Topic: media criticism
Thanks to friends and opponents alike, I've now got my blog up and running. Thanks for dropping by.
My beat is Rochester, Western New York, and the Finger Lakes, but my postings will reflect the plain fact that all politics is global.
I'll be posting commentaries on politics, the environment, social and economic justice, the media (especially local), and more.
Hope to hear from you, as well.
P.S. Surprisingly, and gratifyingly in an odd way, I'm still getting inquiries about how I came to leave City Newspaper last year. So if you're interested, read the statement below, given here in its original form. On this blog I'll naturally focus critical attention on Rochester's "alternative" paper, which runs some good reporting and writing but doesn't always walk the talk (e.g. on labor issues). But I promise not to obsess!
To my friends in the progressive community:
Seven very difficult weeks have gone by since I left City Newspaper. In early April, as you may have seen, the paper reported I was no longer on the staff. The brief announcement, looking oddly like an obit, did include some praise. But the words were so carefully chosen --- so exquisitely neutral --- that they might lead to the wrong conclusions. I don't want anyone to
think I quit, or worse, that I was fired for a real offense.
Here's what happened.
I spent the week before Easter on a cover story on Main Street. You may have seen the story in the same issue as the "obit"; the juxtaposition itself may have raised some eyebrows. I finished the story on Thursday around dinnertime and was set to leave for a long weekend with family out of state. My editor quickly reviewed the story, and everything seemed good to go. Then he and the publisher pulled me into the conference room to "talk." Once the door was shut, the
publisher told me I was out. What led to this? I asked for the complaints in writing, and the publisher agreed to supply them but never followed through.
I clearly remember what was said, though. First, I was accused of not covering certain beats adequately. Then it was said I "closed down discussion" on Empire Zones during a recent editorial meeting. (Like all the Rochester media, we were looking at the EZ designation given some high-end suburban rental properties; I said essentially that we should add a deeper analysis of EZs as corporate welfare. I was told we have "to live in the real world," etc. The discussion was polite enough; I still can't imagine how it led to trouble for me. But obviously some buttons were pushed.) Later in the exit interview, I was told that I improperly injected politics into unspecified articles. The accusation may have stemmed from a column on workers' issues I submitted shortly before the fateful day --- a column about which I never received the slightest feedback, not even an acknowledgment that it had been read.
In both these cases, there must have been a more general, longstanding grievance at play. It's a shame it wasn't put on the table.
The exit "talk" took only a few minutes, and I left the conference room in a daze. At no time during my nine-plus years at the paper did anyone say --- orally or in writing --- that my performance was in question. There never was any reprimand or warning of sanctions. I absolutely never was told that my job was at risk. The publisher now is telling third parties that the firing was under consideration for a long time. So I actually was on probation, without notice.
I'm sure you'll agree the reasons given for the firing were trivial. I don't think I did anything to warrant dismissal. Quite the contrary: I believe I was consistently producing good work, was covering as many beats and subjects as reasonably could be expected, and was participating fully in discussions and ancillary duties. My published pieces, including many unsigned "MetroInk" items as well as bylined articles, bear this out. I also had taken on two new assignments: the working-class-oriented columns I mentioned above, and classical music reviews and previews. The first music review appeared just before the ax fell. I thought it was well-received.
Just this February I got an annual performance review and a substantial raise. There was no mention of any deficiency (nor was there any word of appreciation). We talked about my covering a range of new beats --- and again, I believe I made a good faith effort to comply. I want to emphasize that, apart from a "beats" memo that was handed to me, the annual review was entirely oral. Apparently as a matter of policy, CityNews does not provide employees with actual written performance evaluations with the usual feedback on good and bad points, things to watch or improve, and so forth. Instead, the employee fills out a form with his/her reactions --- what he/she likes about the job, what he/she would like to change, what new projects should be tackled. This type of evaluation process does give the employee a say, but it's obviously incomplete. It does not put management on record, and it may leave the employee with false impressions.
The paper has no mechanism for employee grievances to be filed or adjudicated, and there is no provision for third-party mediation. Management follows the letter of state law, which allows termination "at will." There's some relevant history: Several years ago City?s non-supervisory staffers unanimously chose UNITE as their union, after being forced by management into an NLRB election. I was the employee rep on the bargaining committee. Through many months of negotiations, management consistently balked at proposed contract language. The biggest sticking point was management's refusal to accept an arbitration clause. The union obviously could not approve any contract that lacked this key clause, which helps protect workers against unreasonable penalties, etc. I believe that if we had won a contract, I'd still have a job. One thing's for sure: A contract would have given me due process rights.
