Confessions of a Journalism Lifer

Gannett Hatchetman Rick Green's Enthusiastic Betrayal of America's Free Press

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I was lambasting the journalism posers who are getting rich destroying the Des Moines Register a couple weeks back – my newest guilty pleasure – when a former colleague stopped by for a tête-à-tête.

She was raised rich on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where she attended private school and vacationed in Europe and Asia. I was raised working class in the Bronx and attended public school.

“Aren’t you worried about what they might do to you?” the former colleague asked, alluding to one of my exposés about The Register, which described its editors as “ambitious second stringers.”

For a minute I was at a loss for words, which doesn’t happen very often. My fellow journalism lifer was either passing along a veiled threat from the editors who rode me hard and hung me up wet, or had never seen a commoner get saucy with the lords of the manor before.

“They nearly worked me to death and then laid me off while I was heavily medicated, sleeping 20 hours a day, and fighting for my life,” I said, practically spitting the words at her. “And they did it after I won two national awards and three regional awards for them in three years.”

“If you thought you were being treated unfairly,” she asked, “why didn’t you just go somewhere else?”

“I did,” I said. “I was interviewing at a ton of places and was all set to become managing editor of one of the Hearst newspapers in Connecticut. Then (Register Publisher) Rick Green found out about it and ripped me a new one. The offer went away the next day.”

“What the hell else can they do to me?” I added, half to myself.

What I didn’t say is that I can still do an awful lot to the Register, its Gannett parent company, and the private equity firm whose managing partner served as Gannett’s chairman of the board when my job was eliminated in a corporate reorganization which devastated newspapers across the nation in 2014. I can hurt them just by remembering the “no freebies” philosophy I was raised with, standing up for myself like a man, and accurately exposing one of the private equity firms destroying America’s free press.

I’m free to expose Gannett’s infamous behavior because there’s very little chance I’ll ever be healthy enough to cover hurricanes in the field again, safeguard the masses, or shoulder the pressure of rolling deadlines for a large audience. Much less take on corporate predators like Wells Fargo or Apollo Global Management.

The new and almost unrecognizable Gannett is actually profiting from the destruction of America’s free press, its representative democracy and its middle class. U.S. new organizations and the journalists who staff them have historically championed all three.

I can also do a lot to the second stringers like Rick Greens who are replacing news with corporate propaganda just by putting their names in a story like this one. So decent Americans can see who journalism’s cowardly lions are when they Google them.

Who knows, maybe Green’s five kids have a moral compass between them. Sometimes patriotism, courage, and basic human decency skip a generation.

There’s a power to taking your beating like a man. As gangster Henry Hill said in the film Goodfellas: “Everybody takes a beating sometimes.”

My latest came from Rick Green and Gannett, when my blood pressure came unhinged after years of chronic overwork and surged to a nearly always fatal 260 over 150 (normal is 120 over 80).

I was heavily medicated when Green’s hand-picked successor made me reapply for my job a few months later. Even though I was on short-term disability and couldn’t climb a flight of stairs. Much less continue to help anchor the Register’s disintegrating newsroom.

I have a lasting memory of my sinuses hemorrhaging and spattering the bathroom floor with blood faster than I could wipe it up with a towel, before being hospitalized in 2014.

“I wonder if I’m dying or something,” I muttered aloud to myself as I kneeled on the hard tile. “Maybe this is what it feels like.”

Sucks to be right sometimes.

High blood pressure is generally considered anything over 140/90. Readings over 180 require immediate hospitalization.

I was deep into stroke territory by the time I drove myself to the hospital and sheepishly approached the ER admissions desk, with no idea what was going on beyond the dazed conviction that something wasn’t right. The first blood pressure reading set off a frenzied response. 

I have another lasting memory of my real colleagues at the Register – the ink-stained wretches who champion the powerless and scrutinize the powerful – gathering around me a few months later to say “goodbye” as I tottered through the newsroom to reapply for my job as business reporter.

Each of them thinking, “there but for the grace of God go I.”

