Business & Economy

UPDATED: Mitchell fires Rutland Herald editor

[J]ohn Mitchell, the president of the Rutland Herald, fired the top editor at the newspaper on Friday evening.

The Herald's news editor, Alan Keays, was terminated hours after he authorized publication of a story questioning the newspaper's financial situation on Friday.

The story reported that checks to newsroom staff had bounced in recent weeks and freelancers hadn't been paid for a month. Reporters and editors who worked on the story say they believed the public had a right to know about the Herald's precarious finances.

Mitchell spiked a second day story Keays had planned about the company having difficulty meeting payroll before he fired Keays who had been the top editor at the Herald for the past 15 years.

Newsroom staff walked out after Keays was dismissed, but were later called back into Mitchell's office and were told that the Herald president would ask Keays to come back. The staff then went back to work on the Saturday edition of the newspaper. It is not clear whether Mitchell has reached out to Keays. VTDigger confirmed the information with sources who asked not to be identified.

No direct deposits for payroll were available on Friday for employees at the Rutland Herald and Times Argus. Instead, the company issued checks without full payroll deduction information. A number of employees opted to cash their checks at the company bank for fear that they would incur bounce fees if they deposited the checks and waited for the checks to clear.

Mitchell has not offered a clear explanation about why checks issued to several full-time employees had bounced, according to the story published by Herald staff Friday morning.

Publisher Catherine Nelson, John Mitchell and the paper’s Editor-in-Chief Rob Mitchell did not respond to repeated calls and emails on Friday.

Annie Noonan, Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Labor, said her office had received a complaint recently from a staff member at the Herald who had not been paid. According to Noonan the employee said they were going to “wait and see” before pursuing the inquiry.

Vermont law states that employees are entitled to wages at the time payment is due whether that is weekly or bi-weekly. If they do not receive their wages they can notify the Department of Labor and file a wage complaint. Most of the time such disputes are worked out between the department and the employer, says Noonan.

Catherine Nelson

Catherine Nelson, who was just named publisher of the Rutland Herald and Times Argus.

Julia Purdy, a freelance writer and copy editor in Rutland, started writing for the Herald’s Business Vermont publication in July. She’s written four stories and has not received payment for any of them. According to Seven Days, other Business Vermont freelancers have not been paid in the last month.

Purdy sent a letter to business manager Deborah Morse saying if she did not receive a check by the end of this week she would take legal action. Purdy’s most recent piece, on Hannaford’s new e-shopping service, appeared in last Sunday’s edition.

“I think they’ve done a lot of damage to their credibility,” says Purdy whose mother and stepfather both worked at the paper. After reading today’s story, Purdy said she fears the situation is “worse and deeper than I thought.”

Morse could not be reached for comment.

Linda Freeman, who edits the Active Vermont section of the Sunday paper and has been a regular contributor for several years, said she wasn’t aware of any problems at the paper. Reached in Maine where she was vacationing, Freeman said she works “directly for Rob Mitchell and Steve Pappas [editor of the Times Argus].”

“They are good friends as well as people I work with,” she said. “So I’ve been treated well.”

Gordon Dritschilo who wrote the story that appeared in the Herald on Friday morning described widespread discontent in the newsroom. He wrote that staff members “bristled in the face of continued silence from management regarding the newspaper’s apparent financial difficulties.”

“Two weeks after a number of staff payroll and expense checks bounced,” he continued, “management of the family owned newspaper had yet to offer an explanation to its employees or the public.”

Dritschilo also wrote that in recent months employee cell phone service had been suspended, apparently for nonpayment, and the Herald temporarily lost access to the subscriber only federal court database. Earlier in the year employees were told that they would no longer be able to cash in unused sick time from 2015.

The paper’s apparent financial woes come just a month after the Herald announced that it would be cutting back on its print edition. The paper is now printed Thursday through Sunday and offers an e-edition Monday through Wednesday.

In an email to staff in mid-July, just two weeks into the change over, Editor-in-Chief Rob Mitchell said “online registrations have grown rapidly.” However, he also pointed out that the majority of those registering for online access already had print subscriptions.

Last week reporters at the Herald were told that there would be a meeting to discuss their concerns but it was repeatedly postponed. On Monday Publisher Catherine Nelson sent an email to staff saying, “We don’t want to keep you in a holding pattern and have not been able to figure out a good time for a stand up meeting—as of yet. This is not a mandatory meeting so if you need to do other things please do.”

Nelson emailed Herald employees Friday evening about a meeting to be held on Monday. "I know that we have rescheduled a few times but this will definitely happen," she wrote.

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Adam Federman

About Adam

Adam Federman covers Rutland County for VTDigger. He is a former contributing editor of Earth Island Journal and the recipient of a Polk Grant for Investigative Reporting. He has written for The Guardian, The Nation, Columbia Journalism Review and other publications. His biography of British food writer Patience Gray is forthcoming from Chelsea Green in 2017.

Email: [email protected]

Follow Adam on Twitter @federman_adam

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