Reporters Stream Out of the Daily News; James Ledbetter Pens His Last Press Clips

The New York Daily News has never been a hotbed of worker contentment, but when editor in chief Debby Krenek took over the paper last year, the tabloid’s reporters held out hope that the affable Texan would bridge the chasm between management and a chronically disaffected newsroom. As they saw it, part of her mission was to eliminate what one reporter called management’s “‘people are disposable’ thing.” Unfortunately, Ms. Krenek hasn’t succeeded in building that bridge. Indeed, what is most remarkable about Ms. Krenek’s time at the News and, for that matter, Harold Evans’ time as editorial director of Mortimer Zuckerman’s various media properties, is how many reporters have given up on the paper and simply quit.

In recent weeks, the news desk has lost metro reporter Kevin Flynn to The New York Times , White House correspondent Kathy Kiely to USA Today , and metro reporters David Lewis and Lawrence Goodman, who left to pursue other interests. Earlier this summer, the paper lost media columnist Keith Kelly to the New York Post and Washington correspondent Thomas Galvin to a political consulting job. Three reporters-Scott Williams, Whitney Walker and Sallie Han-recently quit the features department. Even the sports desk has taken a hit, losing sports columnist Ian O’Connor, hockey writer Frank Brown and baseball writer Dave Kaplan. (On top of all that, drama critic Fintan O’Toole, who was brought to the News by Ms. Krenek’s predecessor, Pete Hamill, is returning to Ireland at the end of September, ending a planned one-year stay at the paper.)

So why is everyone leaving? Interviews with News staff members suggest “a constellation of reasons,” in the words of one reporter. Another News staff member gave this blunt assessment: “People are leaving because they feel it’s a lousy place to work. They’d rather work someplace else.”

“The core is that management is lodged in the cultural mindset of its war with labor, so that they’re very, very shy about congratulating people in public because it might hinder their ability to fire people later on,” said one staff member.

The staff has not been appeased by the paper’s low standard raises, typically between 1 and 2 percent, according to several reporters. “You can’t buy an extra box of tampons with these raises,” said one newsroom denizen. Reporters say promotions are limited and that editors have even reduced the opportunities for reporters to get some enjoyment out of what they do by writing longer pieces. “There are not a lot of places for people to use their brains,” said one reporter.

Tensions between management and the newsroom were recently exacerbated by the paper’s evaluation system for reporters. News reporters receive annual numerical grades from their supervising editors and can be put on probation if their grades are low. There is no union at the News and no grievance process in place for reporters who feel their evaluations are unfair, and reporters complain that the grading system is often inconsistent. “Nobody knows how it works,” said one reporter. “It’s a mystery to all of us. People just generally get low reviews.”

In June, several well-respected reporters were put on probation for reasons their colleagues found wanting, and those staff members demanded a meeting with Ms. Krenek and managing editor Arthur Browne. According to newsroom sources, Ms. Krenek said she did not want to meet with a large number of reporters. The meeting, needless to say, has yet to take place.

On a somewhat positive note, Mr. Evans has intimated that he’s got changes in store for the newspaper. A redesign is slated for the fall, News sources say, and the Daily News management troika-Mr. Zuckerman, Mr. Evans and co-publisher Fred Drasner-are crossing their fingers that the color production problems at their Jersey City printing plant will be solved by year’s end. News reporters, a hopelessly hopeful lot, say they hope Mr. Evans’ involvement will boost morale. Neither Mr. Evans, who is on vacation, nor Ms. Krenek returned calls for comment.

The Village Voice ‘s Press Clips columnist, James Ledbetter, is leaving the weekly after eight and a half years to open a New York bureau for the new media magazine The Industry Standard . Mr. Ledbetter’s first hire at his new job is Adam Penenberg, the muckraking Forbes Digital Tool editor who broke the Stephen Glass story; Mr. Penenberg said he will cover hackers and “e-commerce” for the magazine. Mr. Ledbetter, who served as the Off the Record columnist before moving to The Voice , wrote more than 400 Press Clips columns, notably a 1995 two-part series on race in the media headlined “The Unbearable Whiteness of Media,” and established himself as the city’s most prominent leftist media critic. “Jim did a terrific job for us, and I’m sorry to lose him,” said Voice editor in chief Don Forst. “I’d take him back in two seconds.” Mr. Forst said he has not chosen Mr. Ledbetter’s successor.

