An Open Letter on ‘Sustained Outrage’ and the Future of the Charleston Gazette-Mail
By DOUGLAS JOHN IMBROGNO | TheStoryIsTheThing.com | March 9, 2020
First, introductions for readers coming to this open letter cold.
You are Doug Reynolds, owner of HD Media, in West Virginia. In March 2018, you and some investors purchased the legendary, kick-butt-and-name-names, Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Prior to its merger with the Charleston Daily Mail—which was the perfectly fine afternoon newspaper in West Virginia’s capital city of Charleston—there was a paper known as the Charleston Gazette.
The Gazette was more than fine. It was a beloved paper and necessary reading. The paper was driven by legendary owner Ned Chilton’s guiding philosophy of “sustained outrage,” which meant persistent investigative zeal, speak-truth-to-power reporting and editorial straight talk.
The Gazette came out in the morning. It was known and feared by bad political actors, corrupt officials and smooth operators looking to fleece the state of its wealth and natural resources (of which there is a long history).
Some dubbed it ‘the morning sick call.’ You did NOT want a pink phone memo from your secretary or voice mail that said Jim Haught, Paul Nyden, Ken Ward, Eric Eyre, Phil Kabler (and post-merger, Jake Zuckerman, Ryan Quinn, Erin Beck, Lacie Pierson, Kate Mishkin, et al.), needed to interview you “about a story involving you.”
Butt, meet Gazette.
Like all newspapers in the last decade or more, the Gazette-Mail (henceforth, the GM) has hemorrhaged cash, readership and staff. First, Craig’s List purloined the classified section. Then—like a bunch of street toughs taking turns roughing up a robbing victim—Facebook and other social media and online news and commerce sites made off with people’s attention, time and money.
But you—and we—know all that. Old news. Newspapers are suffering. Some are dying. Some are purchased by wealthy people and investors like you and reinvigorated with cash and support. (Whatever you think of Jeff Bezos, his infusion of millions into the Washington Post newsroom is demonstrably—post-purchase—helping to ensure ‘Democracy’ doesn’t ‘die in darkness,’ as their apt new motto has it.)
But some local papers are purchased by middling newspaper chains, hedge funds and fire-sale speculators. And then fleeced, emasculated and turned into polite and superficial ‘profit centers’ on a beancounter’s bottom line.
So, here’s the question: Why did you buy the Gazette-Mail?
And which kind of owner are you?
Staffers and former staffers like me thought and prayed you were the first kind. The latest events have us wondering if we got that wrong.
Out the Door
The breaking news for those don’t know it—and the prompt for this letter—is that you and your team on Feb. 20, 2020, fired longtime GM editor Greg Moore. He arrived at work, you told him in one minute his position was “no longer needed” and then shut off his e-mail not too many minutes later, as if you were afraid he’d go all e-mail postal on you or something.
This would be the guy who helped quarterback the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting won by Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre.
The paper won the Pulitzer for a series of revelatory investigations about the opioid drug pushers—a k a major pharmaceutical companies— who dump-trucked millions of pills into the state and made tens of millions in profits. In the process, they created generations of addicts, broken families and harmed communities across a state that will be reeling from this damage for decades.
The series was so powerful and the toll so appalling that Eric’s articles launched hundreds of follow-ups in the national media. The series rippled outward and its revelations continue to echo in communities elsewhere in America. The GM’s dogged coverage (below is a video I did on how the reporters and editors did it) was vintage “sustained outrage.”
So, you fire the quarterback of that series. Then, a week later, one of the crown jewels of investigative reporting in America, GM staffer and MacArther “genius” grant winner Ken Ward Jr., quits on you. In a quote by you to a reporter about Ken’s departure, you say “The timing is the timing,” as to whether he quit in response to your sudden dismissal of Moore.
Did your team not even think about what the newsroom response might be if you axed Greg—an editor whose longtime bond with Ken and support of his work was part and parcel of Ken becoming one of America’s finest, most informed, most dogged investigative reporters?
