Departing editor gets attack on bosses into paper by disguising it as a Gene Lyons column

Fargo Forum | Valley City Times-Record [PDF]
Before stepping down as Valley City (N.D.) Times-Record managing editor, Lee Morris wanted to tell readers about what the out-of-state owner — Illinois-based Horizon Publications — was doing to their newspaper: Horizon had banned criticism of the city, and ordered the Times-Record staff to cover Chamber of Commerce luncheons and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, said Morris. His challenge was to get the warning into the paper without his bosses noticing.

So, masked under the guise of a syndicated column on Monday’s opinion page, Morris unleashed his concerns and contempt [PDF] for Horizon’s managers.

Morris used the deceptive byline [Gene Lyons] and headline ["An American pastime and politics"] to ensure the column wouldn’t be scrapped before hitting the presses.

Morris tells me: “I wasn’t sure whether our corporate publisher had given instructions to the press crew in Jamestown, N.D. to watch for anything like this. … [He] also has access to the electronic page transfer. He could see the pages as soon as I put them there. I didn’t know the plan had worked until the printed paper got to Valley City.” Morris wrote in his final column: “You, the reader, and you, Valley City, are not supposed to care that your newspaper is headed for happy land and bad journalism. Horizon wants money. They do not care about Valley City and they do not care about you. At the Times-Record, this newspaper’s employees are honest, hard-working people. It’s not their fault they work for a company that puts profits over people.”

Morris continues in an email to me:

The paper came out at around 11:30 a.m. and at first no one realized what I wrote was there. Ordinarily if I wrote a column, I’d include my mug with it. After an hour or so, a couple of newspaper employees were the first to separately come to me to wish me luck, and noticed my column on their own. At the least, they both understood why I wrote the column, and at the most, they were glad someone had said it.

I hung around at my desk because I wanted to give Tina Olson — the Times-Record employee whom I singled out in the column as having a hand in what I see as the negative changes at the paper — a chance to discuss things with me, confront me, yell at me, or anything else she wanted to do while I was still there. When she learned about what I’d done, however, she stayed in her office and didn’t say a word to me.

At about 1:30 p.m., our office manager came to get me. She and I have worked together since I began at the paper in May 2009 and have always gotten along, and she also seemed to understand why I wrote the column. We went into another office and I resigned. No one from Horizon has contacted me, including our corporate publisher, Leonard.

We’ve received a lot of support from friends in Valley City and casual observers of the paper, along with, I think, the general public. I’m sure our detractors feel differently. But thanks to The Forum’s article on Thursday, we received even more support from the regional community.

I heard secondhand that the corporate publisher held a conference call on Monday and that he told everyone what I wrote was false. I don’t think people at the paper are buying that.

What’s next for him? “I’ve been thinking about biology, doing something in the health field, for a while.”

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  • http://tedschnell.blogspot.com/ Ted Schnell

    I wouldn’t call it speculation John. This is the kind of information I’ve been gleaning about such companies as McClatchey and Gannett, among others, from a wide variety of legitimate news sources over the past several years, as well as personal observation and the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Reader’s reporting of what happened at Sun-Times Media, formerly Sun-Times News Group, formerly Hollinger International. As a journalist, I’m not in the habit of going off half-cocked on information like this.

    Newspapers rode high on the hog for decades and now many are truly hurting.

    Probably the safest of the bunch are in rural markets, where there’s little competition and people still put a high value on local news. By the way, that is speculation, albeit based on anecdotal information from folks I know at small, rural newspapers that are feeling the squeeze, but apparently not as badly as their urban counterparts.

    For what it’s worth …

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1033806645 John Parker

    Try reading the column more slowly. It was very well-written and precise. You DO have to follow the identities of the people involved. Not all journalism is light, brief and bright.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1033806645 John Parker

    Your speculation is reasonable, but that’s the thing: It’s speculation. I worked for a privately owned newspaper and they never said their multiple layoffs was due to dropping from 40 percent profit margins to 30, something in between or that they didn’t make a profit at all. I’m still the skeptical journalist. I want papers to prove and be open to all of us whether they’re laying off people and gutting the quality of the product because they “had to.” Without that information, we’d be writing a pretty irresponsible story on a business in trouble. And yet journalists, for sentimental reasons or whatever, seem to think that’s OK in their own field.