The position had netted me three national awards, three regional awards and one state award in just 22 months. It was the kind of sustained excellence known within the industry as “living on the front-page.” However, it counted for nothing at the new Gannett, which is more about pretending to be a news organization than actually fulfilling its public service role. 

We all knew the corporate reorganization was a charade, meant to camouflage the rampant age discrimination now underway in a corporate world obsessed with health care insurance costs. Veteran journalists cost more, especially those of us who have worked far too hard, for far too long, in a fruitless bid to save this nation’s great newspapers.

We also make trouble for posers like Green, by challenging the political hookers and predatory companies they admire – such as Wells Fargo and Apollo Global Management – with stories exposing their “profits over people” ethos.

Gannett’s game plan is to transform newspapers like The Register into the equivalent of local news bureaus for its USA Today flagship. That means buying up struggling newspapers for a song, shrinking their local newsrooms by as much as 90 percent, and slowly filling them with less local news and more national news from New York City, Los Angeles. and Washington, D.C.

Since gutting the Register newsroom, Green has gone on to decimate the journalism lifers at The Cincinnati Enquirer – his hometown newspaper – and The Record in northern New Jersey.

All three were great regional newspapers before the arrival of Gannett’s proud little hatchet man. The kind of places where courageous reporters, editors, photographers and illustration artists kept their neighbors informed and corrupt politicians running scared.

Most journalism lifers like to talk about their biggest stories. Not Green, who raced through the reporting ranks as quickly as he could to management.

Instead of scrutinizing the powerful and keeping them honest, which is what we do (or did), he revels in their company.

Green’s standard operating procedure is to lay off a big chunk of a newspaper’s staff, while feigning solidarity with those being kicked to the curb. Then to assign the vacated beats to the surviving staffers with no additional compensation. Knowing full well the best of us will work hard on every story and photo which appears under our bylines, even when it means working 70 hour weeks and being paid for 40.

We’re working ourselves dizzy thinking we’re saving the free press that serves as a bulwark for representative democracy in America. Meanwhile, Green’s corporate patron is redirecting the advertising revenue from our courageous efforts away from our struggling newspapers to the Gannett shareholders hollowing them out.

Working for someone like Green is akin to being a Medieval knight and trotting out of the castle to confront the enemy, and hearing the Lord of the Manor roll up the drawbridge behind you. In the sense that you’re on his side, but he isn’t necessarily on yours.  Despite all the St. Crispin’s Day nonsense about “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

When opportunistic corporate climbers like Green talk like that they’re talking about big investors. Not the public service journalists they employ.

Gannett’s cynical strategy is a disaster for local economies due to something called “the velocity of money.” It’s a measure of how rapidly money spent in a regional economy changes hands, which is higher when local news organizations are locally owned.

When things work as they should a locally owned bank loans money to a local developer to build homes. The develop buys supplies and land, pays the tradesmen building the homes, and advertises the dwellings in the local newspaper. Some of those same advertising dollars wind up being paid out to the paper’s newsroom staff, who return them to the local economy when they have a beer at a local tavern, buy a pizza, pay their mortgages and fill up their vehicles.

The velocity of money slows and and local economies becomes less vigorous when a big chain like Gannett, which is based in McLean, Va., gives that advertising money to its distant shareholders. Same thing happens again when newsroom staffs are trimmed from 200 to 20 and local stories are replaced with national stories.

All of which is a nice way of saying Gannett executives and newsroom managers are some ruthless, double dealing sonsabitches.

Almost dying changes your perspective on a lot of things. It made me pretty grumpy.

I don’t see any point in being polite to people who have no respect for America, treat their fellow Americans like machines, and have taken just about everything from me that I could lose. For the first time in my life the rest of the journalism field seems to be reaching the same conclusion.

As in what the hell is Wall Street going to do to us that they haven’t already done at places like The Denver Post, which is presently being parted out by Alden Global Capital, a New York-based hedge fund, like a steer in a meatpacking plant. Everything is for sale there, from the Keurig machine to the truth.

