AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2007

Culture Clash   

An aggressive management team with a top-down approach and a penchant for reader-friendly journalism has shaken things up at the once comfortable and traditional Richmond Times-Dispatch.

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

In November, a year after Glenn Proctor took the helm of the Richmond Times-Dispatch as vice president and executive editor, he didn't so much appear the part of a Marine--bright fuchsia tie; gold stud earring in his left ear; soft-spoken demeanor. But once he got to talking about the changes he has made in the newsroom--and responding to some criticism of his actions--he sure sounded like it.

Proctor, who served six years in the Marines and is apt to remind people of that fact, is not the type of guy who takes no for an answer. When asked what change he wanted to make at the Virginia paper had provoked the most resistance, he scolds: "Read the bio. Resistance? Me? What resistance?"

No smirk accompanied that comment--not a hint of one. He wasn't kidding.

Proctor is a self-professed hard-ass, a man who makes no apologies for his tough-guy style and compares himself to the famed and infamous basketball coach Bobby Knight--he's about winning, not making anyone happy. And he was not about to conform to the genteel ways of Richmond when he marched into the Times-Dispatch newsroom and staked his claim. "This is my newsroom," he told staffers.

Proctor, 60, spent 10 years in editing positions at Newark's Star-Ledger, lastly as associate editor, and is the first Times-Dispatch executive editor to be hired from outside since the position was created in 1968. He's also the first top African American editor at a paper whose editorial page supported massive resistance, an effort in the 1950s to block the racial integration of public schools.

But Proctor's tenure, which began November 14, 2005, was not the first major jolt for the Times-Dispatch. A year earlier, Media General, the paper's parent company, named Thomas A. Silvestri president and publisher, the first non-family member to hold that title after a line of Bryan men, beginning with Joseph Bryan, who acquired the Daily Times (a precursor of the Times-Dispatch) in 1887. Since 2005, the top management of the newsroom has turned over, with the ouster of the two deputy managing editors and the sudden retirement of the longtime managing editor.

Some have bristled at the brusqueness of those moves and a harsh management style. But the angst at the Times-Dispatch--which is not shared by everyone in the newsroom--is less about the new sheriff in town than it is about concerns that have shaken newsrooms nationwide: the evolution of family-run newspapers into corporate entities, the delicate balance between public service journalism and financial pressures in a rapidly evolving and brutally competitive media environment. Together, Silvestri and Proctor, very much on the same page, have sped up a reader-friendly revolution that had been creeping through this rather comfortable paper for a few years. The moves are familiar: a mainly--or often solely--local front page; a focus on presentation; a push for localizing national stories; a growing emphasis on multimedia. Among the staff, there is praise for a livelier paper, greater diversity in hiring and in the news pages, a higher energy level in the newsroom. But for some, that energy is more like anxiety. The Times-Dispatch is divided among those who support stabs at creating a 21st-century business model and those who question whether the changes will alter the very foundation of journalism.

Proctor says there are staffers in his newsroom who are simply change averse. "There are a lot of people here--not a lot--but there are some people here that just don't like change. Don't like change. And they hate it, and they hate it, and they hate it, and they hate it, and they hate it, and they hate it. It's going to change anyway, because the industry is changing."

Staffers interviewed for this story say the paper needs to change--the sticking point is in what ways. Bill McKelway, a reporter on the metro staff, joined the Times-Dispatch's composing room 36 years ago and bluntly describes the paper as one that rarely in its history "reached beyond the mediocre." But McKelway is worried that today business interests may outweigh journalistic goals. "I have the greatest hopes that the paper's going to be much better than it was, and I think there's that possibility," he says. "But it's money, money, money."

When the newsroom gets together, "It's like a business meeting," columnist Michael Paul Williams says. There's talk about needing to cover certain issues, he says, "but the undercurrent there is, 'This is good for business.'"

