Love and the Editorial Page
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
Zachary Stalberg, editor of the irrepressible tabloid, the Philadelphia Daily News, hates getting scooped by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Though the papers are both owned by Knight-Ridder and have quarters in the same building, the Daily News and the Inquirer are fierce competitors. So Stalberg really didn't like it when he heard by way of Inquirer gossip that longtime Daily News Editorial Page Editor Rich Aregood was leaving to take over the Newark Star-Ledger's editorial department.
He got so mad that he promptly demoted Aregood, a 28-year veteran of the Daily News and winner of one of the paper's only two Pulitzers. Stalberg told Daily News staffers in a memo that if the Star-Ledger job fell through, Aregood wouldn't remain as editorial page editor.
"I may have been 5 percent fired for quitting," says Aregood, 52, who resigned in mid-February and began working in the Star-Ledger's editorial department two weeks later.
"Rich started talking to people at the Inquirer and it leaked out," says Stalberg. "That was like talking to the other paper, not exactly the enemy but certainly the competition. I was interested in hearing about it first and not from the Inquirer. All I know is I would have preferred to have heard it from him directly."
Aregood admits he behaved improperly, but he blames it on love. He says he "fell in love" with the Star-Ledger's new editor, Jim Willse, who, on a recent trip to Philadelphia, wooed Aregood for the editorial position, which will be vacated when the Star-Ledger's current editorial page editor, Neal Cocchia, retires this spring.
"Willse and I went on a first date and by the end of lunch we had three kids and a house," says Aregood. "It just happened faster than I expected it to. I'd been talking to Jim on and off and keeping Zack apprised. But Zack didn't hear it from me that I was leaving. It just got out."
It got out, some say, because Aregood couldn't contain his excitement. He told Fran Dauth, an Inquirer associate managing editor who worked with Willse at the San Francisco Examiner.
"Aregood came to find out about Willse," says Dauth. "They had shaken hands but not made a final deal. Rich told people before it was a done deal and Zack got pissed."
Aregood's wife, Kathleen Shea, a 12-year veteran of the Daily News, resigned shortly after her husband.
Dauth applauds the Willse-Aregood marriage, saying they're a great match. "They're both shit-kickers, clever and smart, and they have a good time at what they do."
Tensions between Aregood and Stalberg are not new. Anyone working at the Daily News knew that Aregood and Stalberg had their differences, although publicly they claim to have great affection and respect for one another.
ýon Harrison, Aregood's former deputy who will run the department until a replacement is named, described Stalberg and Aregood's working relationship in a recent column: "Zack wants the opinion pages to be proactive, creative and locally oriented. Rich, as I read him, believes the message is the medium. Zack's had some problems with Rich's impatience with detail and resistance to some management imperatives. Rich was furious at cuts in space and personnel, which Zack says are driven by the economy."
"Rich and I had been sparring for some time," Stalberg wrote in an op-ed piece after Aregood resigned. "On his end, it was the issue of manpower and op-ed space. On mine, a need to see his pages strive to make more things happen in this town."
Rising newsprint prices led Stalberg to consider chopping one of four op-ed pages on one day each week and to temporarily eliminate one position in Aregood's domain. That infuriated Aregood, whom many consider one of the best, most incisive editorial writers in the country.
"The decision was pretty simple," says Aregood, a South Jersey native who has won three American Society of Newspaper Editors' Better Writing awards. "It's a better job than the one I had. Spacing and staffing have been going down here. There I get an opportunity to hire staff and basically start a new department."
Willse, a former editor of the New York Daily News, claims to know nothing about the rancor he may have helped create.
"Why shouldn't I hire Aregood?" said Willse. "He's provocative, one of the best newspaper writers in the country as well as an excellent editorial writer. He knows New Jersey. He's perfect."
It does sound like love .