Virginian-Pilot journalists: Corporate management pressure is stifling coverage

In the wake of an investigation, "we're walking around with duct tape over our keyboards"

Things are not as they should be these days at The Virginian-Pilot, the largest newspaper in Virginia. In the fall, the paper produced an important investigation of municipal government, one that has sparked an official inquiry, led to policy changes at a local bank, and prompted the mayor of Virginia Beach to resign his lucrative private-sector job. By any expectation, the paper would have kept dogging the story, probing whether there was more to discover about the overlap between government and business elites in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia.

Instead, the newsroom has been consumed with warding off pressure from an unexpected source: upper management at its own paper. In the view of several Pilot journalists, that pressure has stifled further enterprise reporting. It has also led to concerns that the paper might even publicly backtrack from its published coverage.

As one veteran journalist at the paper put it: “We’re walking around with duct tape over our keyboards.”

Here’s the background: Last fall, I wrote for CJR about how, amid steep layoffs, the Pilot had published a significant report about Mayor Will Sessoms. The story revealed that Sessoms had repeatedly cast votes that benefited developers who borrowed from TowneBank, a local bank where the mayor was a president and also a trustee on many loans. Written by reporter John Holland, the story had a clear impact, chronicled in a series of follow-ups. The mayor resigned from the bank, the bank established a new policy to prevent its executives from holding public office, and the mayor is under investigation by a special prosecutor who is looking into whether any votes may have violated state conflict of interest laws. (Sessoms has denied wrongdoing.) Other public officials in the area have also stepped down from bank boards to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

This was heady stuff for a newsroom in the immediate aftermath of the job cuts, a reason to celebrate amidst the tears of departing colleagues. But the high didn’t last.

The Virginian-Pilot, whose history dates back 150 years, is owned by a private company called Landmark Media Enterprises. A few weeks after the big story, Landmark’s executive vice president and general counsel, Rusty Friddell, began meeting with Holland and the editors who were involved in producing the story, along with the paper’s new publisher, Patricia Richardson.

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The meetings weren’t to give kudos on the coverage. Instead, according to newsroom sources, Friddell questioned the journalists about their initial story and asked them to justify why it was solid, important work. Widespread knowledge in the newsroom of the sometimes contentious, hours-long meetings, and concern that an unheard-of level of corporate pressure could be influencing the Pilot’s coverage, have created a fraught environment for reporters and editors. Meanwhile, the paper has continued to cover news developments clearly tied to its initial report, like the appointment of a special prosecutor and the mayor’s resignation from the bank. But what was once on track to be a full-fledged investigative series on the local business and political elite is stalled, and perhaps dead in the water.

I spoke with about 10 current Pilot journalists and a handful of additional sources familiar with the situation, none of whom would comment on the record because they worried that doing so would affect their jobs. Their stories were consistent: Management influence on the newsroom has undermined coverage, distracted journalists from their work, and created a chilling effect on future reporting.

Several journalists specifically mentioned Friddell, an executive who travels in some of the same social and professional circles as the officials the paper has scrutinized. Friddell, the son of one of Virginia’s most renowned columnists—he says the journalism gene skipped a generation—sits on the board of a local charity with four TowneBank directors.

Friddell is also the former law partner of William Harrison, a private attorney the mayor has hired as part of his legal defense team. The mayor and his legal team have not approached the Pilot’s editors with objections about the coverage. Harrison, however, has discussed the matter with his former partner, Friddell. (Making matters even more complicated, Harrison is also a former city councilman, and the paper in 1999 published an article about the entanglements between his public role and professional work with developers—though that story noted that Harrison “has been careful to stay on the safe side of the Virginia Conflict of Interests Act.”)

Based on my conversations with several sources, the gist of the objections to the Pilot’s investigation seems to be that the reporting was unfair and overly prosecutorial, that many of the votes were unanimous, and that Sessoms’ official actions—for example, voting to accelerate a city payment for a new parking garage to a developer a month after the developer took out a major loan from TowneBank—were not improper or newsworthy and did not violate the state’s conflict-of-interest law. Newsroom sources point to events after the story—the bank policy change, resignations, and appointment of a special prosecutor—as evidence of its quality.

