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Two Towers 

A lawsuit at the 'Press Democrat' illuminates the schism between print and new media, local papers and corporate headquarters

05.13.09

GRAY LADY, GRAY: Would the 'Press Democrat' be better off without its parent publication?


Anyone who is a regular reader of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat has to have noticed that the once robust flagship of Sonoma County media is shrinking like Saran Wrap in a bonfire. That the staff has been laid off like auto workers. That advertising is running out like tourists from Mexico.

As if there isn't already enough bad news for the paper, on March 30 two former employees filed suit against the Press Democrat in Sonoma County Court Superior Court. Regardless of whether their allegations are upheld, the picture they paint shows that confusion and tension over how to manage news resources at the PD continues more than a year after the two women separated from the paper. What the lawsuit additionally makes clear is that the online and print sides of the PD have coexisted more than uneasily. One PD source who asked to remain unnamed described the two sides of the operation as dual towers with no bridge between them.

Leigh Behrens, who before hiring on the PD in 2006 was a hotshot web administrator for the Chicago Tribune, and Laurie Barton, who was a web editor and content manager for the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register before her 2007 PD gig, are suing the Press Democrat and its parent company, the New York Times, along with senior PD editors, managers and publisher Bruce Kyse for, among other things, gender harassment, sex-based discrimination, retaliation, pregnancy discrimination and wrongful discharge.

Among Behrens' complaints are that emails from reporters sent with PD management's implied consent called her a racist. Behrens and Barton also claim that senior editorial staff, after specifically being directed not to publish news of the sports blog PDPreps.com, published the news anyway just to offer a "fuck you" to the two. (The complaint says "F.U.")

The women further charge that PD managing editor Bob Swofford and other male managers physically and verbally intimidated and insulted them. Behrens claims that men in the newsroom gossiped in emails that she was having an affair with publisher Kyse and that the affair was the reason for her success.

Furthermore, Barton says that on Feb. 5, 2008, Swofford was so angry with her handling of online election coverage that he yelled at her until she cried. Barton claims Kyse backed Swofford and even joined in on the intimidation. (Kyse refused multiple requests to be interviewed for this article.) When human resources director Kathy Grant, named in the suit, tried to mediate, Barton alleges Grant told her that there was nothing to say about the complaints and suggested the tearful Barton "go and have a drink."

Barton says that the alleged harassment and intimidation caused her to become nervous and ill. In May 2008, Barton left the Press Democrat on maternity leave. She was later invited back to work but has not returned because she says she believes going back would injure her health, safety and well-being.

Behrens was fired from the Press Democrat in February 2008 after the paper held termination hearings based on complaints made against her by male members of her staff.

I emailed Swofford to ask him for clarification of the complaints that got Behrens fired. Like Kyse, Swofford refused to be interviewed, replying, "We can't comment on pending litigation." 

(Avoiding reporters may be a New York Times corporate policy. Times owner Arthur Sulzberger refused to talk to reporter Mark Bowden for a feature article on Sulzberger in the May issue of Vanity Fair. Bowden commented, "Ducking interviews is an awkward policy for the leader of the world's most celebrated newspaper, one that sends a small army of reporters—1,300 of them—into the field every day asking questions.")

Behrens and Barton both must have thought they had big journalism futures when they joined a New York Times publication. Behrens was recruited when she was running a website for the Chicago Tribune called Metromix. The site was generating 700,000 hits a month at the time with its postings of social news, event listings, activities and restaurants and bar reviews. Metromix typically carried stories on topics like where to get Chicago's best spray-on tan.

You can see where Behrens' work must been attractive to Kyse and the Times. They may have started salivating when they saw Metromix attracting lots of users between the ages of 18 and 35, a highly desirable demographic group for advertisers with a reputation for not reading newspapers.

Kyse had just left the corporate offices of the New York Times in 2005 when he hired Behrens. Kyse knew as well as anyone that the corporation was losing money at an alarming and increasingly fast rate. In 2000, Times common stock was worth more than $50 a share; two months ago, shares were selling for less than $4. Behrens, with her proven ability to attract that 18–35 demographic, would have looked like pork chops to Kyse and the slowly starving wolves at the Times.

