For journalists across the country during the holiday season, the word “hero” usually conjures up images of those who feed the hungry, give presents to poor children, or travel to spread Christmas cheer to our troops abroad. Not this year. The holiday hero of 2015 is himself a journalist.
When Steve Majerus-Collins recently resigned his post as a reporter for the Bristol Press, you could practically hear the applause of journalists across the country who had long wanted to tell a meddlesome and unethical publisher, “Take this job and shove it.”
But beyond that, Collins’ resignation, revealed in a Christmas Eve Facebook post, came about as a result of some very serious issues — both in Bristol and in Nevada, where the owner of The Press and the New Britain Herald manages the company that recently bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Indeed, the episode is one of the most disgraceful in modern journalism history and it raises serious questions about the future of newspapers.
There are plenty of others who can describe the situation far better than I can in the limited space of an op-ed. But suffice it to say that Collins quit because, in his own words, he “learned with horror that my boss shoveled a story into my newspaper — a terrible, plagiarized piece of garbage about the court system — and then stuck his own fake byline on it.”
Did publisher Michael Schroeder write the dopey story about business courts, stick the byline of someone named Edward Clarkin on it and “shovel” it onto the pages of his paper? Well, it certainly looks like it, thanks to the digital sleuthing of my editor, Christine Stuart, who had some time to kill at Bradley while waiting with her husband and baby for a flight to visit her family in Chicago.
Stuart found that the byline of Edward Clarkin first appeared in 2008 in the now-defunct BostonNow when Schroeder was in charge there. Through Schroeder’s Facebook page, she also learned that his middle name is Edward and that his mother’s maiden name is Clarkin. Mystery solved.
But the back story is even more interesting. Three times zones away, Schroeder’s name was attached to a company that had mysteriously purchased the Review-Journal. When Review-Journal staff inquired as to who their new masters were, Schroeder told stunned reporters and editors, “Don’t worry about who they are.”
Schroeder’s response is proof positive that he doesn’t know much about journalism and journalists. Nothing gets the investigative juices of reporters going more than being told not to worry their pretty little heads about whom they’re working for.
The paper’s editor abruptly resigned. Meanwhile, the remaining reporters and editors started digging and defiantly published a story revealing that casino billionaire and major Republican Party donor Sheldon Adelson had, through his son-in-law, engineered the deal to buy their paper for $140 million, $40 million more than it had sold for only eight months earlier.
And one of the objects of the story that was “shoveled” onto the pages of Collins’ newspaper — and another story reporters were ordered to write in Las Vegas but was never published — was a Nevada judge presiding over a lawsuit against one of Adelson’s multinational companies.
This is the kind of chicanery that makes any sane person cringe. My fear is that it bodes ill for the industry. As NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen observed recently on WNPR’s Colin McEnroe Show, not only has the historically profitable newspaper business model largely collapsed, but the traditional ownership models are fading.
Newspaper chains are in a weakened state and the benevolent wealthy families (e.g. the Grahams of Washington Post fame who sold to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos) who owned newspapers as a form of civic service have pretty much given up on the business. That leaves hedge funds that buy newspapers at a low price, strip them down, increase profits, and sell higher. Or, absent more saviors like Bezos who can make investments and absorb losses, it leaves us with people like Adelson.
Newspapers offer so little in the way of profit that my fear is eventually the Adelsons of this world will become the norm. In the absence of strong returns on investment, newspapers offer influence and a propaganda vehicle. Of course, this is nothing new. Everyone knew the politically active William Randolph Hearst had an agenda. But Adelson was trying to fly below the radar. And in a business that has among the lowest approval ratings on the planet, that’s the last thing we need.
“I think it’s fair to say Steve is a hero,” Rosen said. Yes, he is. And so are the reporters and editors in Las Vegas who uncovered the deceptions that sully the work we all do.
Now, if we could only find a way to save this business …
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