“I love The Voice ,” said Mr. Ledbetter. “This is an opportunity to cover an important industry and a growing part of the media world that I’ve only dabbled in.” Mr. Ledbetter said he starts his new job after Labor Day.

Y M editor in chief Lesley Jane Seymour may well be the Michael Kinsley of the women’s magazine world.

Ms. Seymour was a lead candidate to take over the editorship of Hearst Magazines’ Redbook , a post vacated by the move of Kate White to Cosmopolitan . In the days following Ms. White’s departure, rumors were even afoot that Ms. Seymour was in the final stages of negotiations for the Redbook job. But alas, no announcement was forthcoming. Here’s the rub: According to a source familiar with the discussions, Ms. Seymour may have blown her chances for the Redbook post by engaging in a Hamlet act much like the one Mr. Kinsley performed when S.I. Newhouse Jr., chairman of Advance Magazine Publishers Inc., offered him the editorship of The New Yorker back in July. According to this version of events, Hearst executives grew unhappy with Ms. Seymour’s ambivalence, and cooled the talks. Lindsley Lowell, a spokesman for YM , told Off the Record, “As it stands, [Ms. Seymour] is the editor in chief of YM .” A Hearst spokesman would only say, “No one is currently in final negotiations for the Redbook job.” We’ll have to wait for the e-mail.

Even the editors of magalogs, those bothersome catalogues that are thinly disguised to look like life-style magazines, face perilous editorial decisions. Take the case of A&F Quarterly , the magalog produced by Abercrombie & Fitch, the clothier that once supplied Ernest Hemingway’s wardrobe (and the shotgun he used to kill himself) and now sells baggy Gap-style garments to teenagers. The editors of A&F Quarterly -a publication that “aims to chronicle life on campuses in a fun, lighthearted way,” according to company literature-recently ran an article called “Drinking 101″ that exhibited a Hemingway-esque appreciation of booze. Bad move. The company received a number of angry calls and a condemnation by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, prompting a postcard-sized apologia to readers.

“Since a segment of the student population is over the age of 21, the magazine has included articles that discuss the use of alcohol,” the message begins. “Based on a reaction to our recently mailed ‘Back to School ’98’ magazine, it has become clear to us that some of the content appears to some readers to encourage underage drinking or binge drinking … Although it was not meant in a serious vein, we made a mistake in describing a ‘drinking game’ that could be interpreted as encouraging binge drinking. We regret that this article has given some readers the wrong impression about Abercrombie & Fitch’s goals and concerns.”

The mailing goes on to say that in the future, A&F Quarterly intends to work with advocacy groups to alert readers to the dangers of alcohol consumption. An Abercrombie & Fitch spokesman said the magazine was put out jointly by the company and its Greenwich Village-based advertising firm, Shahid and Company, and that the postcard was sent out because “‘Drinking 101′ went over the top.”

Lest its customers forget, the postcard reminds them of the magazine’s true editorial mission: “The A&F Quarterly is all about making the most of ‘Back to School ’98.’ We want to plug our readers into what’s new and what’s coming. We don’t want to lose anybody to thoughtlessness and stupidity …”

Entertainment Weekly ‘s experiment with a serious Hollywood business writer has come to an abrupt end. Earlier this year, EW hired ex- Variety film editor and reporter Anita Busch to provide newsy coverage of Hollywood and add some heft to a magazine that devotes more space than it sometimes should to the oeuvre of Aaron Spelling or exclusives like “The Spice Girls Talk About Life After Ginger.” Ms. Busch had made her name at The Hollywood Reporter before going to Variety , but she quit Variety in August 1997 to protest what she said was a lack of journalistic integrity on the part of editor Peter Bart, whom she accused of softening stories so as not to offend his pals. Ms. Busch was eventually hired on at EW by managing editor Jim Seymore, and given the magazine’s Reel World column, covering the movie industry. However, a source familiar with EW ‘s dealings with Ms. Busch told Off the Record that the reporter’s New York editors, Mark Harris and Maggie Murphy, seemed little interested in the business coverage Ms. Busch was hired to supply. When they pressured her to turn out the kind of puffy copy EW is known for, Ms. Busch resigned.

“It was pretty cordial,” Ms. Busch told Off the Record. “It just wasn’t a very good fit for me. I come from a breaking news background.” Mr. Seymore said that he could not discuss personnel matters.