You’re a businessman. I get that. You have fellow investors breathing down your neck. You have every right, now that you own the GM, to bring in your own team. As the owner, it is perfectly within your purview to let the editor-in-chief go.
But to do so without even strategically thinking how one of the paper’s nationally known, star reporters might respond? In a story about Ken quitting (which was— and is—national journalism news), you are quoted as noting “while the executive management team hasn’t discussed it yet, it is his intention to fill Ward’s role.”
Good luck with that. But you won’t be doing that anytime soon—because Ken’s 28 years of “sustained outrage,” his deep institutional knowledge of government and the energy sector’s pulse points, and his ability to ferret out the truth through dogged document recovery and relentless interviewing, plus his massive Rolodox, left out the door with him.
In a March 30, 2018, Gazette-Mail story about HDMedia closing its $11.5 million purchase of the newspaper, you said:
“I think there’s a great opportunity here. We’ve got everyone in place. It’s a great paper, and we’re going to make it even better.”
But you no longer have everyone in place to help you do that.
A Model for Survival
Here’s the crux of the matter, though. Ken was leading the charge for one possible path to survival for important local and regional newspapers that lack the deep-pocket resources of a Jeff Bezos.
Fearless reporting, investigative collaborations and partnerships between non-profit and for-profit news operations may be the only way to sustain “sustained outrage” at the local and regional level, especially for small- and mid-size newspapers like the GM.
And who at the GM was forging that new path to survival and profitability?
Ken and Greg.
Through the paper’s investigative and reporting collaborations with Pro Publica, Report for America and others, a solid foundation was being laid for a path to survival—a model even.
The model: keep local investigative and hard news reporting alive through beneficial, supportive, almost co-op relationships between local and national reporting resources.
That might have been a profitable, sustainable horse to ride into whatever future lies ahead for a great local newspaper like the Gazette-Mail.
But given the one-two punch you and your team just delivered to journalism in West Virginia—inadvertently or advertently—you likely just shot that horse right out from underneath you.
So, here are a couple of questions for you and your investors.
When the GM came out of bankruptcy some years ago, there was a buyer in the wings all us staffers feared. It was a big and undistinguished conservative chain known for downsizing resources to newsrooms and timid political coverage.
The fear was we were headed into the maw of the now relentless buy-and-fleece newspaper chain philosophy, which is destroying and shuttering hometown newspapers across America.
Or possibly even worse—transforming them into shopper’s guides with insipid—or nil—coverage of the powers-that-be.
But at the 11th hour, the company balked. That left your HD Media bid.
We all let out a sigh of relief in the building. A sort-of white knight West Virginia guy with deep pockets! A former Democratic state rep (if a middle-of-the-road, non-fire-breathing dragon sort). But still! A sort-of, quasi-liberal new owner, for one of America’s renowned, way-liberal, fire-breathing, storied small newspapers.
You said all the right things about not making big changes to the newspaper’s reporting philosophy. You uttered soothing sounds on supporting the work of investigative anthropologists like Ken and Eric.
And you, as far as I know, did not hobble the GM’s deep bench of hard-nosed reporters and their name-taking and butt-kicking.
Ken and crew continued butt-kicking and name-taking.
The Envelopes, Please
You did lay off some of us. So, enough about you for the moment. Let’s talk about me briefly, just so readers don’t conclude that personal animus is motivating this open letter about sustained outrage.
It’s not. I didn’t like how I was laid off. But being laid off in April 2018 after 30 years at the paper turned into a life re-inventing blessing.
As the paper’s long-form feature writer, former feature editor and video feature producer—and no-doubt annoying evangelist for multimedia reporting and experimentation—I was well and fried.
It did come as a surprise, though. We all thought it heartless that HD Media made Greg walk into the newsroom with a thick stack of white envelopes in his hands. Open your envelope. Find out if you were voted off the newsroom island. (“This is the worst day of my life,” I heard Greg mutter, as he left his office bearing the deathly white stack.)
For me, the shock of being laid off turned out fine. (I even wrote a piece about it for Columbia Journalism Review.) And, in truth, as new owners you had every right to trim the sails of your new purchase.
