Searching for light
Seeking a change in focus, Redding’s daily newspaper fired a popular columnist—and all hell broke loose
Newspaper reporters are accustomed to covering protest demonstrations, but they don’t often have one right outside their building.
That’s what happened on Wednesday, Nov. 7, when more than 100 readers of the Redding Record Searchlight showed up at 11 a.m. for a two-hour rally, complete with signs and speeches, in front of the newspaper’s offices to protest the firing of award-winning columnist Doni Greenberg two weeks earlier.
Her forced exit has become a flashpoint between the E.W. Scripps paper and many long-time readers, who believe that recent cost-cutting measures and new editorial leadership have resulted in a paper with vastly diminished local coverage and, as Greenberg has put it, a tendency toward “tabloidism.”
Greenberg’s firing was the proverbial last straw, it seems, revealing the resentment of many in the community over what they see as a decline in the only source of daily print news in the Redding area.
The roots of the crisis reach back to last spring, when Editor Kelly Brewer resigned because she disagreed with the new editorial direction that was being imposed from corporate, accompanied by a downsizing that resulted in more than 20 employees being bought out or encouraged to go.
In her four years as editor, Brewer presided over a staff that garnered 26 national and regional journalism awards, including first place for 2006 in the national Associated Press Managing Editor (APME) award for protecting First Amendment rights.
Doni Greenberg’s husband, Bruce, who has had a front-row seat for the drama, said many who were forced out or fled were the heads of their departments, and as a result the culture of the paper was completely transformed.
In addition to Brewer, they included the photo editor, the graphics editor, the classifieds manager, the librarian, the executive editorial secretary, the cops reporter, the religion editor and, most recently, the managing editor. The last, Greg Clark, resigned last month to take a job with the city of Redding after 31 years at the paper.
Clark, a Redding native whose experience made him the logical homegrown choice to succeed Brewer, was passed over in favor of Silas Lyons, 34, a recent transplant from San Luis Obispo who had been city editor for about one year, and who would have been no more than 3 years old when Clark, 53, joined the Record Searchlight.
Management at the paper insists all those who left did so voluntarily, but Doni Greenberg doesn’t agree.
“Voluntarily?” she exclaimed in a telephone interview. “They gave them ‘an offer you can’t refuse,’ like in the Mafia.” She said taking the buyout was the only logical choice for most employees, many of whom had been with the RS for years. “They look around and see a paper that is listing, struggling, and figure, ‘I guess I’ll have to take it, since I may simply be laid off in a few months anyway.’ ”
Less quantifiable but very important, she noted, is that staff morale is low, and there is a climate of fear at the paper that is palpable yet cannot be acknowledged by those who remain there.
The problem for Greenberg was how the new editor perceived her column. After spending nine years as an opinion columnist, she was asked to switch her focus to what she termed “gotcha journalism.” Moreover, she calculated she would be getting a 37 percent reduction in pay in the last offer, which would have phased out her column.
“The editor and I had several meetings, and I was asked, ‘What are you going to do to increase readership? I don’t think that your columns and food stories are increasing readership.’ ”
She told him that having her write a metro column, as he was suggesting, would be a huge mistake, citing her many faithful readers. “He replied that he owned that decision,” Greenberg said.[page]
Since she didn’t want to spend the rest of her career digging up dirt and writing “scurrilous” columns, she was told that her choice meant that she wanted to leave and was subsequently asked to clean out her desk.
“What’s funny is that I wrote plenty of aggressive columns,” she said, “but my tone and intent were not destructive. I preferred to write columns that would better the community and stand up for the underdog.
“I also wrote about my personal life. I put a face on the Iraq war by following the process that began when my teenaged son joined the Marine Corps, went to boot camp, was shipped out to Iraq and fought on the front lines. My life was an open book, and readers read it and felt like family.”
Daily newspapers are suffering from a double financial hit these days: loss of classified-ad revenue—the traditional bread and butter of dailies—to free online ad services like Craigslist, and declining circulation, especially among younger readers, as people increasingly turn to the Internet for their information.
This trend has been compounded lately by the slump in the housing market, which has caused real-estate advertising revenues to drop.
Papers all over the country are feeling the pinch, and many are cutting staff and using more wire stories, rather than paying reporters to cover the local scene.
And yet, the Record Searchlight’s profit margin was 22.8 percent in 2006, KRCR-TV reporter Mike Mangas reported recently. That’s not a surprising figure, as newspaper experts will confirm. Most dailies like the Record Searchlight try to maintain a 20 percent to 25 percent margin, and some aim even higher. The industry as a whole is in decline, but individual newspapers are still making good money, thanks is large part to cost cutting.
“Any business with that kind of profit margin should be doing jumping jacks,” exclaimed Bruce Greenberg in a telephone interview.
Doni Greenberg and some posters on her blog have opined that, by cutting salaries and staff, even if it costs readers and advertisers in the short term, the paper will show a robust profit for 2007, so as to attract a potential buyer.
Lyons was available for only a very short phone interview with the CN&R and did not comment on Greenberg’s exit, but in the RS he has been quoted as saying, “Among the decisions we made was to refocus Doni’s column, emphasizing a newsy local voice that took a stance on important community issues and held people in power accountable to readers.”
The RS reported that “over the course of more than a month, Greenberg and the newspaper explored several alternatives that would allow her to continue working at the paper, including continuing to write her column with the new focus. He said she chose not to take any of the options the newspaper presented.”
The controversy has had a lively airing via online postings. Soon after Greenberg’s firing, Lyons’ blog was deluged with comments from readers angry that their favorite columnist had been canned and protesting the paper’s alleged change in direction. And Greenberg’s new blog has been filled with an outpouring of support for her and criticism of the newspaper.
On the other hand, several online readers of the paper’s coverage of the Nov. 7 protest posted comments saying they were happy to see her go. As one put it, “Funny that people bitch about the paper’s lack of news and at the same time complain about the release of Greenberg, whose articles rarely contained news.” Most posters, however, supported the fired columnist.
There’s a perception in the community that Lyons and his publisher, Shanna Cannon, want to replace the paper’s often folksy, upbeat style with something that is edgier and more urban. How people feel about that has much to do with how they feel about Greenberg’s firing.
Lyons insists the paper wants to please all of its readers. “We want to reach the core membership, which is the middle to older demographic,” he told the CN&R. “But we want to grow our younger readers as well, so they’ll be our future readers.”
He insists that local coverage is and will remain the paper’s top priority. It is, he says, “the reason we exist as a newspaper.”
He acknowledged a perception that local coverage had been cut, saying he promised to work on it.