Black on Black

Yesterday, in an internal email sent to staff, Black Press Ltd. British Columbia chief operating officer Rick O'Connor acknowledged executives spoke with Victoria News reporter Brennan Clarke and editor Keith Norbury about "the impact a potential loss of advertising from the automotive sector" would have on the company. This, after the newspaper published a story about a cross-border car shopper. But Mr. O'Connor has assured staff Mr. Norbury's firing wasn't based on the "writing of this article." Nor was Mr. Clarke asked to resign. And, in an subsequent interview with Public Eye, Mr. O'Connor stressed Black Press's editorial staff don't need to consider the impact their articles can have on advertising.

In his email, Mr. O'Connor writes that Mr. Clarke's story, "caused the publisher, Penny Sakamoto and Island group president Mark Warner, concern for valid reasons. The article wasn't balanced in our opinion and didn't explain the pitfalls of buying a vehicle in the U.S. Mark and Penny had a meeting with the reporter, Brennan Clark, regional editor, Keith Norbury, and group editor Brian Lepine to express their concerns and explain the impact a potential loss of advertising from the automotive sector would have on these newspapers."

"Neither Penny nor Mark knew the article was scheduled to run and asked to be apprised in future when potentially controversial articles or editorials were to run," continued Mr. O'Connor. "This is common practice in all of our newspapers. We did not ask for anyone to resign as a result of writing this article. Not did we base our decision to change editors on the writing of this article."

Indeed, according to Mr. O'Connor, it was "another incident" later in the week that led to Mr. Lepine's resignation "and our decision to make a change with respect to regional editor Norbury. The details of what transpired remain confidential and our treatment of Mr. Norbury is very fair given his long years of service to Black Press."

But what about Mr. Warner's earlier statement that Mr. Norbury's firing was, in part, connected to an advertiser complaint? Speaking with Public Eye, Mr. O'Connor said, "I don't know what he said to you. But, at the end of the day, the single incident of running that article and the ramifications that the paper suffered as a result of it...did not lead to any consideration of the decision to make a change at the top with Keith."

Asked whether editorial staff need to consider the impact their stories have on advertising, Mr. O'Connor said, "No. But they need to understand that, if they don't have balance, then we're wide open to whatever criticisms come our way - whether it's related to advertising or not. In this case, the story was related to an advertising sector we're very strong in. And we took the brunt of their unhappiness" - referring to the fact advertising from the automotive sector dropped the week after Mr. Clarke's article was published.

But is it appropriate for executives to talk to editorial staff about the impact their stories can have on advertising, as happened in the case of Messrs. Clarke and Norbury? "Do you think that there is no link between advertising and editorial," responded Mr. O'Connor. "I think there's a huge difference between paid daily newspapers and free community newspapers" - like the Victoria News.

"In a paid daily newspaper upwards of 30 percent of the revenue comes from subscriptions or circulation - where people are making the decision to buy that paper based on what they like and what kind of editorial materials is in that product," he explained. In a free community paper where you're putting out 100,000 copies, you're dependent on one source of advertising - and that's display advertising, classified advertising or insert advertising."

"The financial health, which pays for the salaries of everyone involved in the enterprise, is involved in making sure you have a healthy advertising product. And if you purposely go out and run editorial that could seriously jeopardize that, your business is in jeopardy. So there is a direct link. Unfortunately, I don't get 30 percent of my revenue from paid circulation like The Times Colonist does."

The following is a complete copy of the aforementioned email.

***

To all editors, publishers and reporters

From Rick O'Connor,
Chief Operating Officer,
Black Press

As you may be aware, we have recently gone through a difficult editorial situation with staff at three of our five Victoria based community papers. We had a Victoria News reporter and our Vancouver Island Group Editorial Manager resign and provided a buy-out offer to a long-time regional editor. Normally we don't comment on personnel matters, however, because of the media interest in the Victoria market and some of the e-mailing, phoning and online blogging which has taken place, I felt it was important to respond internally and provide you with the facts of what transpired.

Our Victoria News ran a front page article on "the ease of car buying in the U.S." This article caused the publisher, Penny Sakamoto and Island group president Mark Warner, concern for valid reasons. The article wasn't balanced in our opinion and didn't explain the pitfalls of buying a vehicle in the U.S. Mark and Penny had a meeting with the reporter, Brennan Clark, regional editor, Keith Norbury, and group editor Brian Lepine to express their concerns and explain the impact a potential loss of advertising from the automotive sector would have on these newspapers. Neither Penny nor Mark knew the article was scheduled to run and asked to be apprised in future when potentially controversial articles or editorials were to run. This is common practice in all of our newspapers. We did not ask for anyone to resign as a result of writing this article. Not did we base our decision to change editors on the writing of this article.

Reporter Clarke turned in his resignation notice the next day and outlined to us that he had been considering this decision for quite some time. Later in the week another incident occurred which led to the voluntary resignation of group editor Brian Lepine and our decision to make a change with respect to regional editor Norbury. The details of what transpired remain confidential and our treatment of Mr. Norbury is very fair given his long years of service to Black Press. Our relationship with Brian Lepine is also respectful of what he has accomplished during his years with Black Press. He is remaining with us during this transition phase until new editor Kevin Laird of the Nanaimo News Bulletin takes over.

Our Victoria papers have recently started to prosper after many years of difficult operations. Being "free community papers" in a large urban market competing against a strong daily means that we have to be constantly working to find a readership niche which will give us a competitive advantage. We believe strongly there is a role for community newspapers to play in this market and take very seriously the issue of editorial integrity and overall editorial quality. Our goal in Victoria is to obtain a minimum of 60 per cent readership, much like the rest of our B.C. markets. With the proven leadership ability of new editor Kevin Laird working with publisher Penny Sakamoto, we feel we have the right ingredients for future success of our Victoria community newspapers.

Black Press has grown and prospered in Western Canada through the development of quality community newspapers and we will continue to do so.

If you have any questions on this matter, feel free to contact me at any time.

Regards,

Rick

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