cheerfully. "We've got to talk." 
            He told me he still wanted to go on the record about what was happening in the newsroom, but he wanted to be sure he had done everything he could to be aboveboard. "Let's try for Wednesday," he said. That would be in two days.
            After that chance encounter, I called Michael Martz, the head of the journalists' union that represents all reporters, line editors, photographers and graphic artists at the Times-Dispatch. Martz is a curmudgeonly fellow with a shock of curly hair and an investigative reporter's personality---pugnacious, fearless and dogged. He'd spoken with me many times about the union's contentious contract negotiations with Media General.
            Martz left me a return message: "I can talk to you only about union business, not any general newsroom topics," he said. Hmmm. It was unlike Martz, but not unexpected, considering.
            I called back and left another message: Fine, we would just discuss union business.
            My phone rang. It wasn't Martz; it was the union's attorney, Jay Levit. He was calling on Martz's behalf. "The union judged that it would be best that I speak with you," Levit said. (Later, Levit acknowledged that in his opinion Martz had every right to speak with reporters about his workplace, but emphasized that it would be wiser if he didn't.)
            Relations between the union and management were no better, Levit said: "I don't think one has to be a rocket scientist to see that the union would have a very good relationship with the company if the union would just disappear." The union has filed a number of complaints against Media General, charging unfair labor and bargaining practices. Some had been upheld by the federal labor-relations board; a few hadn't. Others are pending. When issues had come to a vote, Levit said, the employees have overwhelmingly supported the union's position.
            The company has gotten its way on a number of personnel issues, however. For one, employees hired after Dec. 31, 2006, will no longer participate in the company's pension plan---a 401(k) investment plan will take its place. Current employees will keep their pensions---something that became of pressing interest for this story---though their years of service will be frozen.
            Generally, Levit said, "people are very fearful of coming forth there [in the T-D newsroom] because they don't have confidence in the leadership of the newspaper...and the newspaper acts as if it doesn't trust its news staff." 
            As an example, he cited a collection of employee regulations that, he said dismissively, "are impressive because they are in small print and are hard to understand," about such minutiae as how many times a phone should ring before it's answered. But he admitted that he didn't know if those regulations affected the newsroom staff, or if they were enforced in any way.
            I asked him about the gag rule. "It's a newspaper!" Levit said contemptuously. "This is a matter of public interest! How can they not let the public know what's going on with the news provider that the public relies on?" 
            Then I asked what legal ground the paper's reporters had for defying the gag rule. He answered cautiously, but essentially said they had little legal recourse if they did. If they defied company policy, no matter how unreasonable it seemed to them, the reporters could be fired.
            Not just that, Levit added---he'd advised the union that reporters who spoke to me could lose their pensions as well as their jobs. Therefore, he'd recommended that no reporter defy the rule.
            To me, it seemed that Levit---along with everyone else I spoke with for this story---was saying that corporate considerations were overcoming everything else. Open discussion, a public dialogue, all the values I held important in the news business---all these things were hostage to the wishes of the corporation. Its financial goals, its public statements, were paramount.
            A day after I'd spoken to Levit, I got a call at home from the star reporter. After some awkward small talk, we got around to whether he'd decided to be interviewed. "I'm working on it," he said. "But I have to be sure I'm not going to lose my pension. I want to talk, I do---it's important. It's worth getting fired over. But it's not worth my future." 
            I told him I understood. In the next few days, I left him a series of messages asking him to follow up. He never called back.
            *April 2005-March 2006 market research of adults 18 years old and older in the Richmond Designated Market Area by Scarborough Research.
            Greg Weatherford is a writer and a former editor of Style Weekly who lives in Richmond. He has worked as a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Associated Press, Inside Business, Richmond magazine and the Goochland Gazette, among others. He is student media director at Virginia Commonwealth University.

 

July 19, 2006 (Style Weekly)

Times-Dispatch Kills Staff Forum

Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter and columnist Mark Holmberg says his posting on the company's internal message board last week was the first time in about two years he's used the online forum to share thoughts and concerns with co-workers.

Now the message board---what T-D staff call the "water cooler"---is no more. Last week executives suspended the intranet forum, however coincidentally, a day after Style Weekly published a July 12 cover story, "Truth and Consequences," which detailed considerable anxiety at the paper since a new publisher and editor took charge.
            In his posting, Holmberg pointed to First Amendment rights---freedom of speech and press---after identifying himself publicly as the unnamed "star reporter" referenced in the Style cover story. (He had expressed an interest in being interviewed by Style, but T-D management denied his request.)

