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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 bullshit!" 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 clichAc 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. S

*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.

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