Instead of waiting politely to be euthanzied the Post’s courageous opinion section just published an awesome editorial lambasting the hedge fund which has been treating their once great newspaper like an ATM. This kind of heroic newsroom mutiny is a helluva fine way to go down swinging.

What’s the moral of that story?

Why be polite?

What the hell are the Greens of the world going to do to us that they aren’t already doing?

Not a goddamn thing.

If you’re a journalism lifer you’re going down whether you want to or not in this industry-wide bloodbath. And it doesn’t matter how much you debase yourself to hang into your job.

Journalists are dangerous adversaries, when we’re willing to toe the scratch. If for no other reason than because we make a living scrutinizing those who get rich exploiting their fellow Americans and are used to digging through lawsuits and SEC filings.

It doesn’t hurt to have a knowledge of libel law, too. As I do.

To commit libel against a public figure you have to knowingly lie, do so maliciously and cause damage. Given the treasonous nature of the hedge funds now destroying America’s free press, and the lackeys who do their bidding, that’s not going to happen.

Why?

Because you can’t libel garbage by calling  it “trash.”

All you have to do to hurt the Gannetts and Greens of the world is tell the truth. Case in point, the sweeping social media policy Gannett adopted in 2013, which forbid newsroom employees from saying anything online which didn’t meet with corporate approval. Including private conversations with our own families.

Violations were a termination offense.

I shit you not.

I also have a lasting memory of the time I exchanged knowing looks with fellow journalism lifers Clark Kauffman and Perry Beeman during Clickbait Class in 2013 as one of Green’s attractive, young, malleable proteges taught us how to get more “likes” for our stories. The managing editor with no reporting experience told us to eliminate context to make them more sensational.

What’s context?

Remember when you were a kid and you hit your sister in the backseat of the family car and she hit you you back?

The fact that you “started it” was context.

Ever wonder why every storm now has a name on The Weather Channel and seems to be labelled “the storm of the century,” when the government only names hurricanes?

It’s clickbait. Meaning, a story without proper context which is meant to sell more advertising and attract more eyeballs via half truths, half lies and sins of omission. It’s also completely contrary to journalism ethics and the greater good.

Gannett needed the clickbait training desperately at the Register, where entire generations of journalism lifers thought we were in the business of reporting painful truths. Kaufmann, Beeman and I probably had 60 years of news experience and 10 national awards between us, and didn’t need to cheat or lie to break news. But what did we know?

Afterall, we weren’t young and pretty and willing to do anything to advance ourselves. Like the cadre of pliable loyalists Green built at a time when hundreds of applicants were chasing every newsroom opening.

Back in the day when young people still thought journalism was a worthy profession.

One of the best examples of clickbait is an infamous story about a Long Island trailer home that was selling for $1.1 million in the tony Hamptons in 2013. Never mind the painful truth that property near the beach routinely sells for that amount in the rich enclave. Just take out that context, or bury it, slap a sensational headline on the article, and pretend you’ve got a scoop.

That’s how clickbait works.

Our resident clickbait expert was one of a slew of attractive young women Rick promoted during his time in Des Moines, in an apparent effort to raise the newsroom’s average brassiere cup size. Homeboy just couldn’t seem to find very many job candidates who were flat-chested or middle-aged.

Green’s ultimate act of douchiness occurred when he replaced his longtime administrative assistant, a beloved figure in the newsroom, with a former catering specialist at the Des Moines Embassy Club. He was so proud of his buxom recruit from the hospitality sector that he actually put out a press release bragging about how her lack of news experience didn’t matter due to her other qualifications.

It’s the first and only press release for the hiring of an administrative assistant I’ve ever seen. The practice is usually reserved for bureau chiefs, editors, columnists and correspondents.

Sadly, the surreal release seems to have disappeared from the World Wide Web since the Me Too Movement began.

Gee, I wonder why?

Americans cannot cast educated votes without the kind of accurate information they routinely got from their local daily newspapers and television newscasts before 2008. That’s when hedge funds and private equity funds really began to hijack American democracy and America’s free press and turn them both into Wall Street cheerleaders.

