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."

  • Jim Romenesko

    From 1999 to 2011, Jim Romenesko maintained the Romenesko page for the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based non-profit school for journalists. Poynter hired him in August of 1999, after seeing his, a hobby site he started in May of 1999.


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