Friddell declined to speak with CJR for this piece, emailing in reply to an initial inquiry that he was not in a position to comment on the Pilot’s coverage. He did not respond to a subsequent request to talk on the phone, or to follow-up emails outlining claims about his role and seeking his side of the story.

Reached by phone, Harrison, the mayor’s lawyer, declined to comment for this story.

Satisfy my bosses’

As word got out that Friddell was meeting with top Pilot editors and the publisher about the Sessoms coverage, and with a dearth of sustained enterprise coverage on the topic, staffers naturally wanted answers from their newsroom leaders about what was going on.

Editor Denis Finley, who participated in the Friddell sessions, addressed the newsroom about the drama in a mid-December staff meeting. He called what was happening at the paper unprecedented and said he was trying to manage the situation.

According to one reporter’s notes of the meeting, when someone asked if there was anything getting in the way of the Pilot following up on its investigation, Finley said, “I’d say slightly right now.” He said the newspaper had not been told not to do a story, but added, “There’s been a lot of discussion and a lot of distraction that has kept us from doing our work.”

When a reporter mentioned to Finley that some at the Pilot wouldn’t want to work in a place where outside pressure prevents reporters from doing journalism, the editor said, “I can’t stand for that. That has not happened,” according to the notes. “I want to make sure we can do our work and also satisfy my bosses.”

Finley declined to comment for this story.

Editorial silence?

Meanwhile, the issue has faded from the Pilot’s opinion page, though the story is still unfolding. In the week following the initial report, the paper published a handful of letters to the editor reacting positively to the coverage. From a Nov. 13 letter about the investigation: “I realized that The Pilot is a reliable and steadfast source of information about local politicians, an invaluable service to us all.”

After Nov. 13, I could find no mention of the story on the mayor or the bank in the paper’s online archive of letters to the editor. That’s despite the Pilot running nine follow-up stories between Nov. 13 and Christmas Eve. Local TV reports have also referred to the Pilot’s investigation in their own coverage of the topic.

As for the paper’s own commentary, the Pilot ran a strongly worded Nov. 14 editorial headlined, “Virginia Beach Mayor Must Explain.” It read in part that the Pilot’s findings “correctly prompted state and federal investigations into potential conflicts of interest.” Since then, based on my review of the online archives, the page has been quiet on the issue.

Reached by phone, Donald Luzzatto, the editorial page editor, declined to comment. 

‘Hill we’re going to die on’

One source of angst for some Pilot staff who are familiar with the situation is the possibility that the paper will run some kind of note about its coverage. “If we run a correction or clarification, several reporters have told me they’re going out in front of the building with picket signs,” one journalist at the paper said. That’s a sentiment several others I spoke with shared. (Meanwhile, concerns about how to handle the fraught situation have actually prevented the paper from correcting a relatively minor error in the original report, according to one source.)

Whether Finley, the top editor, will be able to navigate potential landmines and forge a path forward remains to be seen. Newsroom sources told me he has been trying to hold off pressure for a clarifying item about the coverage, and several staffers expressed hope the paper’s top editors will be able to push back effectively against influence from above. Some said they worry that publication of this story in CJR could hinder those efforts. Others think it might help. Another voiced hope that the paper—which has been for sale for years—gets sold soon to new management.

Following the latest round of newsroom layoffs, the paper’s remaining writers and editors are likely a passionate bunch.

“Lovers of journalism in this newsroom are pissed. It’s bad,”* said one member of the Pilot staff. “I want for journalism to prevail. I want for all manner of any possible wrongdoing to be revealed. That’s what I want in life. That’s why I became a journalist.”

The paper’s financial situation, made clear by the layoffs, may shape the thinking of newsroom staff about how to approach a confrontation with management, the journalist said.

“Already we feel like we’re not going to retire here … that’s just not going to happen. What is the hill we’re going to die on? Are we going to be able to find jobs after this? Those are thoughts that I have: Is this going to be worth it?”

*Due to an editorial error, this portion of this quotation was originally omitted from this story. It has now been restored.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.