Paper ignores free market revival plan, keeps journalists in diapers

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My days as a newspaper copy editor are over, but I refer to my fingertips, still, as ink stained.

Libertarian powerhouse editorialist Drew Johnson was fired on accusations that a widely noted editorial bore an inappropriate headline that was changed outside of newsroom regulations. The Chattanooga Times Free Press head was, “Take this jobs plan and shove it, Mr. President,” and it is stated by the newspaper that Mr. Johnson’s late tweak of a filler headline violated the rules.

As a 24-year veteran in that newsroom, I am skeptical of any suggestion that a late change of headline is somehow outside the purview of Mr. Johnson’s authority as editorial page editor. There is no one higher than him on that page in its routine operation. The copy desk editor who builds that page and the copy editors who proof it do not, by their handling text and headline, somehow lock it down and prevent him from making a late change on his own account. Clay Bennett, insofar as offensive material goes, is far worse than Mr. Johnson was; Mr. Bennett, who lampooned the death of sessions court Judge Bob Moon in January 2012.

I quit in March 2012. I was impelled by a pinch of “ethics rules” that forbid outside writing assignments or publishing. In a bid for the open job of executive editor, I developed a plan to reorganize the newsroom not along employment lines (master-servant relationship), but along a cooperative, free market line that I said (perhaps naively) corresponds with the disturbing power of the World Wide Web. I gave up applying for that job, which remains unfilled. A March 9 resignation letter to company owner Walter Hussman Jr., president of Wehco Media in Little Rock, Ark., argues for a free market reorganization and is sharply critical of how corporations turn people into cyphers.

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By David Tulis

Lee Anderson hired me 25 years ago when I came back from Switzerland looking for work in my hometown. Since Wehco bought our company in 1999 I have had an exclusive assignment — business section, which I have greatly enjoyed. I have appreciated the editorial discretion and independence of mind I have felt free to exercise in the service of business editors John Vass, Dave Flessner and the staff writers.

The arrival of Todd Foster as executive editor in July 2010 brought much distress into the newsroom. *** He placed a gag upon the mouth of every employee, forbidding any outside writing on the theory that the newspaper has to protect a perceived reputation for fairness. “I don’t want anyone outside the newsroom to know what anyone inside the newsroom thinks about politics and religion,” he told me as he began the heated process of shutting down my outside work and putting me under administrative discipline because I edited out pro-abortion bias from supposedly neutral wire stories.

Foster quit in September 2011, but I remain under a five-page legal consent decree that was forced upon me under threat of being fired. Managing editor Alison Gerber and personnel director Matt Salada said March 6 that the company will provide no “exceptions” to the gag even though Foster is gone. I am forbidden to make any contribution to two homeschool newsletters of which I am editor. The lights remain out at my free market website, Nooganomics.com. Other charitable projects stand silent

Can a Christian make an independent living as a journalist in city?

While Foster was on the payroll I researched whether a cultivated Christian could make a living as an independent journalist in Chattanooga. The answer that suggested itself: Yes. When Foster resigned, I applied for his job by publishing internally a free market analysis of the Times Free Press’ congenital defect and offering a way to fix it. I took ideas developed for my own sake — and offered them to you.

I suggest the company absorb the liberty and independence that is the Internet, a powerful force that despises would-be monopolies and makes every man a publisher. The newspaper should restructure and adopt a localist, populist line of argument and service. The Times Free Press may be doing better than other newspapers weathering the Internet and the recession, but its business model has been overturned. It is bleeding badly, and fundamental changes are needed, starting in the newsroom and working their way out.

Through the lens of local economy and the interests of small players, I have attempted to show the benefit of an operational decentralization that converts Chattanooga Publishing into a media utility, service provider and incubator for media startups and Web operators. My interview with our president, Jason Taylor, on Jan. 12 came the day we lost the Food Lion account. The closure of a national chain in our area was a dramatic exclamation point to my argument that we need to be serviceable to local small business instead of focusing on players in the national economy. I argued for the power of “the long tail” of small clients and of thinking of the prosperity of others ahead of our own.

I view my season of subjection to Foster as a blessing. Under Foster’s gag I have improved my sanctification and maintained my Christian joy. I have been given grace to repent of enmity that I felt against my superior, and view him as a good, honorable man who was probably the best candidate when you hired him. [I had applied for the job.] He controlled the newsroom, strongly acted on his prerogatives and expected all employees to fit into his view of the world.

My proposal to liberate the business from old-school notions would not have come to me apart from my Babylonian exile. In Foster’s construct everything familiar is removed, everyone speaks in unknown tongues, the servitude of hewing wood and water is strictly imposed. Had I not endured his lash I would not have spiritually and intellectually attained these ideas about turning our company toward a profitable and sustainable business plan.

