Richmond Paper’s ‘Gag Rule’ May Be Challenged, Publisher Defends Policy

By: Joe Strupp

The attorney for the newsroom employees union at the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch says a controversial media policy that forbids workers from talking to outside reporters without permission may be challenged by the union because it appears to be too restrictive.

“Legally, it could be challenged because it is too broad,” said Jay. J. Levit, attorney for the Richmond Newspapers Professional Association. “It doesn’t make any distinction as to whether the reporter [wishing to speak to the media] holds union office. The union has a right to communicate to the outside world. We are looking into whether there are any legal ramifications.”

The policy, which many newsroom staffers call a gag order, is at the center of an uproar this week over one of the paper’s columnists speaking anonymously with an alternative weekly. The issue has already prompted the shutdown of an internal employee computer bulletin board, and a special newsroom staff meeting to remind employees that they are not allowed to talk to outside press.

Publisher Tom Silvestri defended the policy, saying it is no different than those at other companies who are seeking to “establish rules of communication.”

“Most companies have a policy or procedure to respond to outside publications,” he said. “That is what we have.” He declined to comment specifically on Levit’s contention that the policy might be unfair to the union. “I am not going to comment on anything from the guild attorney.”

The recent actions stem from an article published last week in Richmond’s alternative Style Weekly newspaper. The article noted both improvements and tensions at the Times-Dispatch during the last 18 months following the hiring of Silvestri and executive editor Glenn Proctor.

The story also noted that no reporters would speak with Style Weekly on the record, singling out one “star reporter” who told the alternative about asking supervisors for permission to speak with the paper, and being denied. After the story appeared on July 12, the “star reporter,” Mark Holmberg, revealed his identity on the internal computer bulletin board.

Style Weekly Editor Jason Roop said he was not surprised that Proctor and Silvestri would not speak with his reporters, but added that “It seems like a lost opportunity to speak with their public.” He said no one from the daily had sought any corrections or clarifications to the article.

Silvestri told E&P that he chose not to comment to Style after its reporter began asking about “rumor and hearsay.” He also criticized Style for describing the media policy as a “gag rule.”

“Other publications have written stories about some of our journalists, some of our colleagues with distinction,” Silvestri explained. “If they had called up and said they wanted to talk about multimedia [or similar issues], we would have. If you want to call up and ask to respond to rumor and hearsay, we are not gong to talk about that. In the case of Style, I chose not to comment.”

Silvestri said that he considered the issues surrounding the Style article to be either unimportant or related to private internal matters. “With all that is going on in our industry – the business model of the future, how do we reach all sorts of readers – to spend time talking to you about this is puzzling.”

Several newsroom sources said Proctor, Silvestri and Managing Editor Louise Seals reminded employees of the media policy during a special staff meeting on Tuesday, which included bureau reporters linked in via conference call. One source said no questions were taken and staffers were told that Times-Dispatch “business should stay inside the TD and that anyone who wasn’t happy with that should leave.”

Silvestri said “the gist of the meeting was a concern about business details showing up in competitors’ hands.”

Holmberg declined to comment to E&P, as did union newsroom leader Mike Martz. Levit acknowledged that the media policy, implemented at the end of 2005, had put such restrictions on the newsroom that even guild officials were reluctant to comment.

Style Weekly posted a follow-up story on Wednesday that noted Holmberg’s identity and the bulletin board shutdown. It also posted the media policy itself, which states, in part, “Any comment or statement about, or mention of, the newspaper or business must be cleared by the publisher or in newsroom issues by the executive editor.”

The policy also includes a list of supervisors who must be contacted for permission prior to any comments being allowed.

Levit said the policy, and possibly the shutdown of the bulletin board, could be construed as violations of the union members’ rights. “We are considering what the gag rule means and how it is being applied by the newspaper. It does involve a lot of important questions,” he said. “The employees have a right to engage in concerted activity and debate matters related to wages, hours and working conditions. To be free from coercion and intimidation in connection with these things. That includes free speech rights.”

Seals did not return calls seeking comment, while Proctor declined to comment on the Style Weekly article, the media policy or any related actions by reporters. “That is an internal matter,” he told E&P. “All we are doing is running the newspaper.”

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