Some people have been wondering where City is headed. I think it's too soon to tell if there's been a major shift in editorial policy, though the editors insist they're staying the course. The local competition, especially Gannett's The Insider, may have some effect. One general problem at City is a kind of tone-deafness about editorial priorities, coupled with a tendency to jump at new, trendy content and packaging, for example, "edgy" Q&As like one with Brother Wease some weeks ago. There's also a tendency to miss the connections between local and global issues, and a hesitancy to explore this angle. I note some recent City articles have a libertarian cast, but the paper remains left-of-center (not left). My radicalism was always a little out of synch there.
Readers frequently took me to task. That comes with the territory, and I think I appealed to a wide range of readers. I enjoyed the liberal-left and left-right interplay of ideas, and I thought the paper valued this.
I don't think my firing had to do with anything as specific as my take on the Middle East. But sometimes there were political disagreements that may have reverberated more than I thought. Last year, for example, precisely as the Iraq invasion started, the editors decided to stop covering the peace movement. This was made explicit in a staff meeting called specifically to pull me off a story already in progress. I had started research into the actual --- as opposed to conventionally reported --- psychological effects of war and peacemaking on children, here and in combat zones. The piece was to counterbalance the simplistic "shield their eyes" advice rampant in the mainstream. I still think it would have been an important piece at that moment. And I thought we had a basic journalistic and moral responsibility to cover the movement in depth.
Not long after the meeting I was reassigned to cover the suburbs in the run-up to the 2003 local elections. All through the international crisis, you may recall, the Democrat and Chronicle and other mainstream outlets sent reporters along to peace marches and interviewed soldiers and vets and families, filling up many pages with solid locally-connected stories. City had weighed in before the invasion --- often admirably --- but pulled punches during and after. I said City should do the other local media one better. I was overruled.
Another example: Management had long planned a major series on a theme I won?t reveal. (I don't want to alert the competition; besides, it's the process that counts, not the particular subject.) Last fall, after already being on the backburner for a year or so, the series finally got underway. Or so I thought, as did a colleague who had been attracted to the job by the prospect of working on the series. Ed staffers and an intern fanned out across the state to do the necessary interviews. I was sent to the Hudson Valley. We all did lots of research. But after a huge investment in time and overhead, the paper never ran a word on the subject.
Though I dislike the way the paper treated me, I do miss my job. And I'm puzzled. How could it be that my years of sincerely devoted work --- several books? worth of research and text, often produced under the gun --- ended with such brusque treatment? (Some people have asked if I got a "good deal." Well, after nine years on staff, I got two weeks? severance pay; the publisher insisted that small companies usually "don't have severance policies.")
Maybe in time I'll understand what people are telling me: that things will work out for the best. I might even feel good about lasting so long at City. The paper has an extraordinarily high turnover rate. During my years there, quite a number of writers were on staff, mostly in editorial. I won't presume to give reasons for their leaving. But the sheer length of the roster (the ed department has just one or two writers at a time) speaks volumes. Maybe you followed these bylines: Will Astor, H.B. Ward, Joan Collins Lambert (the star labor reporter, back when the paper really had a labor beat), Ryan Whirty, Lauren Farrell (a powerful voice who's now a UAW organizer), Lee Strong, David Raymond (the region's best classical music critic, never given his due at City), Cindy Mindell-Wong, Chris Busby, Chris Fien.
Some readers, including organizational staffers who depend on longterm relationships with journalists, have told me they're concerned about the turnover. But management policy seems to follow a perverse logic: During union talks, a management rep stated quite openly that the paper's traditional role has been to help newcomers to journalism learn the ropes. That suggests it's easy to wear out your welcome.
As I said, the last weeks have been tough. I'm encouraged by the supportive letters-to-the-editor, personal emails and calls, and the number of supporters certainly is larger than the letters page would indicate.
Practical considerations set the agenda, though. My job search continues. I want to keep plying the trade of writer/peacemaker. Please pass along any leads you hear about! Thanks to all for being there for me.
---Jack Bradigan Spula
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