Shoptalk: The Blackest Times

By: Patrick Vecchio

Newspapers should be more than a vehicle for squeezing every possible penny from a community. Anyone who remembers seeing his or her name in print for the first time understands a hometown paper’s power. That happened to me in eighth grade in Olean, N.Y., a town of about 20,000 far south of Buffalo, with The Times Herald. Thirty years later, I was the paper’s managing editor. For a long time, that had been the only job I ever wanted.

But as they say, be careful what you wish for ? you just might get it. When I joined the Times Herald’s reporting staff in 1982, it was

owned by a local family that took great pride in knowing their newspaper was the undisputed best source of regional news and sports coverage. By the time I became managing editor, though, the paper was owned by American Publishing, a Hollinger International subsidiary.

Then, in mid-2000, the paper wound up in the clutches of Conrad Black, his longtime crony David Radler and the publisher of another regional newspaper who, for some reason, thought it was a good idea to go into business with those two. Black and Radler reputedly own about 50% of the paper.

Now, my former bosses Black and Radler are in the news again, mainly because a committee appointed by Hollinger International’s board filed a report on Aug. 31 detailing why it believes Black plundered hundreds of millions of dollars from the company before being forced out as CEO last November. And Radler appears joined to Black at the wallet in the current imbroglio.

But the board’s investigation of Black and Radler really isn’t a story about corporate governance and fiduciary responsibilities. It’s a story about Black’s and Radler’s disdain for the people who work for them, the people who read their newspapers and the communities where those people live.

Radler rarely came by the Times Herald, and Black never did, but their financial mandates were a suffocating enough presence. A profit margin in the low 30s wasn’t good enough for them, despite the fact that the southwestern New York economy was (and remains) troubled at best. Editorial resources were increasingly diverted to an incessant parade of special publications that had nothing to do with the readers’ needs and everything to do with being advertising vehicles.

Reporters, especially the sports staff, worked ludicrously long hours, but overtime pay was non-existent. Mileage reimbursement rates were a joke. Pay raises were so small as to be nearly invisible.

Talented young writers and photographers would stay only long enough to build a portfolio. Then senior people began leaving, too. Replacing them wasn’t always an option. After four years on my dream job, my blood pressure was skyrocketing, my patience depleted. The dream was dead, and I finally left the paper in 2001.

No one works 20 years in one place, though, without developing special friends ? and I can’t seem to shake my anger over how they’ve been treated. The latest reports on Black and Radler only stoke that anger.

For example, while the Times Herald was being forced to try to hire reporters for the stunning sum of $300 a week, Black reportedly was passing a $25,000 tab for “summer drinks” off to our parent company’s shareholders. While our newest hires were working second jobs stocking grocery store shelves because newspaper work didn’t pay them enough to get by, Black was allegedly having stockholders pay his $390,000 bill for leasing and repairing luxury automobiles.

At the Times Herald today, the employees wonder whether the company’s “match” to their 401k donations is best measured in pennies on the dollar or in tenths of pennies. At the Times Herald today, reporter notebooks are kept locked up and are doled out only on request. But somewhere, Lord Black of Crossharbour is harrumphing, like Major Hoople, not caring a whit that the findings of the Aug. 31 report, if true, make his behavior look like greed on crack.

Granted, there’s a lot to criticize about the newspaper industry, but small-town papers still can be a pure, pertinent medium.

As a reporter or editor in a small town, you have to meet the needs of your readers, or they stop you on the sidewalk and tell you. When you screw up a story, someone is apt to knock on your door ? at home. And when you do it right, the story or picture gets taped to a refrigerator door or tacked to the church bulletin board. Black and Radler couldn’t care less about any of that.

It should be noted that although he’s been under siege from shareholders since the spring of 2003, Black has not been officially charged with or convicted of anything. But the report’s allegations seem to point to more than a fanciful conspiracy by wild-eyed investors. Anyone who wants to criticize the newspaper industry should start here.

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Published: September 28, 2004


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