Updated: Gazette executive editor claims firing over pay equity issues

Staff Writer
Thursday, February 01, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — Jeffrey Good, the executive editor for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, the Greenfield Recorder and the Valley Advocate, has been removed from his role, according to an email he sent to staff at all three papers Wednesday morning.

In the email, sent at 8:41 a.m., Good claims he was fired for advocating for pay equity on behalf of two female reporters and a female photojournalist in the Gazette’s newsroom.

Michael Rifanburg, publisher of the Massachusetts newspapers owned by Newspapers of New England, said he cannot comment on Good’s claim that he was fired. Good also served as executive editor of the Amherst Bulletin and the newly acquired Athol Daily News.

“Although I can’t speak about Jeff’s leaving because it’s a personnel matter, I’ve enjoyed working with Jeff over the years and wish him all the best,” Rifanburg said.

However, in a statement he issued early Wednesday afternoon, Rifanburg added, “Respectfully, the Daily Hampshire Gazette and the Recorder disagree with Mr. Good’s negative characterizations about our ongoing efforts to meet and work with employees to address pay concerns. Since 2016, we have been actively engaged at the Gazette and Recorder in reviewing pay in all areas to determine if there are any differences in pay and address any differences we find. We started and took these measure before Mr. Good was involved, and we will continue with these important analyses after Mr. Good’s departure. We started this review, not Mr. Good.”

Rifanburg on Wednesday named Debra Scherban the interim editor of the Gazette. Scherban has worked at the paper for more than 42 years in a variety of editing and reporting roles.

“This is a difficult moment for the Gazette, but we will work together to set this right,” she said. “We have a strong team of reporters and editors who will continue to practice the excellent community journalism the paper has long been known for.”

Good, who began his tenure at NNE’s Pioneer Valley newspapers in 2014, said in a phone interview that he lost his job over his push to ensure all newsroom staff receive fair salaries, regardless of gender.

“I was fired without cause. The only reason was this,” said Good, who won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1995. “I will be able to walk out with my head held high.”

“I will assure you there is nothing in my personnel file that indicates any problems.”

Good said the tension over pay equity was brought to his attention by reporters Emily Cutts and Lisa Spear, and photojournalist Sarah Crosby. In his email to all staff, he mentioned all three employees by name, describing them as “brave young women” in seeking parity in their wages.

“The questions that Emily and Sarah and Lisa raised are ones that will ultimately benefit the entire family of newspapers, and the people who work here,” Good said, adding that their concerns need be taken seriously, rather than being dismissed.

Publisher’s response

Rifanburg, though, explained that pay equity matters are something that are being addressed in the newsroom, and other departments. Since he became publisher in 2016, Rifanburg said, he has welcomed any concerns related to pay that are raised because they supplement this continuing work.

“It’s caused us to review our practices here, and I think that’s a good thing,” Rifanburg said. “We are putting together a plan we feel will address pay equity, be transparent in its nature, and will help employees feel comfortable that we take it seriously.”

Cutts, Crosby and Spear issued a statement explaining their efforts.

“Our job as journalists is to ask tough questions and tell the truth,” they wrote. “That charge does not stop when we walk through the doors of our own newsroom. Pay parity is a complicated and important issue and we look forward to continuing the conversation.”

In her own email, Crosby added that she is relieved pay parity is being discussed but that the narrative Good presents doesn’t accurately describe what she experienced over the last several months after voicing concerns.

“The several closed-door meetings Jeff and I had continued a culture that was secretive, stressful and difficult to move the issue forward in,” Crosby said. “Additionally, I am disappointed in Jeff’s decision to name me and two other women in his company-wide email without our consent and without notifying us.”

Good responded by saying, “I have apologized to Sarah and her colleagues for naming them in the note to staffers without first seeking their permission. Their role in leading this protest was well-known in the newsroom and my intention was to celebrate their good work. But she is right; I should have asked.”

Photo editor Carol Lollis, who has worked at the Gazette for 26 years, said any effort on behalf of increasing wages can be a challenge for employees. “It’s been difficult for people who have tried to fight for that,” she said.

But Lollis said she is hopeful that the Gazette’s leaders are doing the right thing moving forward. “I feel like the Gazette has been working hard to remedy that,” she said.

In fact, Good complimented Rifanburg for working to address the pay issue when each employee brought it up. The stumbling block, he said, came during an effort he made to schedule a meeting with all newsroom staff with Rifanburg, rather than the one-on-one meetings with reporters that had occurred.