Barton was hired by Behrens early in 2007 to be her top assistant as online content editor. Barton had spent her career working at two papers with major, well-publicized financial problems. It's possible, even likely, Barton saw Behrens' job offer as a professional life raft.

Both Behrens and Barton moved house and husbands in order to take jobs with the PD, likely seeing their new positions in Sonoma County as a step toward center ring in the big national newspaper circus. Instead, they ended up with tarnished careers, a hole in their résumés and the hope that a successful outcome to their lawsuit will redeem their professional reputations.

When David Cardiff, one of the two attorneys representing Behrens and Barton, returned my call, he was cordial when he said he wouldn't talk to me. Cardiff said not only would he would not comment on the lawsuit, he'd advise his clients not to talk to me. "We don't want to litigate this in the press," he said. Cardiff gave another reason for not wanting to talk; he said that he didn't want to spoil an opportunity for settlement talks.

Yet the lawsuit is broad in its assertions and vague in its details. Reading the complaint is like watching a bubble dancer. The stripper teases you into thinking you will see everything but in the end she shows you nothing.

Behrens chose to run an online operation separate and autonomous from the print newsroom. She and her small staff worked on a separate floor from the newsroom. Staff sources say there was little to no communication between the online publication and the editors of the print edition.

Here's an illustration: Behrens reportedly once saw a staff reporter watching a video created by the online desk as an in-house promotion. The film was playing on televisions in the building lobby. She asked the reporter looking at the video what he thought of the production. He told her he thought it was a waste of resources. He said he thought the money would be better used in paying salaries. Behrens allegedly followed the reporter back to his desk, demanded his name (though he was a veteran with near-daily bylines) and then angrily complained about his remarks to management.

Bleys Rose, the PD's California Media Workers Guild chair at the time, confirmed a major online versus print fight erupted soon after Behrens came on the job.

Most contentious was Behrens' refusal to edit comments on stories posted online. Reporters complained to her that certain pieces—particularly stories concerning Latinos—were targets for racist reader comment.

Reporters twice circulated petitions that asked the paper to stop allowing racist remarks in its online readers' comment. The reporters attached a threat in those petitions to withhold bylines from the online edition of the paper if the PD didn't begin monitoring and editing online comments.

"There was an atmosphere of hostility towards Behrens in the newsroom because these comments were not being edited," Rose acknowledged. Editors were forced to mediate the disputes with Behrens.

Rose said he believes angry reporters did send emails to Behrens protesting the racist remarks. Reporters, Rose said, had two problems with the unedited comments. First, they didn't want the racist remarks attached to their story because it impacted the newspaper's credibility. Second, sources were refusing to talk to reporters because they didn't want to have to deal with the abuse.

Rose said he never saw any emails accusing Behrens of sleeping with Kyse, but that he could easily imagine flippant remarks emailed from one reporter to another that said something like Behrens must have gotten her job by sleeping with the publisher.

Rose said Behrens explained her refusal to edit reader comment by saying that if the paper edited any reader comment then legally the paper was responsible for verifying all reader comment on the website. Behrens, Rose indicated, believed that leaving the remarks unedited relieved the paper of legal responsibility for libel or slander published in online reader comment.

Rose said he had lawyers at the Guild look at the issue. "Her explanation," he said, "was something most people in the newsroom didn't buy." The Guild lawyers determined that papers all over the country edit online reader comment, and the Press Democrat could too if it chose to do so.

After Behrens was fired from the paper and new men took over the online publication, a desk in the newsroom was setup for the online editors. The online staff now works closely with print editors on a daily basis. The online editor is frequently seen in the newsroom, particularly when deadlines are approaching. Print editors now have responsibility for posting print stories online.

The Guild has little to do with the online side of the PD. This is in part because Kyse always attempted to keep the Guild out of the online side of the operation, according to Rose. To a great degree, Kyse has succeeded in that goal. The Guild has agreed to stay away from all online employees who do not provide original content for the site—in other words, almost all of them.

