Roanoke Chronicles (cont.)

Plain English needed at the Times

Is it any wonder that newspapers are going the way of the Interstate Commerce Commission?

Michael Stowe, managing editor of the Roanoke Times, sought to reassure staffers, apparently, that editors did not cave into a powerful local institution after a monopoly local hospital, Carilion Health System, complained about a Times reporter and pulled its ads. The reporter, Jeff Sturgeon, was reassigned.

The sequence was reported in a Wall Street Journal story on Carilion flexing its clout in town. It was oddly not addressed in a column by Stowe responding to reader complaints that the Times coverage of Carilion was weak.

Instead of leveling with staffers, Stowe addresses the matter with HR gobbledygook:

I know the recent Wall Street Journal story on Carilion and a blog item posted this week on the Columbia Journalism Review’s website (with a link today on Romenesko) created some buzz in the newsroom regarding the reasons behind Jeff Sturgeon’s beat change last year. In our efforts to protect Jeff’s privacy—and not air details of a personnel issue in public—Carole [Tarrant, the paper’s editor] and I didn’t address the topic as directly as we would have liked.

But I thought it was important to let each of you know: Jeff wasn’t reassigned because we were unhappy with the stories he had written about Carilion; nor did Carilion executives call the newspaper and ask for the change.

Yes, but Carilion did pull its ads after repeatedly complaining about Sturgeon. This is not complicated. And the question is not about whether the editors were happy with the quality of the work, but whether the pressure caused them to make the change.

This is a yes or no question. And, frankly, “yes,” is not an option. This is why newspapers have managing editors. This is job one. Pressure on the newsroom from a powerful local institution is a pass/fail exam.

Instead we get one paragraph that raises so many more questions than it answers —”to protect Jeff’s privacy—and not air details of personnel issues in public…”—that it’s not worth parsing. This is the opposite of helpful. This is a hairball. The second paragraph could be a Zen koan.

Newspapers have basically one job: to level with people. That’s not happening in Roanoke.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.