The current is more pronounced since Silvestri became publisher, he says. "Don't get me wrong. I don't envy [Silvestri's and Proctor's] tasks," Williams adds. "But it's not a shared agenda. There's a naturally adversarial relationship between the news and business sides. It's not just another business."

Others say a major overhaul for circulation-losing newspapers is past due. Paige Mudd, a reporter who's also a substitute metro editor, says the T-D today doesn't look like the paper it was two years ago. "Some people would say it's too busy..but we live in a television and Internet culture. People are used to having lots of different options. We can't keep doing things the way we were doing them and expect people to rediscover us."

One of the big stories in the Times-Dispatch in 2006 was that of Elliott Yamin, a local boy who made it big thanks to the reality show "American Idol." (Yamin didn't win; he came in third.) And it's his appearances on the front page of the paper that most dramatically show how a capital city paper, once a gray lady of officialdom, has turned more to entertainment and features. Last year, Yamin stories ran on page one 13 times, seven of those in May.

The prominent play attracted criticism, Proctor says, but "people bought the paper." Months before his success on the show, Yamin was working in a drugstore. It was a local-kid-makes-good story, just like a special section the paper ran on Denny Hamlin, NASCAR's rookie of the year, who's from nearby Chesterfield County. "I believe it is imperative for us as the major media in this area to play up our local heroes," Proctor says, "whether they're entertainers, whether they're sports kids, whether they're NASCAR drivers, so that's what we're doing. Local news, local news is our way right now."

As with many papers, national and international has largely moved off the front, which consists of three or four stories--down from five or six a few years ago--with promo boxes and teasers across the top and bottom flogging what's inside. "We take a lot more of a single-copy mind-set to the newspaper," says Rick Thornton, a former night deputy managing editor whom Proctor promoted to the new position of senior editor for creative. Thornton oversees the design desk, photography, graphics, features and the copy desk.

The trend toward local and the focus on presentation had already begun at the Times-Dispatch pre-Proctor and Silvestri, but the evolution was slow. Copy desk chief Lewis Brissman, a 15-year veteran of the paper, says with the arrival of the new publisher--often called TAS, for his initials--"it was clear that the pace of change was going to pick up."

A former deputy managing editor, Silvestri, 51, worked for 16 years in the newsrooms of the Times-Dispatch and the afternoon News Leader, which merged with the T-D in 1992. He joined Media General's corporate ranks in 1998 as director of synergy (see The Beat, December 1997). His appointment as publisher of the T-D was greeted enthusiastically by staffers who knew and respected him.

Before Silvestri, the paper was a poster child for longevity. Silvestri's predecessor, J. Stewart Bryan III, the great-grandson of Joseph Bryan, was publisher for 26 years.

Former Executive Editor William H. Millsaps Jr. held the job for 11 years, spending a total of 39 at the paper, before retiring in 2005. When the papers were combined, only about 10 people lost their jobs.

"Ultimately, it was going to be time for this newspaper, like many others, to have the snow globe shaken more dramatically than in the past," says Brissman.

Circulation fluctuated in the 1990s but held at about 210,000 daily. From March 1998 to March 2005, however, daily circulation declined by about 11 percent, and Sunday went down by about 8 percent. It's now 182,397 Monday through Saturday and 213,418 Sunday, according to September 2006 Audit Bureau of Circulations numbers.

Those circulation losses led the paper to launch a major readership study in the early 2000s, Millsaps says. And it marked the beginning of reader-friendly conversations. "We started talking about what readers want as opposed to what editors and reporters think they ought to read," says former Managing Editor Louise C. Seals, who left last July after 38 years at the paper.

Besides stressing local, Proctor, who has worked for Gannett and Knight Ridder, has emphasized display. "I've had all the editors focus on..packaging. Because oftentimes, we have the information; we have the pictures. It's just the way we package it."

The front pages get mixed reviews. "I mean, the world could go to hell in a handbasket, and you'd have to look inside to find out," says Earle Dunford, who retired as city editor in 1988 after 36 years with the Times-Dispatch. "It's crime and then pictures of people crying, wallowing in grief..then the 'American Idol' kid," he says. "They're like most papers. They're trying to win over people in groups that don't read very much."

