June 07, 2022 News & Features » Cover Story

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The Incredible Shrinking Richmond Times-Dispatch 

A year after a Pulitzer win, the RTD hemorrhages staff as Lee Enterprises cuts newsrooms to the bone.

click to enlarge An image that circulated in April on Twitter offered a visual representation of just how many RTD staffers had been lost since 2018.

An image that circulated in April on Twitter offered a visual representation of just how many RTD staffers had been lost since 2018.

The Zoom call came at 3:45 p.m.

“I just want to say that today we made some layoff announcements. Three layoffs in the newsroom today,” said Chris Coates, the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s executive editor, on the staff call. “This is through no fault of their own. This was a position elimination decision. This is not limited to Richmond.”

It was Thursday, April 14, and with barely a month in the executive editor chair, Coates had laid off three editors earlier that day: news editors John Ramsey and Reed Williams and opinion editor Lisa Vernon Sparks. John Reid Blackwell, the paper’s lone remaining business reporter, resigned in protest.

The layoffs were a continuation of a trend. Last December, Karri Peifer, an editor who had held various posts at the paper, was let go. In February, the RTD laid off Mark Robinson, one of the newsroom’s star reporters, and two copy editors. Since last November, more than a third of the newsroom’s roughly 60 positions had been eliminated through layoffs and attrition.

And since the April 14 layoffs, the organization has lost an average of an additional person or two per week, including both of its human resources officers.

For both employees and readers of the RTD, the turnaround has been stunning. In 2020, the Metro team’s reporting on the pandemic, the George Floyd protests and the removal of Confederate monuments was considered a high watermark for journalism at the paper. Columnist Michael Paul Williams’ commentary about the latter topics earned him a Pulitzer. Now, it appears that the newsroom is being gutted.

In the April Zoom call, the staff was irate, especially about losing Ramsey.

Another editor tried to be supportive, saying that after losing people in the past, the paper had always regrouped and come back stronger.

“It’s just not true,” a reporter said in an audio recording of the meeting that was provided to Style by multiple staffers. Aside from Coates, Style is keeping the names of journalists on the recording anonymous out of concerns of retribution against them by RTD top brass. “This is a terrible decision, and whoever was in charge of it should be absolutely ashamed of themselves.”

In the recording, a longtime staffer questioned what the layoffs meant for the future of the paper, saying Ramsey was the best editor in the newsroom, the sentiment of many staffers.

“Ramsey was literally holding this newsroom together,” he said. “These are not plug-and-play positions. These were invaluable colleagues. It’s a blow to the editors who remain, as well as the reporters.”

Virginia is a one-party consent state for recordings, so only one person in a conversation has to agree to being recorded. Style was able to verify the recording. (Roughly a dozen current and former RTD staffers were interviewed for this story. For brevity, “staffers” refers to both current and former employees in this story. Every assertion of fact has been confirmed by at least three people).

For the past two decades, as the business of American newspapers has contracted and ceded ground to the digital age, a refrain from management has become commonplace in newsrooms: “Do more with less.” Like most dailies, the RTD has slowly shed staff for years, with reporters straining to cover multiple beats and editors picking up additional duties, including extra weekend and night shifts, to make up for lost positions.

But what’s happening now is different.

“We’ve gotten to a point where it is just untenable,” says one staffer, speaking to Style anonymously because RTD employees aren’t allowed to talk to the press. Former employees have also been granted anonymity for this story out of concern that speaking publicly may damage their careers. “This place, just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does.”

The timing of these recent layoffs coincides with Alden Global Capital’s unsolicited bid to purchase Lee Enterprises, the RTD’s parent company since it acquired the paper and dozens of others from BH Media in early 2020. Alden*, a New York City-based hedge fund with a reputation for buying newspapers and gutting them for a profit, made an offer to buy Lee last November at $24 a share. That offer was rejected, but ever since, Lee has made moves that seem straight from the Alden playbook: namely, eliminating newsroom positions and raising subscription rates.

In April, Axios reported that Lee will eliminate more than 400 positions this year across at least 19 local newspapers that it owns and corporate roles.