  • http://twitter.com/JayCollier Jay Collier

    Telling the story from the high ground, good. Telling the story through deception, not so good. Lowers trust in the messenger as well as the message. Couldn’t there have been another way?

  • http://twitter.com/JayCollier Jay Collier

    Telling the story from the high ground, good. Telling the story through deception, not so good. Lowers trust in the messenger as well as the message. Couldn’t there have been another way?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1033806645 John Parker

    The point? It was to tell readers that they no longer have a source of independent, unbiased news upon which to base their democratic decisions. I think that’s important enough to break a rule. As a former journalist, I always considered myself as someone who was hired to be independent and a truth teller. I agreed to work for a salary with a newspaper(s) that claimed to share the same values. We had an equal relationship — I work for them to provide what news is all about; they hired me to do that. If they decide to deceive the public, we part company as equals. There’s no obligation for me to be loyal to a false ideal, a “legacy” or a monied interest that no longer shares those values.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1033806645 John Parker

    The point? It was to tell readers that they no longer have a source of independent, unbiased news upon which to base their democratic decisions. I think that’s important enough to break a rule. As a former journalist, I always considered myself as someone who was hired to be independent and a truth teller. I agreed to work for a salary with a newspaper(s) that claimed to share the same values. We had an equal relationship — I work for them to provide what news is all about; they hired me to do that. If they decide to deceive the public, we part company as equals. There’s no obligation for me to be loyal to a false ideal, a “legacy” or a monied interest that no longer shares those values.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1033806645 John Parker

    Bravo, Mr. Morris. What you’ve done is to exercise journalistic civil disobedience to defend a First Amendment role in our society that is being overwhelmed by the power of modern PR, corporate control and the interests of private publishers who want more profits. I was one of those “ethics” people downsized at the first opportunity because I disagreed with the largest statewide paper that protected the state’s wealthy, the Chamber of Commerce and their Republican Party. And like every professional journalist, I didn’t give a crap about which party was getting favorable treatment. It was just wrong. You’re going to be whispered about as a poor soul who lost his job and worse. But your ultimate legacy will win out in the end. As for the people you fought against, sellouts spread twice the news about their moral values than the news they kill.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_7EBTIA7DJQMK6BF4KQVR2MXCR4 Anthony

    I
    cannot say that it is any different anywhere else in this great Land of the
    FREE……. Definitely home of SOME Brave!
    I witnessed something very similar in The Windy City and its’ Far North
    Suburban “LOCAL SOURCE” Newspapers. Sad Days have been on their way
    for Newspapers for a very long time just ask Virginia Gerst. The READER Article in NEWS &
    FEATURES >>MEDIA dated SEPTEMBER 04,2003. “Few things galvanize an
    unhappy workplace like an elegant resignation. When Virginia Gerst quit her job
    on principle last week, a sign scribbled in Magic Marker immediately went up on
    the Newspaper Guild bulletin board at A Local Paper’s Glenview headquarters.
    “Integrity died here 8-27-03,” it said. And Gerst was management; she
    didn’t even belong to the guild.

  • Anonymous

    Obviously you’ve never worked for a Horizon or Hollister “newspaper.”

  • http://tedschnell.blogspot.com/ Ted Schnell

    Ditto from me on the extremely mixed feelings. Watching what is happening in the industry the past 15 years or so has not been pleasant, and it hurt like heck when Sun-Times Media laid me off in December, but I never could imagine doing something like this.

    I am at peace with what happened to me — it was a business decision. Unfortunately, newspapers all over are making decisions out of financial desperation that ultimately may prove their undoing, Sun-Times Media included. Yet in many instances, what else can they do?

    At least some of the profits they raked in for decades should have been directed toward long-term investment in a new business model, a need that was becoming readily apparent in the mid- to late 1990s with the advent of new media. Most failed to do that and are paying for it today, and ultimately the readers will pay the price.

    I also find it interesting that Horizon is associated with David Radler, who had a role in what happened at Hollinger International and Sun-Times News Group, which after a bankruptcy and sale became Sun-Times Media. I have to wonder if his legacy in the Sun-Times saga is similar at Horizon.

  • http://twitter.com/JayCollier Jay Collier

    Outrageous! Mr. Morris’ deception, hyperbole, and vindictive personal attacks cancelled the credibility of his observations. If these were his choices in this instance, might be have been this disrespectful in the past? Or will he be in the future? Also, why didn’t Mr. Morris simply post his observations online?

