By: Kelvin Childs
While more than half of reporting staff has quit,
AP says it sees nothing unusual in turnover
More than half the reporting staff at the Philadelphia bureau of the Associated Press have quit since the spring, citing friction with management.
Current and former staffers who declined to be named identified difficulties with chief of bureau Linda Stowell and acting news editor Jennifer Yates. “The managerial atmosphere that’s been instituted in this bureau in the past six months has been nothing short of oppressive,” one staffer said.
Philadelphia is the control bureau for AP’s Pennsylvania operations, including bureaus in Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and State College, home of Penn State. Since April, eight Philadelphia staffers have left ? six since August ? and staffers say more are looking for work elsewhere.
The bureau usually has 10 to 14 reporters, including temporary workers, and reporters often serve as supervisors or copy editors. People who have left were both veterans and newcomers hired since Stowell took over in December 1997 after the retirement of longtime bureau chief George Zucker.
Stowell came from the bureau in Baltimore, and Yates, a 25-year-old temporary worker there, soon followed. The bureau also gained a new assistant chief at the start of the year when Sally Hale transferred from Portland, Ore. After news editor Janna Moore took a leave of absence in April, Yates became acting news editor. Bureau workers do not recall that the bureau chief job was posted.
Stowell is often described as an “ambitious manager” who keeps subordinates on guard and routinely sends e-mails each day critiquing staffers’ performance.
One source said of Yates, “Many in the bureau feel her lack of seasoning, her lack of maturity and her natural defensiveness have made her particularly ill-suited to the job.” Another said, “It appears that they would rather see mistakes go out on the wire rather than see anybody’s authority challenged.”
One person said the two top managers appear more concerned with their careers than with the staff or the news.
Staffers said Stowell, mandated to improve relationships with member newspapers, had imposed a quota of 10 stories a day. But they say they are required to shovel out stories, no matter how minimal their news value. “Typically, the way this works is we wind up ripping stories from members’ papers and selling them back to them,” said one staffer. And they are often harangued for falling short. Another source said, “They were just being called on the carpet constantly for not having enough.”
Workers also complain that the turnover is hurting coverage because the beat structure is collapsing, and because managers are less informed about the turf than departing reporters. “The readers are losing,” said one. “The people who have the institutional memory are leaving. As a result, the bureau no longer has a close working relationship with the mayor’s office, the hospitals, the police department.”
Staffers at member papers who were interviewed for this story said they had not noticed any deterioration in the quality of AP coverage.
Stowell referred questions to AP spokeswoman Tori Smith, who said departures are not unusual. “I would say that people have decided to leave and take other jobs. We have a great economy,” she said.
She said a shakeout period is normal when a bureau chief changes. “Linda has come in, and she is very ambitious, and she wants to do a good job and provide good service to the members of the state of Pennsylvania,” Smith said.
And it’s unfair to criticize Yates’ age, Smith said. “That’s making an argument that new blood isn’t helpful,” she said, adding that AP employees have the largest range of experience and age of any news organization “on the planet.”
Pennsylvania members have indicated they want more stories on the daily digest, Smith said of the increased schedule, refusing to apologize for “being a member-driven company.”
“We’re not going to achieve that at the expense of quality,” Smith said. “It’s a balance between putting out the number of stories for the client and achieving the quality that is necessary.”
Stowell’s efforts to improve member relations are showing results. Hugh Cutler, editor for federal and state government news at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said Stowell has been quicker to respond to members than her predecessor. “If anything, she’s been more responsive,” he said. “I don’t know if they’ve lit a fire under her.” He remembered once calling the bureau to ask a question and hearing from Stowell within a half-hour.
Virginia Micke of the Philadelphia Inquirer city desk said the AP bureau developed a new system for picking up Inquirer stories. “My understanding was they approached us about sending stories directly to them,” she said. Inquirer editors now earmark stories for AP.
Wire Service Guild president Kevin Keane spent two days in Philadelphia this month to assess complaints from members. Recently, the bureau had to pay overtime to the entire staff ? an estimated $10,000 to $20,000 ? for failing to post the work schedule 16 days in advance, as mandated by contract.
“Beyond what might be a few contract problems, minor contract problems, I
didn’t see anything to set off any alarms,” Keane said. About the departures, he said, “I think a fair amount of it seems to be coincidental.”
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