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A TALE OF TWO NEWSPAPERS

Readers of the Virgin Islands Daily News were understandably startled last Saturday (March 13) when they glanced at the front page of the paper.
"Accredited" screamed the one-word headline in type one-and-one-half inches high. It would have been close to two inches high had there been a descender (g, j, p, q or y) in the word chosen to herald the tabloid renaissance of the Daily News. Descenders or not, it sure grabbed our attention.
Just two days earlier, The Virgin Islands Independent celebrated its first birthday by publishing a 16-page special insert filled with the usual testimonials from the usual dignitaries.
It seems, therefore, an appropriate time to take a look at our two daily newspapers, starting with the Independent.
Make no mistake about it, the Independent made it to its first birthday mainly because it is a spinoff from the Saint Croix Avis. The two papers utilize the same printing press and the same production staff on St. Croix. They carry just about the same stories. St. Thomas stories are given more attention in the Independent, St. Croix stories more attention in the Avis.
The emergence of the Independent a year ago was a triumph for Avis publisher Rena Brodhurst, the daughter of Canute Brodhurst, one of the major figures in Virgin Islands newspaper history.
She shrewdly put her new paper on the streets of St. Thomas at exactly the right time, when the Daily News was losing its footing.
Her personnel investment was minimal, consisting mainly of four young, energetic reporters on St. Thomas, a few advertising salespeople, and a circulation manager, the redoubtable Al Loiten, hired away from the Daily News.
The problem with the Independent is inherited from the Avis. It's an absence of editing. Stories from reporters, press releases from senators, all make their way into the Independent without any editing to speak of.
There used to be a reporter on the Avis known to his fellow workers as "Mister Fax." He would get to the office early, hover over the facsimile machine, grab the most interesting press releases as they came in, scribble his byline on them, and send them off to the composing room.
The editing on the Avis, and now the Independent, never got much better than that.
Nevertheless, the enthusiastic Independent reporters ran all over St.Thomas finding stories, many of which the established Daily News didn't have. Meanwhile, the Daily News was engrossed in its own problems.
A lack of editing never was–and isn't now–a problem at the Daily News. Its main problem was–and still is–how to win the allegiance of the community.
For years the Daily News suffered from the stigma of off-island ownership, the giant Gannett Corp. The paper tried hard but it never could win over the community despite the fact it was, arguably, a good newspaper that won a Pulitzer Prize several years ago. By contrast, the Avis on St. Croix was mediocre, but you couldn't tell that to the Crucians; it was their paper and they were loyal to it.
Perhaps tired of looking for love in all the wrong places, as the song goes, Gannett late in 1997 abruptly sold the Daily News out from under its shocked staff to the Virgin Islands' version of a communications mogul, Jeffrey Prosser, whose holdings now include the Virgin Islands Telephone Corp., the cable outlets and two weekly newspapers.
Prosser took over the newspaper at the beginning of 1998. One of his first actions was to remove Penny Feuerzeig as executive editor. The intense Feuerzeig, known for her high journalistic standards (some would say impossibly high for a paper the size of the Daily News), had led the Daily News for more than a decade, during which she also wrote most of the crisp editorials for which the paper was known.
Feuerzeig continued as editorial page editor until she resigned early in May, feeling she was driven out after protesting an editorial defending Vitelco's rates. (She now is a member of the Source's advisory board.)
Many staff members, already spooked by Gannett's sale of the paper, became downright uneasy in the wake of Feuerzeig's departure. The Daily News' confident attitude toward local news slipped. Stories were missed. The editing got sloppy.
And Rena Brodhurst at the Avis made her move into St. Thomas.
Toward the end of last year, Prosser brought in his choice to lead the Daily News out of the doldrums. It would be J. Lowe Davis' second stint at the newspaper; she had guided Melvin Claxton's Pulitzer Prize- winning series on crime and police corruption before joining a newspaper in Pensacola, Fla.
Prosser clearly has given Davis a nice bundle of operating money. She's made some new hires, shifted some people around. She's experimenting. She routinely works 12-hour days. The staff seems to be responding to her management style, although there are whispers of micromanagement.
The community's attitude toward the new Daily News seems one of suspicion. Prosser is seen in many quarters as opportunistic, too political, willing to use the paper to advance his own economic interests. Many people don't trust Prosser because he owns Vitelco.
People at the Daily News insist Prosser has never tried to influence news coverage, and there is no evidence to contradict them.
The editorial page is another matter. Yes, there is an editorial board of four members, but only one of them was there 18 months ago. The other three are Prosser's choices.
It seems that when push comes to shove, the owner's views will dominate his newspaper's editorials. Forget about conflict of interest. But that's the way it is with much of the American press these days.
Back to last Saturday's Daily News with its giant headline, which referred to the high schools winning another two years of accreditation. But you have to turn to page 2 to read the story; the front page contains only two paragraphs of a second story, and four paragraphs of a third story. Six paragraphs total on page 1.
Better get used to it. Lowe Davis has told people there will be more headlines "you can read from a passing car." (If you're driving, don't try.)
By contrast, the Independent for that same day is a model of decorum and formality, which might come as a surprise for aficionados of the Avis' early days of harum-scarum journalism with headlines such as "Killer Dogs on the Loose".
Most of the front page is text. In the Independent's judgment, high school accreditation was not the most important story. The Independent preferred a typically long story about AT&T's fight with the government over the installation of a new fiber-optic cable on St. Croix.
Two comments on the AT&T story: First, the main headline refers to a comment made in the 22nd–yes, the 22nd–paragraph. Second, the sub headline reads "St. Croix is about to loose (sic) cable deal."
What does all this tell us? It tells us this year is going to be interesting as these two tabloids fight for readership. Given the resources of the Daily News, it should win. But don't count out the feisty Rena Brodhurst, whose one-press, two-newspaper approach has brought her this far.
The real winner is the Virgin Islands, which is fortunate to have two daily newspapers. We can't think of a community this size with two competing newspapers. In that respect, we are blessed.
Editors' note: Frank J. Jordan is a local radio commentator, former UVI journalism professor, and former NBC news executive.

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