All I have to do to expose the Green of the world is connect the dots for readers, between the sonsabitches getting rich by killing America’s free press and the pivotal role it plays in advancing democracy and safeguarding decent working people from abuse. Sue me for that and you get to pay my legal fees.

Very few people have played the sonderkommando with as much verve as Green. With the possible exception of Vilnius Ghetto Leader Jacob Gens, who sent thousands of his fellow Jews to the gas chamber during World War II without missing a meal.

And why not?

Afterall, if he hadn’t played Judas someone else would have just done it. Right?

That kind of behavior almost makes sense in a scumbag kind of way.

These are rough days for public service journalists, with the number of Americans who get their news from publicly traded news companies like Gannett in free fall. The culprits are mostly the hedge funds and private equity funds, who are generating headlines like “Gannett Stages Mini Bloodbath at New Jersey Newspapers.”

Cue Rick Greene saying it’s “always painful to say goodbye to talented, dedicated colleagues.”

The only exceptions to this downward spiral are the liars-for-hire who join The Right Wing Noise Machine and write what the leaders of the rising American police state tell them to write. There’s always plenty of money for their half truths and sins of omission.

Meanwhile, hedge funds and private equity funds are starving America’s legitimate press of resources, selling off our headquarters, and laying off our most experienced people. It’s the most obvious attack on working class Americans since last month’s big tax break for the super rich, which is expected to add $1.9 trillion to the federal budget deficit.

We’re not named “Cynical Times” for nothing people. The painful truth is you’re not just reading Cynical Times, you’re living them.

The hedge funds thought they could raise newspaper and magazine subscription prices while dramatically reducing the value of their news products. They thought they could monetize the industry’s reputation for public service excellence, amassed by generations of journalism lifers like me.

Slow death was the goal, but America’s free press is dying off more rapidly than planned. Gannett’s executives are such losers that they can’t even raise its stock price by betraying their fellow Americans and selling out everything they once believed in.

Turns out that a lot of good journalists simply won’t work for the “profits over people” crowd and a lot of readers won’t pay more for a lesser news product. The resulting exodus of readers and writers threatens to leave Wall Street’s self-described “Masters of the Universe” holding the financial bag on a news industry which is collapsing around them.

Valuable corporate assets are in danger of withering on the vine before they can be fully harvested and monetized by these bottom feeders.

Why?

Because short-term greed is completely incompatible with a business that serves as a public trust. News staffs are cherished and grown over time, and the reputations of the organizations employing them must be carefully nurtured and grown.

Wall Street predators are completely unsuited to this long-term approach. All they know is the kind of runaway profit growth that destroys jobs and companies. Stability is anathema to them.

No where are their shortcomings more obvious than at the The Register and the Weather Channel.

Gannett had more than 400,000 readers when Gannett paid $351 million for the newspaper and its subsidiaries in 1985, according to The State Historical Society of Iowa. A sum equal to more than $827 million today after being adjusted for inflation.

Gannett has run that investment into the ground. The Register now has less than 60,000 readers and is probably worth less than $20 million – or about two pennies for each dollar Gannett paid for it.

Similar financial disaster stories are playing out across the nation, where a generation of ethically conflicted editors like Green simply cannot put together a compelling product. The painful truth is that good editors attract readers to their products and bad editors don’t. And people who lie with grinding regularity eventually run out of all credibility with their colleagues.

Green has been in charge of four newspapers and every one of them has lost readers. Why?

Lack of ability, coupled with blind ambition, at a time when that’s a prized combination for the financial professionals destroying America’s free press.

If Green was a football coach he’d be the equivalent of former Cincinnati Bengals Head Coach Dave Shula, who went 19-52 from 1992 to 1996. Or Hue Jackson, the current Cleveland Browns coach with the 1-31 record.

Second-stringers like Green are a big part of the Gannett game plan now, because many of the best editors simply won’t work for them. The best know that Gannett is not about investing in news operations, it’s about cannibalizing America’s free press.

Gannett owns more than 130 daily newspapers and is almost single-handed destroying the U.S. news industry as it tries to attract investors via cost cutting in the absence of circulation gains.

