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HomeNewsArchivesMAJOR MEDIA WATCH -- A REVOLVING DOOR

MAJOR MEDIA WATCH — A REVOLVING DOOR

Newspapers are known for their revolving doors, particularly in and out of the "editorial department," which refers to the whole journalistic end of the operation — reporters, editors, columnists, photographers and others involved in producing material to fill the space not occupied by advertising.
That's in part because journalism is a stressful profession. Staffers are on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day. No sooner does one deadline end than another begins — and often they overlap. The pressure to produce, and to beat the competition, never ends. Mistakes cannot be covered up or denied; they're right there on the page for everyone to read.
But the high turnover is also in part because of the nature of the beast. Many — probably most — journalists consider their work a calling. They are in it because they believe in the fundamental role of a free press and because they see the news media as a watchdog against public wrongdoing and a protector of the people's right to know. Truth, accuracy, fairness, balance, completeness and the admittedly elusive objectivity are goals they pursue, even if forever falling short.
On St. Thomas, newsroom doors have been revolving at an awesome rate of late. Directly or indirectly, the force that mainly has kept them in motion — however inadvertently — is Jeffrey Prosser.
It was less than 18 months ago that Prosser's Innovative Communication Corp. assumed ownership of The Virgin Islands Daily News. Fifteen months ago St. Croix Avis publisher Rena Brodhurst, in response to the Daily News sale, started the V.I. Independent as St. Thomas competition (with a reporting staff on St. Thomas but editing and production housed within the Avis plant on St. Croix). Five months ago, St. Thomas Source went on-line as a third alternative, the territory's first daily electronic newspaper.
The roster of Daily News newsroom departees in the last six months:
* Political reporter Norberto Santana left at the end of 1998 and moved to California to work.
* General assignment reporter Michael Wall left last December and moved to Atlanta to work.
* Longtime part-time photographer E.C. Jones was fired in January after he wrote a guest editorial that appeared in the paper. It pointed out that when local tourism publications picture persons of color at all, it is almost exclusively as service staff, not as tourists.
* Night editors David and Jill Lauterborn quit in February, held other jobs for a couple of months and then moved to North Carolina.
* Former news editor Gwen Kelly was moved to editorial page editor after longtime executive editor Penny Feuerzeig, who had been demoted to that job by the new ownership, quit a year ago. Kelly left in March after being told that her position was being eliminated; offered a non-journalistic position at the same pay in the production department, she chose not to take it. She remains on island and is looking for work.
* St. Croix reporter Dana Anderson resigned in April and is working in another field on the island.
* Freelance society columnists June Archibald and Tynnetta McIntosh took their "Eyes on You" column from the Daily News to Flair magazine in April.
* Page layout editor Holly Simpson quit in April and moved to Chicago to work.
* Copy editor/page layout editor Bill Silverfarb, who came to the Daily News from the Avis/Independent in March, quit less than a month later and moved to the mainland.
* Todd Stone, hired away from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to become city editor, and heralded as a "writers' coach" skilled at working with reporters, lasted nine days in May. His short tenure included a clash with reporter/business columnist Andy Gross, who quit then but was persuaded to change his mind.
* Photographer Caleb Kenna quit in April and returned to the mainland to look for work. His significant other, reporter Sekai Mutunhu, resigned in mid-May, freelanced briefly for The Source and will be moving to California to work.
* John Duchemin, features editor at the change of ownership, was sent to St. Croix as bureau chief in the spring. He recently resigned and moved to Hawaii to work.
* Reporter Andy Gross, who joined the staff in February and quit in early May but was persuaded to stay (see Todd Stone, above), was fired on June 7, a week after the paper carried what proved to be his final weekly "Andy's Briefcase" column in the paper's business section. What triggered the firing was a one-paragraph item reporting Island Finance management problems. Denounced as defamation by the subjects, it led to a meeting of lawyers, including Daily News CEO J'Ada Finch-Sheen, a former V.I. attorney general, and the publication on June 7 of a correction notice stating that the item had contained incorrect information. Gross, a prolific reporter/writer previously with the St. Croix Avis and the St. Maarten Guardian, has retained an attorney and is vowing to sue the newspaper over his termination.
* Reporter Jamie Bate, who came to the Daily News from the Avis/Independent in March, resigned this month. He'll be reporting and editing for the new on-line St. Croix Source, which will be launched in July.
