By: Dorothy Giobbe Editor at Connecticut daily quits over the firing of a reporter who included subscriber complaints in article about circulation competition sp.
TWO NEWSPAPERS IN Connecticut recently held dueling promotions for Sunday circulation and while the battle for readership is far from over, the first casualties are three employees of one of the papers. The Torrington Register Citizen, recently acquired by Trenton, N.J.-based Journal Register Co., began a start-up Sunday edition March 20. To counteract the launch, the Hartford Courant, an area competitor, stages an elaborate promotion in town the same day, with editors and employees hand-delivering free copies of the Corant to every doorstep in Torring-ton. "Because we are the local paper, I assigned our Sunday reporter to do a story about the promotion,"" said Elizabeth Healy, the Register Citizen editor who assigned reporter Marsden Epworth to cover the story. On Sunday, while working in the Register Citizen office, Epworth said, she Citizen office, Epworth said, she answered phone calls from people who didn't receive the Sunday Register Citizen. In her article about the promotion, Epworth included some of the comments from callers. "Her story was pretty innocuous, sort of a color piece about newspaper wars..at the end, she put in a few paragraphs quoting people who called the Register office to say that they didn't get their Sunday paper,"" Healey said. "I read the article Monday morning and thought good for her...there were a couple of circulation problems with the new Sunday edition and she didn't try to hide that. I thought fine, not big deal."" Epworth said, ""It seemed like a very minor thing to bring up and it was the least I could do to balance the story a little bit. "I spoke to so many people who were exercised [about not receiving the Register Citizen] that I thought it was it a fair point to add down at the botton of the story."" It may have been a ""fair"" point, but it wasn't the kind of coverage Journal Register wanted. On Monday morning, Healy was called into the publisher's office. The publisher, Geoffrey Moser, ""was very upset about the article,"" Healy said. "He said it reflected negatively on the company...and then he said that he wanted me to fire [Epworth]. " I said if the corporate people were so upset about the story, that it ought not to be [Epworth] fired. It was my responsibility because I had assigned her to write the story, and if he was going to fire somebody, it should be me,"" Healy said. She also offered to run a correction, ""but he wouldn't do that. He said I had to fire Marsden or he would and I said, 'Well, if you do, I'm leaving.'"" "I really don't want to be a part of a business that is responsible to some corporate entity in New Jersey,"" Healy said. ""It's not like I want to crash and burn over some stupid story, but it was so incredibly wrong, I didn't feel like I had a choice. I certainly could not go back to work like that was OK with me."" Epworth was equally surprised by the reaction to her article. ""I asked specifically why I was being fired and was told it was because there is a policy that you cannot write anything that embarrasses the Journal Register Company or casts it in a bad light,"" she said. Like Healy, Epworth is concerned about the ""chilling effect"" of such a policy. ""The implications, of course, are if we write anything that embarrasses an advertiser or a friend or a political ally of the company, we might be in the same position of having our jobs threatened."" Some employees of the Register Citizen have sided with Healey and Epworth. Two days after Epworth was fired, Dolores Laschever, a 15-year-veteran, Dolores Laschever, a 15-year veteran of the paper, walked out in a related dispute. As part of her responsibilities, Laschever handled letters to the editor. After Epworth was fired, ""I got a letter to the editor from someone who commented about what happened with Marsden and Liz and said that the paper needed to lighten up a little bit,"" Laschever said. Although the paper has maintained a long-standing policy of printing ""just about every letter we receive,"" Laschever said, she was forbidden by the publisher to print the letter. ""He said he considered it a personnel matter...and he wanted me to turn over any other letters we got about it."" Laschever walked out. "People in a community like ours consider the newspaper the voice of the community because they have been free to write in and speak,"" she said. ""If we don't allow them to do that, it ceases to be their voice and they can no longer trust our integrity."" After repeated phone calls, Jounral Register officials refused to comment.