Now, some RTD staffers are eyeing the exits, and those who remain wonder whether conditions would be worse under Alden than they are under Lee. And pretty much everyone interviewed agrees that the person deciding who to lay off at the RTD is someone they know all too well.

click to enlarge The Richmond Times-Dispatch building at 300 E. Franklin St. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The Richmond Times-Dispatch building at 300 E. Franklin St.

A joke exists about journalism: “It’s a tough job with insane pressure and pretty crappy pay. On the other hand, everybody hates you.”

And that’s the job. Journalists at daily papers frequently work long hours and make less than teachers in the communities they cover. They do it out of a sense of mission, a sense that they’re contributing to a functional democracy and following the journalistic adage to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

But at the RTD, according to sources, half the struggle was dealing with the difficult work environment fostered by top management. Both current and former staffers cite Paige Mudd, the paper’s former editor who now oversees 26 daily news operations for Lee – including the RTD – for the current atmosphere. Mudd referred requests from Style for an interview to a Lee spokesperson; Lee did not answer questions submitted by Style about Mudd’s leadership.

Mudd began at the RTD in 1999 as a summer intern, and, aside from a stint at the Syracuse Post-Standard, spent her entire career at the paper, including positions as the RTD’s police and courts reporter, breaking news editor, metro editor and managing editor. She was promoted to become Lee’s Southeast regional editor two years ago; that position was expanded in February, but her office is still located in the RTD’s newsroom on East Franklin Street.

At the RTD, both current and former staff members say Mudd fostered a workplace where news staff was pitted against top editors.

In February, Mudd was promoted to become Lee’s local news director for the east region. The promotion took her further out of the day-to-day operations of the newsroom and meant that she was no longer the executive editor of the RTD.

But, as new executive editor Chris Coates had only been in his position for a month when Ramsey, Reed Williams and Sparks were let go, staffers see Mudd’s fingerprints on the decision.

“Paige is the one who called the shots,” says a staffer. “My sense is that Paige told [Coates], this is the number [of positions to be eliminated], and she probably told him who.”

Coates did not respond to interview requests from Style. Attempts to interview current and former staffers said to be supportive of Mudd were either declined or not responded to.

Still, the problems at the RTD are much bigger than a lone person. Whoever may decide who is laid off, the directive to cut positions comes from Lee.

click to enlarge Paige Mudd, former Richmond Times-Dispatch executive editor, was named Lee Enterprises’ local news director for the east region in February. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Paige Mudd, former Richmond Times-Dispatch executive editor, was named Lee Enterprises’ local news director for the east region in February.

Row after row, the faces are X-ed out in thick red marker like a hit list.

On April 15, the day after the RTD lost three editors, an image circulated on Twitter of the RTD staff directory from 2018. Crossed out were all the faces of those who had either left the paper or been let go in recent years.

While additional staff has been hired – and also left the paper – since the directory was created, to current and former staffers this red, white and black image is a metaphor for what’s happened to the newsroom.

The changes are only the latest at a paper that has seen so much of it in recent years. In 2012, the paper was purchased from longtime owner Media General by BH Media Group, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway. The hope was that the “Oracle of Omaha” would be able to turn the paper’s fortunes around, but hope is all that was.

In January 2020, locally-based Shamin Hotels purchased the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s headquarters; the paper now rents out one floor of the building. That same month, it was announced that Lee Enterprises, which had been managing the paper under BH Media Group since July 2018, was purchasing the RTD. The $140 million deal included 31 daily local papers, including The Buffalo News in New York, which was separately owned by Berkshire Hathaway.

But the RTD’s reporting team was firing on all cylinders, and when the pandemic hit and the George Floyd protests began, the Metro team under then-editor K. “Katy” Burnell Evans – who has since been hired by The Washington Post – was tenacious in its coverage. Sabrina Moreno reported on the pandemic; her stories about the Virginia Department of Health’s lack of language access for COVID vaccine information led to a civil rights investigation.

Just before the pandemic hit, Richmond’s City Council killed Navy Hill, a $1.5 billion deal to redevelop downtown. Navy Hill had been touted as the largest economic development project in the city’s history, but the deal was torpedoed because of questions regarding its financing after Robinson’s dogged reporting on the plan.