Says Proctor: "All the public appearances I make, there are a few grouchy people" who want international news on the front. "But by and large people are like, 'Wow, this paper is exciting.'"

One longtime journalist who says the paper has improved is John Hall, a 27-year employee of Media General News Service who retired as senior Washington correspondent late last year. "It's a heck of a lot better newspaper than it used to be" a couple years ago, Hall says. "You look at that front page, most days it sparkles."

Proctor and Silvestri have undertaken a number of efforts to reach out to the public. One, a Proctor initiative, is a monthly series on life in area communities. The lighthearted features, called "Stepping Out," are written by reporter Meredith Bonny, who says they're "a way of trying to add circulation and revenue." She's received some ribbing in the newsroom for such a blatant business-driven effort, she acknowledges, but says the people in the communities love to read about themselves.

"We're trying to do things that symbolically show that we're interested in other communities," Silvestri says, citing "Stepping Out" and "Exploring," an occasional special section that takes a look at locales farther away from Richmond.

In September 2005, Silvestri launched the most visible of these efforts, a series of town-hall discussions called "Public Square." The conversations, held at the Times-Dispatch, have touched on crime, affordable housing, immigration and the phenomenon of social Web sites such as MySpace.

Columnist Michael Paul Williams, who joined the paper in 1982, supports the "Public Squares." "For so many years," he says, "the Times-Dispatch was not an institution that seemed to be interested in outreach to the public at large."

What he questions is the news coverage ballyhooing the events beforehand, and the frequent A1 play given to stories about the forums the following day. "I just wish we didn't cover it," he says. "Then it would be truly community outreach and less self-serving."

Proctor says playing the pieces out front makes sense. "Why not?" he says. "It's our event."

The last forum of 2006, on customer service, was preceded by a three-day, front-page series that chronicled the good and bad experiences of readers, 185 of whom responded to the paper's request for such information. There was the story of Ray Fields, who got good service at Sandston Cleaners, and Jennifer Whitt, an off-the-clock grocery store employee who fixed a poorly made wrist corsage for free.

"It was overdone," says Betty Booker, a reporter who joined the paper in 1968 and announced she would retire shortly after being interviewed for this story. "Stretched out, overdone, and in the end everybody was out at the mall, shopping away, not discussing their complaints downtown." (About 50 people attended the event.)

The Times-Dispatch did not shy away, however, from covering the fact that in a ranked list of readers' customer service peeves, the T-D's newspaper delivery came in at No. 2.

Booker, who covered issues affecting the middle-aged and the elderly, takes a broad view: "I am concerned not just about our own paper, but most media outlets," she says, and "the failure to really see and take seriously this role of dealing with truth telling. In its place has come quasi, often not very well done, marketing disguised as news. Self-aggrandizement and superficial 'reporting.'"

A week after the customer service articles, the Times-Dispatch exhibited an act of journalistic whiplash, touting a five-day series that explored life in the crowded Richmond City Jail. The sheriff granted full access over the course of a year to reporters David Ress and Paige Mudd and photographer Eva Russo. Beyond the print stories, TimesDispatch.com posted video and audio slideshows. (TD.com has been including more multimedia on a Web site that looks a little outdated.)

"It's a good example of how we can jerk into this posture of doing something that's sort of bizarre," reporter Bill McKelway says of the customer service series. "And then David's thing will start [the following] Sunday."

McKelway calls the jail series "without question one of the better pieces that has run in many, many years here... It's heartening that they're giving David space to do these things, and presumably that will attach itself to projects that are worthwhile."

Last October, Proctor announced a long-anticipated reorganization that further defines the Times-Dispatch's local focus. Always a state paper, with 10 bureaus, the paper will pull staffers in from two of those but increase its coverage of 16 counties and four cities, including Richmond.

