AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

A Troubling Approach to Employee Relations   

Halifax Media Group, new owner of the former New York Times Co. regional papers, and its onerous non-compete contract. Weds., January 11, 2012

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

Halifax backed off, which is very good news. But not completely, which is troubling.

Halifax Media Group is the outfit that recently bought the New York Times Co.'s 16 regional newspapers. Just after it did, Halifax decided to require the papers' employees to sign an extremely onerous non-compete contract if they wanted to stay on the roster.

The contract meant that staffers who left the papers for any reason could not work for any news outlet in a market with a Halifax property for two years. In other words, even if you were fired, you couldn't take a media job in your hometown or any other Halifax city.

The contract also declared that all employees would work for the papers "at will," which means they could be jettisoned at any time for any reason. And Halifax also was planning to enforce its nepotism policy retroactively, meaning that if a husband and wife duo worked at one of the former Times Co. properties, one had to go.

The non-compete was not received enthusiastically and did not attract glowing media attention. And so Halifax retreated Tuesday, saying that the clause would not apply to the former Times Co. staffers. Jerome Ferson, publisher of the Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, told employees Tuesday night to tear up the agreement, according to the Poynter Institute's MediaWire.

But the company still plans to apply the awful policy to future employees, according to a memo by Diane McFarlin, publisher of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sarasota Herald-Tribune, posted Tuesday night on JimRomenesko.com.

Now everyone knows the media business is a tough one these days. Draconian cost-cutting at newspapers in particular is commonplace.

But that hardly means that media companies have to subject their minions to such punitive contracts. The tone of the "employee non-solicitation, non-compete and confidentiality agreement" is relentlessly harsh. Halifax's approach makes Bain Capital seem like a socialist collective.

One provision of the contract that has received little attention has truly alarming ramifications for newsgathering. That's the "intangible property" clause, which seems to make all of a reporter's work the property of Halifax. That raises the possibility that, should an investigative project be killed and the reporter on the story leaves the paper, he or she would be unable to pursue it elsewhere.

Halifax is a relatively new media company that acquired the Daytona Beach News-Journal in 2010. Its majority owner is Little Rock-based Stephens Capital Partners, owned by Warren Stephens. Stephens and other family members also own Stephens Media, which has 11 daily papers, including the Las Vegas Journal-Review. None is widely known for journalistic excellence.

Obviously the Times Co. couldn't be too choosy when it decided to unload its regional newspaper group. Newspapers, as you may have heard, are not exactly a hot commodity these days. Media analyst Ken Doctor described the $143 million sale price as "incredibly low." But the Times Co. did readers and staffers of its former regional empire no favors when it sold to these guys.

Then again, the Times Co. had other things on its mind when it sealed the deal. "This gets rid of another headache for the Times," media analyst Ed Atorino, apparently not a big sentimentalist when it comes to old-school print products, said in the Times' story on the sale.