Please don’t think of my platform proposal as merely a public pretext for remedy of a private grievance. It isn’t a solution just for me, but for everybody who works in the Chattanooga newsroom, unchaining them from a peonage that forbids the future from arriving and does nothing for your net worth.

The ethics rules monolith assumes a town has one media outlet, one source of truth. Chattanooga is going to have 50 competitors in news and opinion, I predict, and every one of them will stand for something clear and particular. Foster’s ban is faulty because it doesn’t recognize the fragmentation of the marketplace and the profession.

Corporations are rational, efficient, but impersonal

It also reveals how impersonally and how casually the company views its people. No newsroom staffer, as the morality tale of the ethics rules sees it, has any sort of intellectual life apart from employment. The moral code espoused in our ethics standards makes man very small. Our standard for human action rise from a conception that is ideological (and politically very liberal). It denies humanity, it enslaves the conscience; it reflects the big business paradigm and converts people into so many cyphers.

It is easy for the modern corporation, an artificial person at law, to care nothing for people who work in it. Its beauty is its rationality, its efficiency. Just read the 28 pages of legal fine print in the arbitration agreement every Chattanooga Publishing employee was told to sign by Dec. 31 [2011]. This text was the second occasion in a year that I have faced being fired. No doubt arbitration is better than court, and free enterprise employers should be free to impose such agreements as condition of employment. But a corporation’s conception of that relation between master and servant is entirely calculating, devoid of relational warmth; it is legal and commercial. There is that sentence in bold print about said arbitration agreement adding no rights to the employee. He remains “at will,” fireable without notice and for any reason (except ones, perhaps, violative of public policy or law).

I don’t use the term wage serf carelessly or to spark an argument, but to invite a comparison. Chattel slavery is better than the corporate variety. A master takes a personal interest in his slave. He knows his slave intimately, as a person, and bears his faults and weaknesses in grace, keeping him perhaps beyond his real usefulness out of a sense of obligation. Corporate slavery lacks that virtue, that connection. It denies that employees have souls, and treats them cavalierly as human machinery, as mere aggregate material of specified functionality.

The schemes I outline — a cheap website for every small business, automated ad placement for the small shop, a localist editorial and marketing angle — aren’t merely academic or practical, though recent books such as Mark Briggs’ “Entrepreneurial Journalism” or Ken Doctor’s “Newsonomics” confirm them. They are authentic free market solutions for our city in a period of national economic collapse and devolution. To me, these ideas are visceral and ever present. They excite me because they arise from my conception of human existence within God’s creation, of a horizontal society vs. the bureaucratic vertical, of the free market vs. the pyramid that turns the thinking man into the drudge.

Changing relationships toward liberty

As I have explained, the media platform and utility scheme slowly changes wage serfdom by bringing personal relationships into the picture among writers and editors, staffers and bosses, company and employee. No longer are writers looked at solely as resources, but in a sense equals. Writers who are clients of the company, a utility that provides their platforms with ad support and media services, aren’t just goofoffs ready to foul up and bring occasion for a libel suit. Writers are valued and esteemed as colleagues.

In the shadow of Foster’s ziggurats, I was allowed to edit two books, one by R.J. Rushdoony and one by R.C. Sproul. I am grateful, after sharp questioning about Dr. Sproul’s booklet on baptism, that Foster relented. Yes, I could take up the sideline calling of book editing and perhaps remain on your staff for a worthy $29,000 a year in take-home pay.

While my continuing in your workplace might serve providence well in sanctifying me as a Christian, I believe it would be a fearsome complacency to allow myself to remain another day. In my giving you the courtesy of two weeks notice, I hereby reclaim the ideas upon which I gave you first dibs. I will put them into execution myself.

Again, Walter, your top-down corporate structures and its accommodating ethics regime have done me no wrong. Before indignant friends hearing of my ordeal, I earnestly defended Todd Foster; I insisted he was acting within the authority you entrusted to him. But your code of federal regulations keeps me in a silo whose walls are so high they blot out all but a little yellow dot of sky.

I argue in earlier texts about my belief that newspapers will always be around because they are part of local economy and part of God’s physical creation. They are becoming a luxury, perhaps, but a necessary one. I argue that the Times Free Press should free itself from the old-world framework of pseudo-monopoly and statism, and join in the liberation of society and culture through the Internet. I argue that staffers should not be kept at their desks as journalists in diapers, but are professionals deserving of respect and collegiality. I am confident you will eventually bring these things about, so that the Times Free Press will ever be a favored news outlet and a recordkeeper of local and national life, loved by not just a few graying subscribers, but the young and the many.

Source: I borrow some of my language in the discussion of corporate vs. chattel slavery from The Moneychanger newsletter.

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