  • Anonymous

    I’m an editor and I’m pretty shocked by what Lee Morris did. At the same time, I can’t help but consider that column a public service to readers, who often don’t understand how vulnerable real news-gathering is to corporate greed and petty resentments. I knew nothing about the paper or the region when I read the column, but I found it clear and compelling. So in the end, I’m uncomfortable with Morris’ tactics, but still glad he did it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=5300451 Ryan Holeywell

    Ethically, I really don’t have any problem with what he did. Everyone knows how bad corporate overlords have rendered their community papers. But I don’t think the execution was good. I read the column, and I didn’t understand it at all. It didn’t make sense to me, all the people and players involved. He should have done what good newspaper folks do and been concise, not bogged down with too many details, etc. I can’t imagine many folks in the community read this. I had trouble getting past the first few paragraphs. 

  • Anonymous

    A positive desperate measure would be to start a rival paper and put Horizon under. What he did was not a desperate measure, it was lame, petty and vindictive.

  • Anonymous

    What are you going to do when you realize the health field has profit goals it has to meet too?
    Sorry, I don’t see much class in what you did – even if you were 100% right (I don’t know if you are or arent). If you disagree with management, then resign. And go blog about what you have to say if you really feel compelled. But sneaking an attack into print is not the mark of someone with ethics. Nor is it Journalism.

  • Anonymous

    The false byline? Playing a trick on your other staffers? Essentially wounding an employer of your friends long after you’ve gone? I do not think this is “Brave Moments in Journalism” at all.

  • Anonymous

    When Morris wrote that the publication was no longer a newspaper. It was well on its way to becoming Happy Valley City Feel Good News.  It was no longer a newspaper Morris had been entrusted with, I have no problem with what he did. Real newspaper women and men would be proud of him. The sad state of newspapering has fallen to such lows that sometimes desperate measures are called for.

  • Anonymous

    I couldn’t disagree more with davidrfeld. Bravo to Lee Morris for having the guts to speak truth to power. As a Canadian writer and freelancer, I’m all too familiar with the corruption in journalism brought about by Conrad Black (a Canadian, alas, though he gave up Canadian citizenship so he could enter the British House of Lords) and his sidekick David Radler. Both, as Morris points out, are criminals who served time — in fact Black is in jail now, for the second time. They are newspaper bosses in the mold of Rupert Murdoch. All that matters is the bottom line and fattening their own wallets, no matter what happens to journalism (or other people). And now their nefarious influence is continuing in the person of Radler’s daughter. It’s critical that people know this, and know what’s happening to their news sources. We can’t say we haven’t been warned.

  • Anonymous

    I couldn’t disagree more with davidrfeld. I’m a writer and freelancer in Canada who’s all too aware of the culture of corporate dominance throughout the newspaper industry. Conrad Black (a Canadian, I’m sorry to say, though he gave up Canadian citizenship so he could enter the British House of Lords) and his sidekick David Radler are essentially variants on the Murdoch theme. They are ruthless operators who will stop at nothing to make millions and destroy other people’s lives in the process, not to mention the true function of journalism. It’s horrifying to hear that Radler’s daughter is continuing her father’s nefarious influence. I say bravo to Lee Morris for having the guts to speak truth to power and let his readers know what was happening.

  • http://twitter.com/lexalexander Lex Alexander

    I have extremely mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, as davidrfeld points out, it’s really bad form. On the other hand, things in the news business, as in society generally, have been so bad for so long that some of the people who aren’t CEOs and such are starting to think that if the CEOs don’t have to follow the unwritten rules of decent behavior, why should they? Not saying that it’s right, just that it’s understandable.

  • Anonymous

    Wow. Using the newspaper with which you have been entrusted to air dirty laundry is just bad form. Everything he said may be true, but this was truly bad judgment on multiple levels. What was the point? To publicly humiliate a colleague as a segue to whining about his parent company? Sure, that’s going to change the realities of the industry. Classy.

    After 18 years in newspapers, I was laid off in May. I have my own strong opinions about the strategies put forth by corporate newspaper ownership (I’ve worked for five newspaper companies). Ask me over a beer and I’ll tell you all you want to know. But I’m not going to waste column inches ranting about the boss’s boss. That says more about the ranter than the rantee.

  • http://profiles.google.com/travelinmylife.com Vũ Trần Văn

    I don’t this article, it leans more on your comment. :)
    Sory. Have fun