The newspaper's staff is under a gag rule: Reporters and editors may not comment on the T-D without obtaining permission from the publisher or executive editor, according to a "Media Policy" memo revised Dec. 13 and obtained by Style.
            The memo instructs staff that if they are approached for interviews, they are to ask the reporter to submit questions in writing, and then follow a five-step approval process that includes the promotion manager, the publisher and a "strategy for responding." (For the full text of the policy, go to www.styleweekly.com.)
            According to phone calls and e-mails to Style from T-D insiders who asked that their names be withheld, employees learned at a newsroom meeting last week that the online message board was being shut down. When they returned to their desks it was gone.
            " It's an internal issue, and we're not going to comment on it," says Frazier Millner, promotion manager for the T-D. "That's all I'm going to say."
            Some employees interpret this latest move by management as an infringement of freedom of speech. Where employees were simply frustrated before, the messages relay, they are now "pissed off" and "stunned."
            Since the creation of the company Intranet more than a decade ago, the "water cooler" has been a venue whereby T-D newsroom staff could openly praise or pick apart each other's work and offer comments on issues of interest.

Employees say they'll look for other forums to express themselves, shifting internal conversations elsewhere. Meanwhile, one reporter notes the irony of the print business and the former message board that now reads: "Page not available."

Richmond Times-Dispatch Media Policy below:
Media Policy (Revised Dec. 13, 2005)
            Any comment or statement about, or mention of, the newspaper or business must be cleared by the publisher or in newsroom issues by the executive editor. Below is the course of action to obtain this approval in cases involving The Times-Dispatch and Media General Inc.:
            A) Calls from external and internal (Times-Dispatch, Virginia Business or TimesDispatch.com) media regarding The Times-Dispatch.

When you receive a call from internal or external reporters with questions or requests for information or interviews concerning The Times-Dispatch, indicate that you will get back to them with your comments. Ask for a list of questions in writing.
Actions:
            1) Call the promotion manager at 649-6085. If the promotion manager is unavailable, call the marketing manager at 649-6641. If neither is available, contact Business Manager at 649-6613 or the Executive Editor at 649-6265.
            2) Provide detailed information about the nature of the inquiry, including the name of the publication, date of publication, nature of the questions, and anticipated discussion points.
            3) We will gather information, formulate a response and a strategy for responding.
            4) The information will be approved or revised by the Publisher throughout the process.
            5) Questions about news coverage will continue to be handled by the Executive Editor, with the Publisher in the loop. Any requests to interview reporters or editors, or involve journalists on broadcast programs must be cleared by the Executive Editor.
            B) Calls from external and internal media regarding Media General Inc.: Any calls should be referred to and cleared by Vice President of Corporate Communications Lou Anne Nabhan at 649-6103.
            If questions will be read by analysts or investors, refer them to Lou Anne Nabhan at 649-6103.
Trade Press:
            Questions about Media General corporate issues, sensitive matters or subjects that affect multi-properties should be referred to Lou Anne Nabhan at 649-6103.

 

(Editor & Publisher July 20, 2006)      

 

Richmond Paper's 'Gag Rule' May Be Challenged, Publisher Defends Policy
By Joe Strupp

NEW YORK - The attorney for the newsroom employees union at the Richmond
(Va.) Times-Dispatch says a controversial media policy that forbids workers
from talking to outside reporters without permission may be challenged by
the union because it appears to be too restrictive.
            "Legally, it could be challenged because it is too broad," said Jay. J.
Levit, attorney for the Richmond Newspapers Professional Association. "It
doesn't make any distinction as to whether the reporter [wishing to speak to
the media] holds union office. The union has a right to communicate to the
outside world. We are looking into whether there are any legal
ramifications."
            The policy, which many newsroom staffers call a gag order, is at the center
of an uproar this week over one of the paper's columnists speaking
anonymously with an alternative weekly. The issue has already prompted the
shutdown of an internal employee computer bulletin board, and a special
newsroom staff meeting to remind employees that they are not allowed to talk
to outside press.
             Publisher Tom Silvestri defended the policy, saying it is no different than
those at other companies who are seeking to "establish rules of
communication."
            "Most companies have a policy or procedure to respond to outside
publications," he said. "That is what we have." He declined to comment
specifically on Levit's contention that the policy might be unfair to the
union. "I am not going to comment on anything from the guild attorney."
            The recent actions stem from an article published last week in Richmond's
alternative Style Weekly newspaper. The article noted both improvements and
tensions at the Times-Dispatch during the last 18 months following the
hiring of Silvestri and executive editor Glenn Proctor.
            The story also noted that no reporters would speak with Style Weekly on the
record, singling out one "star reporter" who told the alternative about
asking supervisors for permission to speak with the paper, and being denied.
After the story appeared on July 12, the "star reporter," Mark Holmberg,
revealed his identity on the internal computer bulletin board.
            Style Weekly Editor Jason Roop said he was not surprised that Proctor and
Silvestri would not speak with his reporters, but added that "It seems like
a lost opportunity to speak with their public." He said no one from the
daily had sought any corrections or clarifications to the article.
Silvestri told E&P that he chose not to comment to Style after its reporter
began asking about "rumor and hearsay." He also criticized Style for
describing the media policy as a "gag rule."
            "Other publications have written stories about some of our journalists, some
of our colleagues with distinction," Silvestri explained. "If they had
called up and said they wanted to talk about multimedia [or similar issues],
we would have. If you want to call up and ask to respond to rumor and
hearsay, we are not gong to talk about that. In the case of Style, I chose
not to comment."
            Silvestri said that he considered the issues surrounding the Style article
to be either unimportant or related to private internal matters. "With all
that is going on in our industry - the business model of the future, how do
we reach all sorts of readers - to spend time talking to you about this is
puzzling."
            Several newsroom sources said Proctor, Silvestri and Managing Editor Louise
Seals reminded employees of the media policy during a special staff meeting
on Tuesday, which included bureau reporters linked in via conference call.
One source said no questions were taken and staffers were told that
Times-Dispatch "business should stay inside the TD and that anyone who
wasn't happy with that should leave."