And Michael Paul Williams’ columns won him the Pulitzer. But in recent months, staffers say the paper feels like it’s been on a decline.

“This newsroom is in a state of terror,” a staffer said shortly after the April 14 layoffs. “It’s like fear, gun to the head, for a number of reasons.”

The winds of change began to blow last November. That month, Alden Global Capital announced a bid to take over control of Lee Enterprises. Alden is a hedge fund that Vanity Fair has dubbed “the grim reaper of American newspapers” that has “decimated journalism in cities all over the country” by buying papers, slashing staff, selling their buildings and raising subscription rates in the name of profit.

Lee, an Iowa-based company that owns more than 400 publications, including roughly 75 dailies, quickly adopted a shareholder rights plan known as a “poison pill” to prevent Alden from buying more than 10% of shares without its consent. While Lee appears to have successfully fought off Alden for now, Lee’s moves since then have led many to question whether conditions under Alden would be much different.

One former editor at a Lee paper put it this way to Axios: “If Alden is a cancer on journalism, Lee is COVID, MRSA and SARS.”

Karri Peifer, an RTD editor who had served as a features editor and deputy web editor, was let go in December. Sometimes boisterous and always direct, Peifer had her detractors in the newsroom, but many staffers loved her and credited her with helping to keep the ship afloat. Peifer has since launched a daily newsletter for Axios about Richmond news.

“Laying off Karri was kind of stunning, because this is a manager that’s been at the RTD a long time and loves the place,” says one staffer.

Morale worsened when Robinson was laid off in February. Robinson had just finished a long-term investigative reporting piece with Moreno about the poor housing conditions at Southwood apartment complex, a predominantly Latino community in the city’s Southside. Their reporting led the Virginia attorney general’s office to open a housing discrimination inquiry.

Removing Robinson “was just absolutely shocking to the entire newsroom, because you have a talented reporter who’s fairly young,” says a staffer, noting that Robinson wasn’t collecting as large a salary as his older colleagues. Robinson now is a freelance reporter and housing precarity fellow for the nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. “If they can get Mark, they can get any of us.”

Holly Prestidge, then a Metro reporter and president of the RTD’s union, twice emailed requests for Mudd to address the staff about what was going on. She declined and met with Prestidge alone, telling her simply that Robinson’s position was eliminated.

“We can’t get an explanation,” says a source. “They won’t even meet with us anymore.”

That same month, Mudd was promoted, and Mike Szvetitz, RTD’s managing editor, was reassigned to become the manager and content director of Frontpagebets.com, a sports betting website owned by Lee.

“This is like Lee Enterprises’ garbage,” says an RTD staffer. “They’re shifting everything to sponsored content and junk. Gimmicks, videos, clickbait — anything but real journalism is what Lee is really pushing for now.”

Then came the April 14 layoffs. As many editors at the RTD have had to do in recent years, Reed Williams essentially doubled as a reporter because of lost positions at the paper. Williams had longtime experience with police and courts, and staffers credited him with covering parts of the city the paper had neglected for long periods of time; one of his recent feature stories was about the impact of boxing clubs in low-income neighborhoods.

And when William Fox Elementary in the Fan burned in February, it was John Ramsey’s reporting that revealed fire crews had come to the school earlier that evening in response to a tripped alarm but hadn’t seen any flames and left — information left out of the Richmond Fire Department’s original account of what happened. Ramsey has since accepted a job as a climate change and military reporter at the Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina.

“It’s still stunning to people that we don’t have enough editors,” says one source. “The editors are always underwater. They’re always having to take Saturday night shifts and Sunday night.”

Lisa Vernon Sparks had been hired just months earlier and was credited with bringing a minority perspective to the editorial page.

“Why hire someone if you’re going to lay them off six months later?” a staffer says. “Who would want to come to this company? If there was an opening, when they see someone tweet that they just got laid off after being here for six months, you’re sabotaging it.”

And since the April 14 layoffs, additional staffers have left the paper, or are considering leaving. Prestidge, who had been with the paper for 22 years, left the paper for another job. Lewis Brissman, who was an associate editor for the paper’s En Forme magazine and worked on the advertising side, was laid off in April.