The redefined area reflects Richmond's growing exurbs--and a desire to attract potential readers who have moved there. Focusing on the 20 municipalities requires a redeployment of some staffers, "although," Proctor says, "that doesn't mean that we will give up any coverage throughout the state. We'll just parachute people when we need to."

Andy Taylor, news editor of the recently combined state and metro desks, says this core area around Richmond is home to 1.2 million people, a growing population the paper hasn't been covering the way it would like to. The change means bringing in reporters from two outlying bureaus, says Taylor. (Proctor would not say that he's closing the bureaus, only that "the number of bureaus still exists in their physicality.")

With 41 reporters and eight editors assigned to these 20 localities, the missions of some staffers will be to cover a geographic area as well as an issue, such as Henrico County and immigration; or to cover two areas. "We'll be able to fill a couple of positions that were open, so that's a good thing," says Taylor.

Proctor filled in the remaining pieces of his management team in late December, naming Peggy Bellows managing editor and Sundra Hominik to one of three senior editor positions. Bellows, a former senior editor at Tacoma, Washington's News Tribune, is also a former editor of the Forum in Fargo, North Dakota. Hominik was managing editor of the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Beyond management, staffing has been an issue as attrition has shrunk the staff. Senior Editor Thornton says the paper continues to augment its coverage and rarely talks about eliminating things. With fewer people, he says, that's something that will have to change.

Unlike many other papers, the Times-Dispatch has not experienced large buyout programs or layoffs. In some ways, this paper has been lucky, and Silvestri and Proctor were hoping for a little more credit for staving off staff reductions.

There was some applause for that when the reorganization was announced. But one reporter asked about morale, says Michael Martz, the union president, specifically mentioning that the paper was short-staffed. Martz recalls Proctor saying that he would not consider asking for more resources until he thought everybody was giving 80 to 100 percent. Proctor recalls something slightly different: "I said, 'Don't talk to me about hiring new people until all my editors can guarantee that every single person in here is giving us 80 to 100 percent performance.'.. That sounds equitable to me."

Whatever the wording, the comment came across as blanket criticism. "I think it's fair to say that many, if not most, staffers here are giving it at least that much and have been for years," reporter McKelway wrote in a note to AJR.

In 2004, the newsroom had 208.47 full-time equivalents, according to Frazier Millner, the paper's promotion manager. On November 30, that number was down by 20. But Millner notes: "We are actively working to fill several of these positions." The authorized FTE count for 2007 is 194.62. Despite the 80-to-100-percent comment, Proctor says he's filling vacancies--"a couple in sports, a couple on the presentation desk, couple other editor positions."

The paper and TD.com are profitable, says Media General's Lou Anne Nabhan, vice president of corporate communications. She declined to reveal the paper's profit margin. Media General's newspaper segment had a profit margin of 21.9 percent in 2005, according to Morton Research.

The Times-Dispatch had been without a managing editor since July 31, when it was announced that Louise Seals was retiring. The news was a surprise: Seals was president-elect of the Virginia Press Association at the time, a job she couldn't fill since she's no longer employed by a news organization. Seals would not say whether the decision to leave was primarily hers or the paper's. Proctor says simply, "Louise retired."

McKelway says Seals' departure and the firing in October of two deputy managing editors--Howard Owen and John Dillon--frightened and dismayed the staff. "It was heavy-handed and swaggering and perhaps not necessary," McKelway says. "This sort of beheading has not happened here before, and it scared people and made them very sad for the impact on the personal lives of those affected."

Proctor's management style has some questioning whether there shouldn't be a little more carrot to go along with the stick. "Instead of a Marine gunnery sergeant, I would've preferred [former] Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki," Betty Booker says. "In other words, somebody who led, listened and led. That's not to denigrate a gunnery sergeant. They whip the troops into shape for battle." But creative people, she says, "respond best, I think, to inspiration, clarity of goals and consistency of direction."