            Silvestri said "the gist of the meeting was a concern about business details
showing up in competitors' hands."
            Holmberg declined to comment to E&P, as did union newsroom leader Mike
Martz. Levit acknowledged that the media policy, implemented at the end of
2005, had put such restrictions on the newsroom that even guild officials
were reluctant to comment.
            Style Weekly posted a follow-up story on Wednesday that noted Holmberg's
identity and the bulletin board shutdown. It also posted the media policy
itself, which states, in part, "Any comment or statement about, or mention
of, the newspaper or business must be cleared by the publisher or in
newsroom issues by the executive editor."
            The policy also includes a list of supervisors who must be contacted for
permission prior to any comments being allowed.
            Levit said the policy, and possibly the shutdown of the bulletin board,
could be construed as violations of the union members' rights. "We are
considering what the gag rule means and how it is being applied by the
newspaper. It does involve a lot of important questions," he said. "The
employees have a right to engage in concerted activity and debate matters
related to wages, hours and working conditions. To be free from coercion and
intimidation in connection with these things. That includes free speech
rights."
            Seals did not return calls seeking comment, while Proctor declined to
comment on the Style Weekly article, the media policy or any related actions
by reporters. "That is an internal matter," he told E&P. "All we are doing
is running the newspaper."

 

Editor & Publisher (July 31, 2006)

 

After 36 Years, M.E. Seals Leaves 'Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch'
By Mark Fitzgerald

            Louise Seals, who joined the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch in 1968 and who
has been its managing editor since 1994, retired Monday, the newspaper
announced.
            The announcement of Seals departure followed her unexplained absence from
the newsroom Thursday and Friday, which fueled rumors about her status at
the paper. According to a source who insisted on anonymity, Seals said
goodbye to individual staffers in the newsroom Monday morning, accompanied
by Proctor. The scene was described by some of those present as "surreal."
            Times-Dispatch President and Publisher Thomas A. Silvestri said there were
many incorrect stories about the events of the past few days.
            " Our newsroom is a font of rumors," he said in a telephone interview. "There
was one that she was being marched out of the building last week, all sorts
of incorrect rumors."
            Silvestri said he was not surprised by the retirement announcement.
            "I 've worked with Louise a long time," he said. "She's probably the best
copy editor Ive ever worked with, just first-rate."
            The announcement quotes Seals as saying she had been contemplating
retirement for some time. "I'm looking forward to spending time with my
husband in the garden, and working out in the gym five times a week," she
said.
            Executive Editor Glenn Proctor said a search for her successor "will begin
immediately."
            An e-mail message to Seals was not returned Monday.
            In the announcement, Seals said she'd had "a great run" at the newspaper,
which she said has become "much more reflective of the community."
            Among other things, Seals said, she was "proudest...of holding her ground
when anyone tried to restrict access to information that belonged to the
public."
            Seals and other Times-Dispatch top managers were in the news recently for
complaints that their communications policy---which requires staffers to
get permission before speaking to outside journalists---amounts to a "gag
order." The Times-Dispatch vigorously denies that characterization, saying
it is no different from the usual policies adopted by private businesses.
            The announcement, headlined "Managing Editor Louise C. Seals Steps Down
Today," quotes Proctor as praising Seals for "her leadership in the newsroom, and her dedication" to readers.
            " She was an advocate for every reader, encouraging her staff to deliver
compelling, accurate information every day," Proctor said.
            Seals was inducted into the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame in 2003. She was a past president of the Virginia pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. She helped found the paper's Urban Journalism Workshop, and helped create the Virginia Press Associations minority internship.
            Seals also served as treasurer for the Associated Press Managing Editors (APME), and held leadership positions in the Virginia Press Association.

Media Watch (Chesterfield Observer 8/2/06)

Openness

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 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.

Greg Pearson 

 

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