HR managers Sue Conway and Julie Szala retired and resigned, respectively, leaving the paper without an onsite human resources person. Kelly Anderson, a Metro editor who had only been at the paper a couple of months, left in May; the RTD is currently hiring for that position. And on May 24, it was announced that Paul Farrell, the president and publisher of the RTD and the group publisher of Lee Enterprise’s Southeast Region, would be retiring. Monday night, Kelly Till was named the new president and publisher of the RTD, as well as Lee’s vice president of sales in the southeast region. The position is effective July 4.

According to the RTD’s website, the paper is looking to fill positions that include a business journalist, a reporter to cover government and schools in Henrico and Hanover, a copy editor, and a regional HR manager in addition to the metro editor position.

click to enlarge Former RTD reporter Mark Robinson on the job interviewing Mayor Levar Stoney. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Former RTD reporter Mark Robinson on the job interviewing Mayor Levar Stoney.

Before there was the internet, there was the newspaper. For the community it served, it was the main source of topical information, providing everything from news coverage and weather forecasts to movie listings and stock prices.

But the business model of print media has been upended by the digital age. With web ads paying far less than print ones, newspapers have had to drastically scale back their staffs to cut costs. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of employees in American newsrooms has fallen from a total of about 114,000 in 2008 to about 85,000 in 2020, a drop of 26%. Increasingly, daily newspapers have become more reliant on online subscriptions to buoy their bottom line.

While web and broadcast outlets have formed to address some of the missing coverage, such as business journalism website Richmond BizSense and the state government-focused Virginia Mercury, daily papers generally still have more reporters and provide more comprehensive coverage than other platforms. The loss of these journalists means public meetings unattended, public records gathering dust and elected officials and corporations going unchecked.

Which is why the news about Lee cutting 400 positions this year matters so much. Lee, the fourth-largest newspaper group in America, has offered little explanation of its long-term strategy. Requests from RTD’s union to speak with Lee have gone unanswered.

In response to a request for an interview for this story, Lee issued the following statement: “As Lee Enterprises continues to transition from a print-centric to a digital-first business, we need to make job reductions to better align staffing with our long-term strategy. These reductions are specifically tied to our legacy print business and in areas where we can become more efficient through business transformation. There are no layoffs of reporters or photographers at this time. We continue to invest in talent and technology in areas of our business tied to our digital future and our commitment to high-quality local news remains steadfast.”

Follow-up questions were not answered, including whether the elimination of 400 positions this year would take place during the calendar or fiscal year. In a May 5 earnings report, Lee touted that in the second quarter of fiscal year 2022 it had increased both its digital revenue and digital advertising revenue as print revenue continued to decline. In its latest investor presentation, Lee says it plans to “expand digital audiences by transforming the presentation of local news and information” and create new apps and podcasts for users.

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with the Poynter Institute, says what’s been happening at the RTD isn’t unique among Lee publications. He adds that Lee’s recent moves may reflect that it’s finally gotten a better handle on the papers it acquired from BH Media.

“Lee runs very tightly,” Edmonds says. “They were absorbing a big company when they got BH Media, and it takes a while to get those operations merged and the buyer to get a good sense of what he or she has.”

While Lee Enterprises declined to provide more than a statement for this story, a source with one of Lee’s top three shareholders agreed to be interviewed anonymously. The source stated that they’re not directly involved with Lee’s day-to-day operations, but their views about journalism may provide a glimpse of the future for these publications. Much of what they said flies in the face of journalistic ethics, such as not having a division between the news and advertising sides of a publication; that separation is necessary to preserve journalists’ autonomy and keep profit-driven pressures from tainting reportage.

The source said they believed there were many reporters who were “not being held accountable” and are “stagnant. They tend to be older; they may not be tech savvy. They don’t like to be told what to do by the business office, they’re resisting change, and they have a sense of entitlement.”

Instead, they preferred younger reporters with smartphones who may film videos instead of filing stories and said they supported the move away from print to digital. Asked the difference between information and journalism, they said: “I don’t try to break down and distinguish what is journalism, what is not journalism. ... I believe there’s a fine line between entertainment, journalism and so forth, so I don’t really care. I care about, ‘Can Lee Enterprises get to a million paid digital subscribers, and can they continue to increase that price, that paywall?’”