“He just absolutely did not want to do that,” Good said. “This started to get tense as more people came forward, that ‘What about me?’ started to put pressure on the budget.”

Good’s email also claims that Rifanburg described the women in the newsroom staff as “girls” and “selfish young ladies,” demeaning terms that Good said he rejects.

Rifanburg disputes that account, adding that he appreciates the candor of staff asking and trying to address long-standing salary issues.

“I think every person has a right to ask questions, and share information for that matter, without being labeled as he labels it in his email,” Rifanburg said. “I don’t subscribe to that thought and disagree with his characterization there.”

National view

Kelly McBride, vice president at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, said the issue of pay differences between women and men is raised anecdotally in 80 percent of newsrooms.

“It’s a difficult issue to deal with because I do believe there is pay inequity in American journalism for women,” McBride said.

But this is often complicated by circumstances, she said, such as when women are placed in leadership roles only when a newspaper is already in a financial crisis. There also are studies that show men are more successful at negotiating a higher salary.

There are two problems to address, McBride said: Who is making pay decisions, and what are the salary decisions they are making. Both have to be resolved at the same time.

And resolving this problem is tricky in a time when newsroom budgets are being slashed.

Poynter created the Leadership Academy for Women in Journalism to address equity issues by getting more women into hiring roles in newsrooms, with 600 women applying for one recent course that had just 28 slots.

Former Gazette staffers

Former arts editor Kathleen Mellen, who left the Gazette in 2017, said she expressed concerns about the pay scale and whether she was underpaid compared to her male colleagues.

“Because of the lack of transparency around pay issues, it’s hard to make a case when you don’t have all the data,” Mellen said.

If Rifanburg will make this information clearer to staff, that would be a good thing, Mellen said. “There’s only one right thing to do, which is total transparency and total equity. Anything less than that is unacceptable,” she added.

Laurie Loisel, a former editor who left the Gazette in 2015 after 29 years, said the issue is more complicated, observing that Good was the one making hiring decisions and placing the new reporters on the pay scale. “He’s making himself out to be a hero, when he isn’t,” Loisel said.

While pay is one concern, Loisel said marginalization of women can take many forms that go beyond salary, including whether a person is showing respect or listening to what they say. Loisel said she felt mistreated and disrespected by Good, and argued he is not a savior for the underpaid.

Mellen also said she had difficult encounters with Good. “I did not feel supported by him,” she said.

Good said Loisel and Mellen were grinding an old axe, rather than celebrating the courage of their successors.

“I disagree with their opinion about my role, as would dozens of other women who’ve worked with me over the years. But I support their right to express it,” Good said.

Good added he is proud of his record, noting that he tried to build a learning newsroom and a place where people would gain skills the right way, and this track record is shown by journalists who now work for the Washington Post, Tampa Bay Times and Chicago Tribune.

In his email, Good shouldered some of the criticism related to pay inequity:

“I accept my share of blame for the situation that prompted the women’s protests. While I have always taken pride in seeking raises for deserving employees, I (and my boss) failed to see the gap developing as we hired some male reporters at higher-than-existing rates based on their previous salaries or competing job offers. I appreciated the women pointing out the disparity and felt honor-bound to address it as quickly as possible.”

When he started as executive editor, the position was newly created and responsible for editorial content at Newspapers of New England’s Pioneer Valley publications and digital products. He was hired by Dennis Skoglund, former publisher of NNE’s Pioneer Valley Newspapers, to create a model in which one person oversees the news operations of several publications

A native of Missouri, Good worked for 13 years for the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) in Florida, where he won the Pulitzer for a series of editorials about the state’s probate court system. In the late 1990s, Good moved back to New England where he worked for three years as a bureau chief for the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press. He joined the Valley News, in Lebanon, New Hampshire, in 2000, taking over supervision of the newsroom in 2002 as managing editor and, later, editor.

Good said he has no immediate work plans. He is taking a poetry class at Dartmouth College and said, “I get an opportunity to see unemployment up close and personal.”

“I’m sad that this is the way my nearly 18 years at NNE is ending. I take a lot of pride in community journalism and what our people produce every day, and I will miss being part of that,” Good said. “I will be cheering from the sidelines.”

Rifanburg said a search will begin for a permanent executive editor.

“I think the Daily Hampshire Gazette and other Pioneer Valley newspapers continue to respect the change in reading and shopping habits in the communities we serve,” Rifanburg said. “We are delivering news in ways that our readers want it, and I think that is reflected in our designation as Newspaper of the Year this past year.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.