But, man, you guys really need to send someone to Human Resources Camp for how you deal with staff. Events like ‘The Day of the White Envelopes’ and ‘Get Thee Gone, Greg, and Thanks for the Pulitzer’ are a sure way to demoralize remaining staff.
These are professionals and extremely good ones, after all, who you need to pick up the ball and continue to move it down the field.
And that, finally, is the core issue.
Not Just a Job
For decades, the Charleston Gazette and Gazette-Mail have not been just a profit center, beholden soley to the bottom line. To work for the Gazette—a paper home to the likes of journalism luminaries like Chilton, Marsh, Nyden and Ken Ward Jr.—was an honor.
It was service, it wasn’t just a job. It isn’t just a job.
Young reporters, photographers and copydesk staff—back in the day when they were nursed along like saplings, aiming to grow them over the course of years into powerhouse staffers—dreamed of landing a spot in the Gazette newsroom.
I started out at the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, the first newspaper your family later came to own. We were a good paper back then under editor Don Hatfield. But every morning I’d read the Charleston Gazette and dream of working for a paper that published killer stuff like what Jim Haught wrote and Paul Nyden uncovered.
The Gazette and Gazette-Mail have been essential guardians at the gate of civic, political and social life in West Virginia. It’s a newspaper that repeatedly flips the light on in the kitchen and sends the roaches scurrying.
I am not going to over-mythologize the Gazette and GM. The Chilton family and Marsh could have their feet of clay. (I came to the paper post-Ned Chilton in 1988, but loved working for a paper of the Gazette’s stature and mission—and for Marsh, as un-cuddly and tough a Lou-Grant editor as there ever was.)
But the Gazette and Gazette-Mail stand for something. They are not just a business to wring money out of. They stand—and yes, ‘guardian’ is the right word—for the interests of the non-powerful.
The newspaper has long stood tall for the people of West Virginia, whose personal, family and community lives are too often at the mercy of the powerful. These are the people would just as soon lop off the mountains, poison the state’s waters and addict tens of thousands of families in a heartbeat if it meant they could retain their expense accounts, afford a high-end prestige vehicle and head off for another vacation to the south of France.
The paper’s powerful voice and role is needed now more than ever. Civic life and governmental protection are under full-frontal assault by nihilistic, amoral elected officials and oligarchs, the ones who pull the marionette strings that make those officials leap and dance on command.
And that is who the Gazette and GM reporters and editors and editorialists have always had in their cross-hairs.
I am not one for conspiracy theories—life is usually messier than secret cabals running things. There is more truth to be found, I think, in understanding networks of self-interest and seeing why they do the things they do.
But one has to wonder what you meant by these words: “It’s a great paper, and we’re going to make it even better.”
Is watering down the Gazette-Mail part of the business plan? Is the idea to create an anodyne, less confrontational “profit-center” that is more friendly to the powers-that-be?
Is that the pressure you are feeling from your fellow investors—to ‘make more money and do it soon from this sinkhole we sunk our good money into?’
Hey, journalism is a business. I get that. And I do not relish your predicament. I even feel compassion for your challenges—and how hard journalism as a business is in 2020, especially as someone who spent the last 15 years of his career trying to peer into the fog of the future of newspapering.
But it is not only the Gazette and GM’s legacy at stake here. So, is yours.
One of the reporters you let go, Erin Beck, has brought to the Beckley Register-Herald her own brand of sustained outrage. Will you let Ned Chilton’s philosophy slip out of town along with Ken, her and others?
So, I will repeat two final questions for you. And they are big ones:
Why did you buy the Gazette-Mail?
And which kind of owner are you?
A bunch of people who care deeply about West Virginia would like to know where you go from here.
Douglas John Imbrogno
Douglas John Imbrogno was a 30-year veteran of the Charleston Gazette and Gazette-Mail as feature writer, feature editor and multimedia producer. He publishes the climate change newsletter and podcast ChangingClimateTimes.substack.com. This open letter was originally published on his writing and video blog: TheStoryIsTheThing.com