Columnist Williams says the T-D needed a kick in the butt, but it also needed a pat on the back. "I think there are certain people in the newsroom who are intimidated, yeah. The question is, do you want people to be intimidated in your newsroom?"

There's no doubt the paper has undergone a dramatic culture change, transformed from a writers' paper into an editors' paper. Reporter-editor Paige Mudd says she has enjoyed working for both former Executive Editor Bill Millsaps and Proctor, noting that the two men have very different leadership styles. "I think Saps was more of a 'let the reporters go find what they may and come let us know what it is,' and Glenn is more pro-active and he expects his editors to be," she says. "It used to be they would walk around and say, 'What are you working on,' and now, it's more, 'Hey, go work on this.'"

Mark Holmberg, who wrote for the paper for 20 years, mostly on cops and crime, was a high-profile staffer who had "some real knock-down drag-outs" with Proctor, as he puts it. The editor has taken a keen interest in columns, at least four of which have been killed or dropped, and in October Holmberg decided to stop writing his, which often looked at the lives of the homeless, drug dealers, prostitutes and other members of Richmond's down-and-out. Holmberg says that Proctor called the subjects of his column "your people" and once told him: "Those people don't buy the newspaper."

Proctor says he won't comment on Holmberg's recollection of their conversations. Holmberg resigned from the paper in January.

Despite a strained relationship with the editor, Holmberg gives him some credit: "I will say this. Proctor's the kind of guy, if you care about something, and you're aggressive about it, he respects that."

Meredith Bonny, the reporter for the "Stepping Out" series, who also covers the "Public Square" events, says she thinks Proctor's bark is worse than his bite. When the new editor launched a daily critique of the paper that's e-mailed to everyone in the building, he "came out swinging," she says. "He's not going to sit around and tell you how great you are," Bonny says, adding that he makes her work harder.

Proctor's personal style is one aspect of a more top-down approach. "It's gone from being a family newspaper to a business, and a very tightly controlled business," says Holmberg. "And it happened overnight, so it was just a real cold water shock for everybody."

The most obvious evidence that the T-D has gone corporate is the enforcement of the paper's media policy, which requires employees to call Frazier Millner, the promotions manager, before they do any public speaking or interviews. Also, it says, employees should ask the reporter for a list of questions, and the paper will "formulate a response and a strategy for responding."

As practiced, the policy doesn't appear to be as stringent as written. For this story, I never had to submit a list of questions, though I did submit a list of staffers I wished to interview. They received e-mails from Proctor telling them they should feel free to talk to me.

Some still didn't feel very free: One reporter, reading parts of the policy into my voicemail, said that this person was supposed to provide Millner with detailed information about the nature of my inquiry.

Michael Paul Williams is one of a number of newsroom staffers who find the policy to be too stifling for an organization that promotes free speech.

The general message to staffers, he feels, is that they shouldn't talk about the paper. In the past, Williams has spoken about union issues, and he says he always felt that there wouldn't be retaliation for doing so. "You felt you still had some free speech rights," he says. "I don't know if I feel that way now."

Holmberg says management told him he violated the policy by talking to Style Weekly, Richmond's alternative publication, after he was denied permission to be interviewed by its reporter. The July story largely beat up on the media policy and Silvestri and Proctor for not talking.

In fact, the policy has turned into a public relations nightmare. It was referred to as the "gag rule" in the Style piece and has spawned yellow cardboard placards, created by the union and sprinkled throughout the newsroom, carrying the words "Speak No.." and a picture of the "speak no evil" monkey.

Silvestri and Proctor say the policy is not a ban on talking and is designed to make sure information that gets out of the building is correct. And that proprietary business information doesn't get out at all.

At the outset of our interview, Silvestri, still smarting from the Style experience, launches into a six-point treatise on why that story was a bad piece of journalism and adds that he was dealing with a death in the family when the reporter wanted to reach him. But, he acknowledges, the policy is under review. "I can see how it sounds severe," Silvestri says. The media policy was written before Silvestri became publisher, but many staffers say it wasn't enforced by the previous regime.

