Thursday, September 22, 2011

Express-News fallout continues

Posted By on Thu, Sep 22, 2011 at 7:06 PM

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The quick exodus of the Express-News' top two editors since Tuesday has, by all accounts, left a newsroom grasping for explanation. The day after executive editor Bob Rivard stepped down, sending a rosy email to staff that left more questions than answers, the paper's no. 2, Brett Thacker, quickly followed, emailing staff his own frustratingly vague goodbye.

Neither showed for newsroom-wide meetings Tuesday and Wednesday when publisher Tom Stephenson announced their respective resignations, fueling even more confusion over the supposed voluntary departures, according to an Express-News staffer who requested anonymity to speak out on the topic. And even more troubling to some, Stephenson on Tuesday was joined by Hearst executive Mark Aldam, head of the company's newspaper division, who, according to the staffer, made no bones about the company looking toward possible changes on the horizon, saying Hearst is still hoping to streamline operations to save cash.

Some were alarmed by the way Thacker's departure was handled. At Tuesday's meeting, Stephenson offered the “good news” that metro editor Jaime Stockwell was being promoted to managing editor, the paper's no. 2 position and a post Thacker had held for 8 years. Questions immediately popped up whether Thacker, too, was out. He had been at the newsroom's 11 a.m. meeting Tuesday, but dipped out around lunch and never came back.

According to the staffer, Stephenson largely dodged the question, saying Thacker's job title had changed during a 2010 newsroom reorganization, that he was really a “senior editor." By all accounts, Thacker's duties never changed, and in his letter to newsroom staff, Thacker wrote, "It’s been a privilege to work at the E-N for 28 years, the last eight as managing editor." Stephenson still insisted Stockwell's promotion to ME had nothing to do with Thacker. "It was a total PR move. To be standing in a room full of journalists and to have the top guy give you shady half-truths, that's just difficult to stomach," the E-N staffer said.

Word of Thacker's resignation soon followed, announced by Stephenson during Wednesday afternoon's newsroom meeting. The abrupt resignations, and Aldam's presence on Tuesday, have already led to fears of further consolidation with the E-N's sister publication, the Hearst-owned Houston Chronicle, and a nagging feeling that major changes down the pipe may have pushed Rivard and Thacker into a corner, triggering their exits. Thacker, when reached Thursday, declined to comment, saying only that his letter "says it all."

Stephenson's office has yet to return multiple calls for comment. Jack Sweeney, Chronicle publisher and president of the Hearst Texas Media Group, also failed to return calls seeking comment Thursday.

Kyrie O'Connor, the senior Chronicle editor stepping in as Rivard's interim replacement, addressed the newsroom Wednesday, according to the staffer, saying the aim wasn't to turn the E-N into "the Houston Chronicle Southwest." The E-N staffer remarked, "I think that we all still feel that's the direction we're headed in, and that's certainly our biggest fear, to lose what makes us unique to San Antonio."

E-N investigative reporter John Tedesco sent out the first mentions of Rivard's exit via social media Tuesday, and eventually wrote Thursday's E-N piece marking Thacker's resignation. When commentators began to bash the article on the paper's website, calling the coverage purposefully opaque, Tedesco commented back, “We've asked the same questions you have, but the simply [sic] truth is only a handful of people know what really happened, and they're not giving detailed answers. If I knew more, I'd write it.” And what about major downsizing down the road? Is this a sign of things to come? Tedesco commented: “It's unclear if that's actually the case. In today's newsroom meeting, we were told the newspaper is profitable and there were no layoffs planned. In their emails to the newsroom, Brett and Bob did not give their reasons for leaving. At this point no one is answering the most important question about these resignations: Why?”

Rivard's tenure at the paper will likely be remembered with mixed emotions. He's been a staple of San Antonio journalism for nearly two decades, and editor of the prominent daily since 1997. Some newsroom staffers remembered him as a staunch protectionist in recent years, fighting to keep newsroom production jobs in San Antonio and trying to stem further consolidation with the Chronicle, a process that started inching forward two years ago.

But, as we've reported before, he'll also be remembered by some for the pieces he wouldn't run. Todd Bensman, a former E-N reporter who left in 2009, remembered Rivard bristling when controversial stories hit too close to City Hall, particularly when they angered City Manager Sheryl Sculley. After uncovering a play-ground inspection scandal in the spring of 2008, Bensman recalled, “There was a lot of irritation in the newsroom.

That translated to Bob's office, and I know he started getting a lot of shit.” The story set the stage for a “super abundance of caution over anything that was critical of Sculley or the mayor,” Bensman said in a phone call on Thursday. In that climate of hesitance, one of Bensman's pieces, regarding another juicy City Hall scandal, was quashed – Bensman says he's not sure whether it was Rivard himself or lower-level editors, whose “asses were still so raw from the beating they took after the playground story,” who killed the piece out of fear.

Bensman said Rivard's actions created a chill over City Hall coverage, claiming Rivard even implemented an edict in the newsroom that he pre-approve all public-record requests aimed at the City, something Rivard has, in the past, denied. For whatever reason, Bensman said, City Hall, particularly Sculley, was one of Rivard's blind-spots, adding “[Sculley]'s probably trembling in her high-heeled shoes right now.”

Still, Bensman noted that he and others will also remember Rivard as an editor that supported high-profile enterprise pieces others might have tossed aside as too time consuming or costly. During his time under Rivard, Bensman was sent to Guatemala, Nicaragua, Syria, and Jordan for hard-hitting features. “I think everyone would say that the whole Scully thing, though, that was an aberration.

It was a real departure from the Bob that everyone knew.

If you look at him from 300,000 feet up, he really facilitated a lot of good journalism,” he said.

-- Michael Barajas, mbarajas@sacurrent.com


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