A 2016 presentation to shareholders by Gannett management illustrates this approach perfectly. It envisioned $67 million in cost cutting in the first half of the year and $150 million in share repurchases. Buying back company stock raises the value of the remaining shares simply by reducing the number of them. It’s the kind of subterfuge executives resort to when they need to camouflage their inability to create organic growth.

How can a news business that had only $146 million in profit in 2015 afford to cut costs and spend $150 million on buybacks?

It can’t, and it’s not supposed to. The painful truth is that Gannett doesn’t care about its news product any more, because it’s no longer in the news business. It’s in the stock manipulation business.

Gannett executives have a fiduciary duty to maximize shareholder value which places zero value on journalism ethics, the American way, democracy, an educated electorate, and a free press.

The same mentality is now sweeping across most of the news industry.

Newsroom employment fell 40 percent to 32,900 from 2007 to 2015 even as the U.S. population was growing 6.6 percent. The cuts have fallen hardest on veteran journalists like yours truly, who refuse to bow to garbage leaders.

U.S. newspaper employment is probably under 20,000 now. Good luck finding public data for 2016 and 2017, much less the current year. The industry’s new leaders are so proud of the damage they have wrought to America’s free press they don’t even compile newsroom staffing data anymore.

And I’m supposed to be polite to these posers?

I don’t think so.

I’m supposed to speak respectfully about them?

Hell no.

When I ponder the appropriate response to their knowing betrayal of all they once held dear, I can’t help but be drawn to Goodfellas again. Specifically, Joe Pesci’s Oscar-winning performance as pint-sized hood Tommy DeVito. I’m particularly fond of the restaurant scene where he regales his friends with a tale of his latest police interrogation.

A big dumb cop started asking him all kinds of questions, DeVito recalled. I always visualize Rick Green and his hog head at this point in the story line.

The cop says “you’re gonna tell us something today, tough guy,” Pesci says.

“I said ‘alright, I’ll tell you something, go fugg your mother.’ “

At which point DeVito told his friends he was beaten senseless.

“So now, I’m coming around (and) I see this big prick again,” Pesci says. “I said ‘what are you still doing here, I thought I told you to go fugg your mother.’ “

In my world, Rick Green is the cop who is drunk with power and thinks he’s judge and jury of an industry where he failed to distinguish himself as a reporter. He’s also exactly the kind of ruthless poser who must be held publicly accountable for his bad deeds. No matter the price.

Bottom line, this opportunistic wannabee has never written a single story that would crack my 100 Best List and I’m not bowing to him. It’s not because I don’t bow either.

When I meet people I respect, I bow. Sit me next to principled journalists like Jeremy Scahill, Dean Baquet, Glenn Greenwald, Barbara Ehrenreich, Paul Krugman, Christiane Amanpour, Gwen Ifill, Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin, Bob Hebert, Mike MacAlary, Ted Koppel, Mike Royko, and Anderson Cooper and I bow.

Sit me next to Register standouts like investigative reporter Clark Kauffmann, former opinion page Editor Randy Evans and current option Page Editor Andi Dominick and I bow.

But Rick Green?

That ain’t fuggin happening.

Why?

Because I know who and what he is. Green is the guy who takes the benefits of being a journalism lifer without the burdens. He’s the guy who trades on the news industry’s reputation for courageous public service, without ever contributing to it.

In short, he’s the guy who gets away with it. The disingenuous villain character Ed Exley called “Rollo Tomasi” in the film LA Confidential.

My rich friend from Manhattan doesn’t understand that. She doesn’t understand why people like me would rather fight back and take our lumps, than march quietly to the journalism kill floor beside her while Green tells his kids about patriotism, sacrifice, integrity and public service.

“Don’t you want a good reference from them?” my privileged friend asked at the end of our tête-à-tête.

I laughed reflexively. Couldn’t help it.

“I sued them for unpaid overtime,” I said. “I’m pretty sure that boat has sailed.”

Clueless rich people… So friggin entertaining

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