Breaking Down The Missteps at LEO Weekly

Back in April, the announcement of the impending purchase of LEO by John Yarmuth’s son Aaron was greeted with enthusiasm by many. On the Fat Lip blog, LEO’s political reporter Joe Sonka quoted a press release which asked, “What could be better than once again being locally owned and operated? Once again Yarmuth?”

As it turns out, many things could probably be better.

After LEO laid off four employees on Friday, including editor Sara Havens and writer April Corbin, Sonka and music editor Peter Berkowitz* reportedly refused to sign the new contracts offered to them by Yarmuth. Sonka ended up taking a position at Insider Louisville, saying that he was looking forward to “working for someone who considers news to be more than just a collection of words that ads go next to.”

When the new, Yarmuth-controlled issue came out on Wednesday, the previously planned cover photos about the West End had been replaced by a cartoon about golf, which accompanied an opinion piece about Tiger Woods from former WHAS talk-radio host John Ziegler.

In an interview, Yarmuth described the West End cover as a “wrong decision” made by the editorial staff before he completed his purchase of LEO. He said the Tiger Woods coffin cover “was the right move, even though only six percent of our readers golf,” because of the potential economic impact of the PGA Championship on Louisville.

Yarmuth also suggested that Insider Louisville might have “open(ed) themselves up to potential liability” for their story on the cover switch because the discarded cover was LEO’s property used by a competitor who stood to financially gain from publishing it without permission.

But Sarah Kelley, Insider Louisville’s editorial director, said the story was “newsworthy and worth reporting.”

“Clearly the public has an interest in what is transpiring at LEO, as evidenced by the reaction to this news,” said Kelley, a former LEO editor.

According to Corbin, the LEO staff had been excited about the transition from Nashville-based SouthComm to Yarmuth on Friday. “We had been talking for weeks if not months about the deal, about how Aaron was going to invest in us, and listen, and care—all the stuff that SouthComm wasn’t doing,” Corbin said.

Yarmuth himself has written that there’s a “22-week plan to relaunch LEO,” and said that the plan includes partnership with vendors, “interacting with the community in a dynamic way,” collecting data on the LEO audience, and possibly changing the logo and layout. But step one of this plan seems to be borrowed from The Courier-Journal’s restructuring playbook: eliminate and/or alienate your reporters and editors.

No one can dispute that Corbin and Sonka are good at what they do, especially considering the fact that they won a half-dozen awards from the Society of Professional Journalists two months ago.

Even Yarmuth said that the layoffs of Corbin and Havens were not “based on anything performance-related.” And no one disputes the fact that, in this era of declining print publications, tough decisions have to be made by for-profit publishers with an eye on the bottom line. Yarmuth wrote that the publication “has been losing money for years.” Something had to give, and in this case, it was two employees whose duties Yarmuth said would “considerably overlap” with his own as executive editor.

Most of these for-profit publishing companies work like this: they create content and give it away to an audience for free (or very cheaply), then they turn around and sell that audience’s attention to advertisers. In short, “corporations sell audiences to other corporations.

As Yarmuth has pointed out, his media corporation is competing with dozens of other local and national media corporations for your attention. Why should anyone pick up LEO to read about politics when they can read about McConnell vs. Grimes in The Courier-Journal, The New York Times, or The Huffington Post?

The answer is that people were picking up LEO (or reading its news blog, Fat Lip) specifically to read Joe Sonka’s political coverage, just as people used to pick up The Courier-Journal specifically to read Bob Hill, Rick Bozich, and Toni Konz.

And we know that Sonka’s coverage attracted and deserved that type of attention because of the awards mentioned above and the national outlets (such as The Nation and Rolling Stone) that came calling as a direct result of his work.

Although Yarmuth said Sonka is “very good at a lot of things,” he also said that using freelancers to replace Sonka and the other staff would be “liberating.”

“Thirty really smart and talented people will produce a better product than four brilliant people, or two brilliant people,” Yarmuth said in defense of using freelancers plan. “A chorus of 30 will make a better melody, or a more dynamic one, than four.”

Yarmuth also said that freelancers would provide more diverse content for LEO: “It is a lot easier to shed light on underrepresented parts of the community when you have more people contributing.”

This is a noble and important goal that’s aligned with both the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics (“Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of human experience … Give voice to the voiceless”) and Pew’s Journalism Project principles (“Journalism … should include news of all our communities, not just those with attractive demographics”), but it doesn’t necessarily follow that jettisoning your full-time employees in favor of freelancers is the best way to achieve this goal.

It’s also noteworthy that freelancers tend to cost less than staff writers.

It seems strange to assert something so self-evident, but here goes: professional, knowledgeable, focused reporters and editors create and nourish high-quality, significant content, and that’s what matters to news consumers. Companies that toss those assets aside in the name of saving money face a lengthy credibility-rebuilding period during which they might lose at least some of their audience to whatever outlet scoops up those same employees.

*When this article was submitted for publication, Peter Berkowitz’s status at LEO was still unknown.

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Note: Starting with this column, I’m going to introduce a feature called Garlands & Gasfaces, where I recognize or reproach Louisville media outlets and personalities.  

• Gasface to whichever WDRB employee is responsible for securing their website’s domain. On Wednesday the site was temporarily replaced by a popup-infested gray mess.

• Garlands to WDRB for keeping their Twitter feed almost entirely local and clearly marking out-of-town stories with datelines. It’s ridiculous for local TV stations (especially the one with the slogan “Live. Local. Late Breaking”) to have so much non-local stuff on their feeds.

• Gasface to WAVE for this ridiculous sweeps-week story about a “haunted” house. Special recognition for reporting that “limestone possesses great residual energy conductivity,” which is an utterly meaningless assertion. Next up: WAVE talks to a lunar fromage expert.

Miller is WFPL’s media critic and a journalism teacher at duPont Manual High School. You can find his past work here and find him on Twitter at @jaymills.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the origins of the quote, “What could be better than once again being locally owned and operated? Once again Yarmuth?”

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