The Post and Courier is requiring staff return to the newsroom, leaving its reporters angry and frustrated

Your Friday Poynter Report

May 1, 2020
Category: Locally,Newsletters

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While most of the country remains on lockdown, one newspaper in South Carolina is telling its reporters they need to come into the office at least one day a week.

And many of those reporters are angry about it.

In an email to employees of The Post and Courier this week, executive editor Mitch Pugh told staff to report to the publication’s Charleston office at least one day a week starting Monday. Pugh’s email said shifts will be staggered so that there are never more than nine people in the office at one time and that the staff will be provided with masks. In addition, he said, the paper also will take other health precautions, including getting each employee a thermometer so they can regularly check their temperature.

That still isn’t good enough, according to at least three journalists who work at The Post and Courier who asked not to be identified. They say many of their colleagues were concerned, angry and frustrated. And all this comes after the paper tried to have reporters spend even more time in the office. In an email sent out at the start of the week, Pugh wrote, “All employees will be expected to work at least 15 hours a week in the office beginning May 4.”

But, apparently, there was such pushback from employees that The Post and Courier changed their plans. In a second email sent later in the week, Pugh wrote:

First, I want to thank all of you that took the time to call or craft thoughtful emails outlining your questions and concerns about our plans to begin partial re-opening of our offices. Each email was a reminder of why we hired all of you and why we love working with you: Passionate, intelligent and clearly communicated. Thank you.

I’ll get into more of that later, but let’s not bury the lede too deeply: Your feedback has helped us craft an alternative plan that I hope will alleviate some concern.

That’s when Pugh announced the new plan requiring journalists to work at least one day a week in the office. He wrote that those with health concerns that need to be considered can speak to the paper’s human resources director. He added that paid time off is one solution, but that the HR director could discuss all available options.

He closed the note by saying:

Finally, I want to make clear this limited re-opening plan is no way a response to the great work you all have been doing. I agree with all of you that pointed out just how hard and well you have been working remotely. You all have been doing outstanding, vital work without skipping a beat. Our plan to ease back into the office is no way a reflection of any dissatisfaction or concern about your commitment to the work we do. The work has been excellent.

I hope this helps alleviate some of your concerns, and I hope it helps you understand the lengths we’re taking to keep you safe. Please let me know if you’d like to discuss this further or if you run into any other issues we haven’t considered. It is a privilege to work with so many awesome and thoughtful people who are so willing to help us navigate these confusing and unprecedented times.

As before, we will continue to evaluate our plans and actions as more information becomes available.

Pugh and publisher P.J. Browning did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But if the journalists are doing “outstanding, vital work without skipping a beat,” why force them to come into the office when they don’t want to because of the risk of catching and/or passing along a potentially deadly virus? The reporters I spoke with said they’ve been given no real explanation as to why the paper wants employees in the office other than for collaborative purposes and camaraderie.

According to The Post and Courier’s website, the paper has 34 reporters, six digital journalists, five visual journalists, 11 in news production, eight editors and four who work in the editorial department. Many more work in advertising and marketing and as assistants, but it’s not clear if they are included in the requirement to work in the office.

The Post and Courier, headquartered in Charleston, is owned by the Manigault family, which has led the paper for four generations. The Post and Courier has a reputation for outstanding journalism and won a public service Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for its series on why South Carolina is among the deadliest states for women and what the state was doing about it.

Joe Biden and the sexual assault allegations

Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Why won’t TV news book Joe Biden accuser Tara Reade? That’s the topic of a superb column by New York Times media columnist Ben Smith.

Smith talks to Reade, who told him that the only offer she has had has been from Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News. Reade said, “I’ve been trying to just kind of wait to get someone in the middle. I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a progressive, I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a Trump supporter.”

Smith reports that Reade could appear on Fox News this weekend, most likely with Chris Wallace. Smith wrote, “There’s still no clear explanation, however, for why Ms. Reade hasn’t been on mainstream TV. Representatives for CNN and MSNBC declined to explain why they haven’t booked a woman who is, whether you believe her or not, one of the few newsmakers right now who could cut through the pandemic.”

Biden has denied he sexually assaulted Reade, and is expected to address the accusations on today’s “Morning Joe” on MSNBC. If a candidate for the presidency of the United States is addressing accusations of sexual assault, then shouldn’t the woman who is making those accusations be interviewed on air at some point?

Putting Reade on TV doesn’t mean a network is supporting Reade’s claims or making a statement that they implicitly believe her. It merely means they are doing reporting — asking fair and yet, possibly, tough questions on what has become a major story. In other words, networks would be doing something called journalism.

The Times they are a-changin’

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

The New York Times is making some big changes to one of its biggest products. Their “Morning Briefing” newsletter is being rebranded as “The Morning.” In addition, it will be taken over by David Leonhardt. The new newsletter goes out for the first time next Monday.

Leonhardt moves over from the Opinion section of the Times. He also has been the Washington bureau chief of the Times, wrote for The New York Times Magazine and won a Pulitzer Prize as a columnist for the Business section.