Proctor echoes his publisher on this one. "Do you know a company in America that lets its people just go out and talk?" he asks. The paper has never denied someone the right to discuss journalism, Proctor continues. But staffers cannot talk about company policy. "Remember in the Style story, we had serious leaks, we had serious leaks," he says. "And it is also our imperative to make sure that we don't have those leaks."

Holmberg was reprimanded for talking to Style and for not checking in with a supervisor on time in a separate incident.

Last summer, Proctor also discontinued an internal newsroom message board called "water cooler" which, depending on whom you ask, was a great forum for discussing the newspaper or a griping session that could hit below the belt.

In another act that was seen as a clampdown, Proctor did not run a farewell column by Randy Fitzgerald, a stringer who had penned a weekly look at his life for 18 years. Fitzgerald was the type of down-home columnist who wrote a lot about his wife, and when he invited readers to a walking tour of his neighborhood, he says, about 75 people showed up. His rather innocent farewell column, pulled the night before it was to run, he says, wound up in Style Weekly and on Editor & Publisher's Web site.

Asked if in hindsight he thought that episode could've been handled differently, Proctor, not one to second-guess himself, responds: "I'm fine with it."

The Times-Dispatch's issues are, in the grand, sad scheme of layoffs, buyouts, cutbacks and bureau closings elsewhere, fairly mild. And there's hope, even among those expressing criticism. "I want this newspaper to thrive," says Betty Booker. "You wouldn't bitch if you didn't care."

Silvestri is optimistic about the future of the Times-Dispatch. "We're going to try a lot of things, and people want to know, 'What are those knuckleheads doing upstairs,'" he says. "I think my team is adamant that we can be successful."

A contentious union situation has added to this us-versus-them division. The union, the small, independent Richmond Newspapers Professional Association, hasn't had a contract, or a pay raise, since a one-year contract that was imposed in October 2004 after the two sides reached an impasse. Union president Michael Martz and RNPA's lawyer, Jay J. Levit, have harsh words for a company that wrote in its employee handbook that it "prefers a union-free environment."

"We feel like we're treated with contempt," Martz says, a situation that he says began in 2000 and has grown worse over the last three years or so.

Silvestri, a former business-desk colleague of Martz's, has no love for the union, which he counters has not presented a forward-looking plan.

The publisher and editor are charging ahead with efforts to ensure an economically viable paper. And neither is worried about the grumbling some of their changes might cause.

When asked about dealing with poor morale, the men answer similarly.

Proctor: "Tell me what a morale problem is, because I surely don't know. Morale problem is in the eyes of the beholder. I don't know what that means. It's kind of like the same scenario as, 'I'm not happy today.' Well, my action does not depend on your happiness."

Silvestri cites an accounting professor, a mentor, at Virginia Commonwealth University, who said places that do good work have good morale, an observation that led Silvestri to tell staffers that if you work hard, good morale will follow. "You know, you're a championship team, winning cures a lot of ills. I think that applies here."

(Management gurus often say the opposite--that good morale, fostered by managers, leads to good work. See "Down with Top-Down," August/September 2003.)

A year after Proctor joined the Times-Dispatch, the paper boasted a small rise in circulation from September 2005 to 2006. But the jump may have come more from business moves than what the newsroom published: The 1,035 daily increase was due to about 800 copies daily sold at a discount for home delivery and a jump in third party sales. In 2005, the paper hadn't sold any of those discounted home delivery subscriptions.

An increase is an increase--whether it took better marketing to get there or not. But the question for the Times-Dispatch, and all papers, is whether content affects circulation.

"There are some cases where excellence in journalism will not move the needle," Silvestri says. "But coherency in report and covering communities probably will."

With its reorganization plan and its focus on local stories, that's what the Times-Dispatch is hoping for.

Senior writer Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com) wrote about coverage of Cuba in AJR's October/November issue. Editorial assistant Andy Zieminski contributed research to this report.