So when Behrens and Barton started complaining of bullying and intimidation, the Guild was not involved in any investigation or hearings on those complaints. Still, Rose, who's says he's no fan of managing editor Swofford after years of knocking heads with him over Guild issues, says the accusations about Swofford in the complaint don't sound like the Swofford he knows.

"In six years of my dealing with Bob Swofford as Guild chair," Rose said, "I never found him to be confrontational, assaultive or acting in a manner to show any great emotion or theatrics. We've been on totally opposite sides of heated issues. He's certainly not a friend of mine. But in my view, I have to say it would be out of character for Bob Swofford [to act in the manner described in the complaint]."

The marriage of the New York Times and the Press Democrat is a story of ironies. For example, the New York Times is the envy of the newspaper business with a website that brings in 173 million or more hits a month, but there is no reader comment at www.newyorktimes.com.

The Times bought the PD in 1986. In retrospect, it appears the Old Gray Lady is now the ball and chain in a partnership drowning in an ocean of debt and declining sales. Counselors say finances are often the root cause of trouble in a marriage. That appears to be the case here.

A New York Times company press release says in the first quarter of 2009 the company lost $61.6 million, down 9.5 percent from the same quarter last year when the company made a small profit of $6.2 million. The company is carrying more than $1 billion in debt.

The Press Democrat is a member of the Times' Regional Media Group. Advertising for this group is down 29 percent from last year in the first quarter of 2009. The PD's budgets are not publicly available. The Guild estimates that the company at the height of its profitability in 2003–2004 had an approximately 25 percent profit margin on gross revenues of about $67 million. The Guild believes the Press Democrat now has about a 6 percent profit margin on gross revenues of about $37 million.

Press Democrat profit apparently evaporates from Sonoma County without materializing with any apparent impact on budget sheets in New York. Meanwhile, the Times continues to demand job cuts to sustain overall corporate profitability. The paper has lost 70 jobs, about 30 percent of the work force, since 2004.

The quick reduction of so many reporters, editors, photographers, graphic artists and copy desk-layout people, Rose admits, has the Guild worried about the jobs that are left.

Of course, just because there are fewer reporters doesn't mean there is any less news. Those newsroom staffers left must take pay cuts while assuming more responsibilities. Editors are doing online jobs in addition to their print jobs. Reporters are now carrying cameras and video recorders along with their notebooks and tape recorders as they cover multiple beats.

Meanwhile, the Guild estimates younger online workers at the Press Democrat make as much as 6 to 8 percent more than do veteran colleagues in the print newsroom.

Some think newspapers may not be justified in putting their faith in the new dogma that online editions are the future of the industry. Research released in December by a firm called ContentNext claims that the New York Times, were it to survive as a web-only product, would need to generate 1.3 billion hits per month, about seven times what it is generating now. Meanwhile, representatives of the Times are publicly admitting online advertising may decrease in 2009, and executives may be toying with the idea of charging for access to its online edition.

Everyone I talked to on staff at the Press Democrat—and there were five different sources—said morale can be a problem. But most are just happy to have a job right now.

Rose said the Guild believes the paper would not have to make such drastic cuts if it operated independently of the New York Times.

His statement leads to a couple of speculations. One, the Press Democrat may sink and drown with its mother ship New York Times, leaving the redwood empire without a large mainstream media source. Alternatively, the Times will hold a fire sale and try to find a buyer for the PD.

It's hard to imagine anyone wanting to buy the Press Democrat if the Times decided to sell. Why take on the debt incurred in buying thePress Democrat when a new daily paper could be started in Sonoma County for half the cost? Why would a new publisher want to take on Guild agreements already in place when they can start negotiations from scratch—if the Guild was even part of a new paper?

Sonoma County is a rich market for advertisers with few mainstream outlets for their advertising. A mainstream daily newspaper, as anachronistic as it may seem in this computer age, still looks like a viable business here. But the Press Democrat, as chained to the New York Times, may not be capable of being that viable business model, even as a bridge between the two towers is being built.



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