In a note to readers, Times executives said Leonhardt will be the “new writer, host and anchor” — interesting titles, as Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton points out. Benton observes that the popularity of the Times’ mega-successful “The Daily” podcast is partly due to promoting Times personalities, most notably host Michael Barbaro. Perhaps that thinking will now be applied to “The Morning.”

Benton wrote, “Host and anchor are the language of TV, which I’m sure isn’t accidental; morning shows have used the personal connection between anchor and viewer, reinforced daily, to build extraordinarily profitable businesses.”

By the way, this is stunning: The Times’ morning newsletter has 17 million subscribers, making it one of the most-viewed products in all of journalism. That doesn’t necessarily mean 17 million are reading every day, but that’s still a whopping number for a newsletter — or any journalism product.

A new boss at The Hollywood Reporter

Nekesa Mumbi Moody is the new editorial director at The Hollywood Reporter. She replaces Matthew Belloni, who left THR earlier this month after reports that he butted heads with the publication’s owners over editorial content. Several outlets reported that Belloni grew tired of Valence Media, owners of THR, trying to influence coverage. The Daily Beast, at the time, wrote, “Company higher-ups attempted to kill stories, influence the tone of coverage, and discourage negative reporting on ‘sensitive’ individuals and companies.”

Moody joins THR after two decades at the Associated Press, where she served as global entertainment and lifestyles editor and, before that, music editor. In an interview with Axios’ Sara Fischer, Moody said she has no concerns about interference from owners.

“The conversations I’ve had have been about great journalism,” Moody told Fischer. “That’s been the focus and it’s been the focus on how to take the company forward. I haven’t had any conversation about restricting anything.”

Full disclosure: Poynter was hired by Valence to be an ethics consultant even before Belloni left THR.

Are you ready for some football?

(AP Photo/Mark Tenally)

Veteran ESPN producer Phil Dean, who has been with the company for 28 years, has been named the new producer at “Monday Night Football.” That news is significant in itself, seeing as how “MNF” is one of ESPN’s biggest properties and Dean is shifting over from college football, where he has been producing the ESPN Saturday night games.

But there’s more to this. Dean’s hiring could be the precursor to changes in the “MNF” booth. Since the end of last season — actually even before — there have been rumors ESPN will move out play-by-play announcer Joe Tessitore and analyst Booger McFarland. They are a frequent target of critics in the media and public and, while ESPN has never said anything publicly, rumors continue to swirl that there will be changes.

Front Office Sports’ Michael McCarthy says ESPN, like most media companies, is watching its finances these days and might have to look internally if it wants to make any changes to the “MNF” announcing team. Names being floated as possible good fits for “MNF” include play-by-play announcer Steve Levy and analysts Louis Riddick, Dan Orlovsky and Pat McAfee.

A team of Levy and Riddick makes the most sense, but Orlovsky’s star has risen greatly in the past year. I’m not a fan of McAfee’s over-the-top act, as well as that he openly campaigned for the job and then complained when he didn’t get it. But there’s no question that he’s popular, especially with younger males — a valuable target demo for “MNF.”

Le Batard reacts

Earlier this week, I linked to a report from New York Post sports media critic Andrew Marchand that ESPN Radio could make some changes that will lead to Dan Le Batard no longer being on the radio portion of ESPN. Marchand wrote “… there is a feeling among many that his program does not mesh with the tastes of Norby Williamson, who is ESPN’s executive vice president and the point person on ESPN Radio’s programming.”

On his show, Le Batard acknowledged past disagreements with ESPN executives over show content, but said he checked with ESPN after the Post story.

“I’m a journalist, they wrote a story about us,” Le Batard. I called some people, they said it’s not true, they said it’s false, it’s a false story.”

Credit to “Outkick the Coverage’s” Ryan Glasspiegel for recording the Le Batard segment.

No dancing

Ken Burns. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)

ESPN’s “The Last Dance” — the 10-part documentary about Michael Jordan’s last championship season with the Bulls — is getting lots of positive buzz. But one person not on board is Ken Burns, the legendary documentary filmmaker known for his PBS docs about the Civil War, baseball, jazz and country music. Burns’ issue is ESPN made the doc in conjunction with Jordan’s film company, meaning Jordan likely had some editorial control. Burns told The Wall Street Journal’s Chris Kornelis that he would “never, never, never, never” agree to something like that.

“I find it the opposite direction of where we need to be going,” Burns said. “If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made it means that certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in aren’t going to be in, period. And that’s not the way you do good journalism … and it’s certainly not the way you do good history, my business.”

Must-read newspaper news

My colleague Rick Edmonds, Poynter’s media business analyst, has two must-read stories on the Poynter website.

First, a local group in Baltimore is organizing in hopes of buying The Baltimore Sun from Tribune Publishing. This isn’t the first time there has been outside interest in the Sun, but Edmonds explains what could be different this time around.

Meanwhile, check out this headline: “Massive layoffs with a side of union-busting — how Advance dismantled its print staff in Cleveland.” Edmonds looks into the sad case of what happened to the once-great Plain Dealer in Cleveland, introducing the piece by talking about how corporate owner Advance took a “meat cleaver” to the print product.

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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