To RTD staffers, this worldview seems to explain much of the current paradigm. Though management tells journalists that they’re not prioritizing cranking out a high volume of stories – and therefore creating more content, clicks and revenue – over fewer, more in-depth ones, staffers say that isn’t the reality.

“To our faces, they’ll say they’re not counting bylines, and then they do and nothing else matters,” says a staffer.

Already, digital content at the RTD seems to play by its own rules. At least two videographers have recently been hired by the paper to create content that staffers say has unclear editorial standards and isn’t visibly labeled as news or advertising. The videographers work independently of the newsroom.

A bizarre example of this content was posted online on May 25. In a video that begins with a house ad for RTD’s video services, the band the Last Real Circus performs in the RTD’s nearly empty newsroom. While the newsroom has been fairly empty since the pandemic hit and staff was given a heads-up the day before about the concert, the video underlines the paper’s move away from print journalism. The house ad closes with an image of the RTD masthead with services it provides listed underneath: digital strategies, streaming content, virtual events, video advertising. Print journalism is not listed.

In recent months, the RTD also appears to have increased its reliance on wire stories and filler content, both in the physical paper and online.

Outside of the RTD, the outlook for other Virginia daily papers isn’t looking bright either. Many of them – The Roanoke Times, The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Bristol Herald Courier, The News & Advance in Lynchburg, the Danville Register & Bee, Martinsville Bulletin, Culpeper Star-Exponent and The News Virginian in Waynesboro – were once BH Media papers that are now owned by Lee and fall under Mudd’s umbrella. They have also shed staff in recent years.

At the RTD, some staff believes Alden will try to buy Lee again.

“These hedge funds, they’re circling us like vultures,” says one RTD staffer. “There’s no one that I’ve talked to that doesn’t think it’s going to happen at some point.”

click to enlarge Michael Paul Williams, an RTD columnist who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2021. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Michael Paul Williams, an RTD columnist who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2021.

Back in the April 14 Zoom meeting, Chris Coates didn’t provide much of an explanation for the layoffs.

Having previously served as the regional editor of Central Illinois for Lee, Coates was vocal when he came to the RTD about his desire to emphasize enterprise reporting, a term for journalism that goes beyond covering day-to-day events to more deeply understand the forces that shape the news. Now they’d laid off Robinson, their enterprise housing reporter, and Ramsey, their enterprise editor.

“I can’t defend this. I did not expect this walking through the door,” said Coates.

Someone asked what the meaning of the meeting was when staff couldn’t get any answers.

“What would you guys like?” Coates said.

“I would like literally any form of transparency from this company,” a longtime staffer said.

“I can’t provide that. I can tell you that the decisions were made, and answer what I can. That’s why I’m here,” Coates said.

“It’s all so frustrating, because it doesn’t matter if we’re great at our jobs, and we do incredible work,” a reporter said. “It doesn’t matter if you do good work or not. It doesn’t matter whatever awards we win. Whatever we do, everyone is on the chopping block.”

Another longtime staffer asked if Mudd was involved.

“As the regional editor, yeah,” Coates said.

Reporters were reassigned to different editors, and some received new job assignments. Sabrina Moreno, the paper’s COVID and communities reporter, was taken off those beats to cover Chesterfield County.

“It all feels like a death,” says another staffer of the layoffs. “It all feels like we’re mourning the loss of this institution, because we don’t see how it will continue to exist.”

Editor’s note: Alden Global Capital shuttered Style Weekly last September after it bought Tribune Publishing, Style’s then-parent company. Style was purchased and relaunched by VPM in December.

Full disclosure: Freelance reporter Rich Griset has freelanced for the RTD in the past. Also, VPM News Director Elliott Robinson held several roles with BH Media from 2012 to 2018, including 18 months at the RTD.

Clarification and correction: In an earlier version of the story, Style stated that a civil rights investigation into VDH was because of a lack of outreach to Latinos; more specifically, it was because of a lack of language access to COVID vaccine information. Style incorrectly stated that Chris Suarez was assigned to cover Richmond Public Schools in addition to covering City Hall after the April 14 layoffs. That took place before the layoffs.

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