Meantime, former St. Croix bureau chief Will Jones, transferred to St. Thomas this spring, filed a racial discrimination complaint against his employer with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and was shortly thereafter made acting city editor. The search is still on for a permanent city editor, executive editor J. Lowe Davis made clear at a recent staff meeting; the EEOC complaint has not been withdrawn. Jones had his own political column at the time of the change of ownership, as did St. Thomas reporter Eunice Bedminster; both lost their columns, and Bedminster was transferred to St. Croix, where she is still a reporter.
The full-time editorial staff members whose uninterrupted tenures predate the change of ownership 18 months ago are down to (in approximate order of longevity) photographer Hillary Hodge, now managing editor Marilynn Bailey, now news editor Barbara Parry, sports editor Isaac Causey, reporters Bedminster and Dorrett Phipps, now acting city editor Jones, now Focus/Island Trader editor Patrice Johnson, now features editor Simonia Athanase and St. Croix reporter Christine Lett.
Reporter Hal Hatfield had left the paper in early 1997 to become one of Gov. Roy Schneider's top press aides. When the Turnbull administration took over in January, the Daily News hired Hatfield back as a reporter. A month later, it also hired Schneider's other top PR aide, Janette Millin, as an editorial writer. In late February, Millin told The Source her job was temporary and she expected to move to cable TV as soon as it began local news programing (Prosser owns both of the territory's cable companies). Since June 10, she has been listed on the newspaper's editorial page as "senior editorial writer."
At the Independent, the story is a lot shorter, because the staff is a lot smaller, but the personnel changes have been equally traumatic. The Independent has had a St. Thomas reporting staff of three to four persons. Its editors are on St. Croix and work as well on The Avis.
* Inde/Avis managing editor Jamie Bate and page layout editor Bill Silverfarb on St. Croix quit in February and both went to work for the Daily News in March. Silverfarb left about three weeks later; Bate recently resigned (see Jamie Bate and Bill Silverfarb, above).
* Kris Dreesen, one of the original three reporters who opened the Independent office on St. Thomas, left shortly after the paper marked its first anniversary in March and moved to the mainland to look for work.
* Matt Zalaznick, another original reporter, left last week and will be freelancing for The St. Thomas Source. (The third original reporter, Carl Holcombe, left in mid-1998 and was replaced by Michael Burton, who left at the end of last year to become Lt. Gov. Gerard Luz James's press secretary.)
Com
petition, alas, has not fostered the ideal of a fully informed public. In fact, it has done quite the opposite. There is ample evidence that the Daily News gives prominence to stories and commentaries reflecting favorably on ICC, its holdings and its owner, and that it downplays or ignores those doing the opposite. The Independent, meanwhile, emphasizes negative news about the ICC companies and ownership and peppers its opinion pages with anti-Prosser pieces. The upstart Source, still essentially a one-person operation, has dutifully digested the hyping and sniping of the print papers but is linked in the minds of many with its best-known board member, former Daily News newsroom boss Feuerzeig.
Regularly reading all three, V.I. residents might have a chance at understanding what's really happening in what some wags have dubbed "Prosserville," but in the meantime, they're being short-changed in a lot of other areas because of the time, energy and space devoted to Prosser-related reportage. The problem is not that Jeffrey Prosser owns a newspaper. The problem is that (1) he owns other enterprises of news interest, notably the Virgin Islands Telephone Corp., (2) he thrust himself personally into the public eye on or about April Fool's Day with a highly politicized plan to "bail out" the deficit-plagued V.I. government, and (3) the paper is widely perceived by the public as his apologist.
The upshot in the Daily News newsroom has been dissent, demoralization and an unprecedented spate of departures in six months — not only of carryovers from the pre-Prosser days, but also of recent arrivals.
The Daily News recently ran an ad looking for a staff photographer, reporter, news copy editor/page layout editor and sports copy editor/page layout editor. It described the editorial staff as a "Pulitzer-Prize winning team of journalists."
With the "team" long since dismantled, many of those who've left take umbrage at that. Davis was the project editor of the investigative reporting series about the territory's criminal justice system that won the prize four years ago; she left the newspaper in 1996 and was brought back as executive editor six months ago. Reporter Melvin Claxton and executive editor Feuerzeig are gone, as is design editor/photographer Steve Rockstein, who with Claxton and Feuerzeig produced other investigative series that won dozens of national awards.
Editor's note: Jean Etsinger is "the" journalism faculty at the University of the Virgin Islands and has worked as a writer and editor on St. Thomas for 16 years. She was formerly an editor at The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald and The Brazil Herald in Rio de Janeiro.

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