Thursday, February 5, 2009

Rocky Times for The Roanoke Times?

(Update: In late March, popular, award-winning Roanoke Times reporter Tim Thornton was reportedly asked to resign for unstated reasons. Thornton says he was told he could resign or be fired, according to a Tim Jackson story in the New River Voice. Thornton chose the former. A complete report on what has become something of a cause celebre in the New River Valley, where Thornton reported, is found at the New River Voice Web site. Pay special attention to the many comments (including those who say they have canceled subscriptions. Word from inside the newsroom is that the editors are not happy this got out. It's easy to understand why that would be the case.)


As the only daily newspaper between Lynchburg and Bristol—a roughly 200-mile swath of Southwest Virginia—The Roanoke Times has long had a commanding presence. Although the paper is in the business of reporting news, not making it, the Times has been a frequent focus of media attention in the past two years. Its recent rocky economic road has been relatively public. Here’s what it has looked like under the current publisher.

February 2007: Debbie Meade is named publisher, succeeding Wendy Zomparelli. With a 25-year career at the Times, Meade had worked most recently in the advertising department. She had spent years in HR, as well.

March 2007: The newspaper publishes a column by editorial writer Christian Trejbal and posts on its Web site the state police database of the names and addresses of everyone in Virginia with a permit to carry a concealed handgun. According to the Times’ own account, the move “ignited a firestorm” of controversy, prompting hundreds of complaints and cancellations of subscriptions. The database was removed the next day but the newspaper became a target of scorn for gun rights advocates across the nation and in Canada.

April 2007: A gunman opens fire on the Virginia Tech campus, killing 32 students and faculty before killing himself. As media from around the world descend upon Blacksburg, The Roanoke Times finds itself manning command central as the go-to source for information about the tragedy. The paper later wins numerous awards for its reporting and photography and is widely commended for grace under pressure.

July 2007: The Times announces “voluntary retirement incentives” for 21 employees age 58 and older with at least 15 years of service. The paper also announces that it has already eliminated or frozen 27 jobs in the past year, bringing overall reductions to more than 10 percent of its staff of 450. “We’re dealing with business conditions unprecedented in our long history,” Meade says. (Among those taking the offer—from the newsroom—were reporters Donna Alvis-Banks, Ray Reed, Paul Dellinger, photographer Gene Dalton and copy chief Nancy Caldwell, representing considerable institutional knowledge. Longtime reporter/editor Leslie Taylor simply “leaves.” (She landed with TAP.)

Others leaving with or shortly after Meade’s arrival included executive editor Mike Riley (to the Congressional Quarterly), editorial page editor Tommy Denton (retired), HR head Camille Wright Miller and CFO Carl Wright, at least two of whom had their eyes on the publisher’s office.)

September 2007: After accepting the voluntary retirement incentive, long-term reporter Joe Kennedy, writer of the popular “Cuppa Joe” column, begins blogging about the experience. He notes that even before he had decided to accept the option, the paper had begun a promotional campaign for its columnists that omitted him. His comments about the newspaper and members of management are less than complimentary and are read by hundreds.

January 2008: Times’ parent Landmark Communications announces it plans to break up and sell its newspapers, Web sites and cable TV franchises, including The Weather Channel and The Roanoke Times.

Spring 2008: It is widely rumored that the Times’ most likely purchaser is WEHCO Media, of Little Rock, Ark. Headed by Walter E. Hussman Jr., the company has a good reputation among journalists as being dedicated to local news and investigative reporting.

June 2008: Three black reporters resign shortly before veteran reporter JoAnne Poindexter, the paper’s first black reporter, announces her early retirement. A front-page article about her 35-year career states, “Poindexter points out that decision-makers in the news department are almost exclusively white, which puts a limited perspective on what goes in the paper each day.” Managing editor Michael Stowe concedes, “We need to do better.”

August 2008: A front-page story on The Wall Street Journal focuses on Carilion Clinic’s dominance in the area’s health care industry. The article reports that Carilion was displeased with Times reporter Jeff Sturgeon “aggressive” coverage of it and withdrew much of its advertising until the reporter was replaced. In the WSJ story, Times editor Carole Tarrant says, “We’re covering Carilion like we always have and always will, and have no plans to change how we cover Carilion.” She does not address whether the reporter was reassigned at Carilion’s behest. Carilion strongly denies it asked.

September 2008: The Columbia Journalism Review publishes a story online titled “Something’s Rotten in Roanoke” that further questions whether The Times acquiesced to the wishes of Carilion and removed the reporter. The CJR story is given prominent display by other local media.

Summer and fall 2008: Reporters and editors begin resigning in rapid succession. Within about a four-month period, 12 employees, representing about 10 percent of the newsroom, have gone. Included in the exodus are Mark Morrison, head of the New River Valley Bureau; Dan Beatty, director of photography; and John Jackson, head of Newsroom staff hovers around 100, down from estimates of 125 in 2002. The 125 number is cited by Executive Editor Carole Tarrant and former Times editors, she says. Others have estimated it higher. (NOTE: Tarrant took issue with the "about 145" employees figure originally used in this post, saying in an e-mail, "According to our records, we concluded 2002 with a newsroom staff of 115 full-time employees and six part-time." Tarrant queried former editors Rich Martin and Mike Riley, who remembered 125 employees. Alison Weaver says she had three different sources with numbers ranging from 124 [plus a number of interns] to 155 at different times during the past few years and that she used something of an average. We have changed the original number to reflect Tarrant's research, but emphasize that an honest and professional effort was made by Weaver to get a correct number.)

Management begins carting out empty workstations and fills the space with a large couch and easy chairs. The paper is taken off the market by Landmark Media Enterprises, saying that buyers can’t get credit and that values have declined because of falling advertising volume. Meade announces more job cuts may be coming. The Blue Ridge Business Journal, owned by The Times, loses 20-year editor Dan Smith and GM Tom Field, who found Valley Business FRONT.

November 2008-January 2009: Among those leaving the paper for various reasons are former business editor Rob Johnson, veteran reporter Jay Conley, columnist Shanna Flowers and long-time marketing manager Nan Mahone, who has been intensely active in the community. The paper announces it is freezing wages through 2009: and that employees will be required to take five unpaid days off on specific dates.

The Times announces a year-long wage freeze and the requirement that employees take five extra days off without pay between January and the end of June. That would work out to about 1,800 work days if The Times has 360 employees. Additionally, an inner-office memo outlines a new format for the paper which would combine the national and local news, editorials, weather, business and community news in one large section. There was also an unconfirmed report from an insider that The RT was considering eliminating at least one day’s paper, probably Monday, at least for the short-term.

(NOTE: Tarrant again takes issue with the assertion that there is consideration of eliminating one day's paper: "As far as I know, there have been no discussions here about eliminating one day's paper. From my own perspective, I believe part of our enduring strength lies in our daily publication. Eliminating one day's issue breaks that routine with our readers." Editor Dan Smith says this came from inside the newsroom "from somebody who would be in a position to know." He insists it was "not reported as fact.")

Editor’s note: Freelance writer Alison Weaver resigned her position as copy chief at The Roanoke Times in August 2008.

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