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Critics Alarmed by Nieman Head's Record at Gannett Papers

By Joshua E. Gewolb, Crimson Staff Writer

New Nieman Foundation curator Robert H. Giles has traveled a bumpy road to Harvard, winning many supporters--as well as enemies--during his long career as a newspaper editor.

Complaints from former employees about his record as editor of The Detroit News during a major strike at the paper delayed his appointment by over three weeks this summer. Reporters, many of whom Giles had fired during the strike, said he presided over a newsroom that produced highly biased coverage of the labor dispute that they believed should have disqualified him from the job.

But to some of his critics, his years as an editor at two Gannett-owned newspapers in Rochester, N.Y., provide an equally troubling picture of his managerial style and his approach to journalism. In the eyes of many of his former colleagues from Rochester, Giles was a creature of Gannett, the giant newspaper conglomerate where he has worked for decades and is widely credited--or blamed--for transforming journalism into a more corporate enterprise.

Many of the journalists who wrote for Giles in Rochester, where he was simultaneously editor of the rival Democrat and Chronicle and Times-Union from 1977 to 1986, laud him as a fine editor who held high journalistic standards.

But to others, his management style typifies what they say is Gannett's approach to journalism. They say he was a ruthless manager who, even in the years before the divisive Detroit newspaper strike, left the careers of several of his subordinates in shambles--allegations Giles adamantly denies.

While editor of the Rochester papers, Giles's critics say, he pushed for gentle, non-aggressive news coverage--which they say is typical of the Gannett approach to the newspaper business. And some of these critics say that by naming Giles to the Nieman curatorship, Harvard is endorsing a second-rate brand of journalism.

"He's just not of the same caliber as [Bill] Kovach," the former curator, said Mike Meyers, a 1987 Nieman fellow who worked with Giles in Rochester. "He seems to represent the money and power of Gannett."

A Changing Industry

Both Giles's admirers and detractors agree that journalism as a whole has become more corporate in the last half century, a change they attribute in no small part to Gannett, the chain that now controls 93 newspapers across the United States with a combined daily circulation of 7 million readers.

"Before, reporters would wear jeans to work. Now they wear suits," says Dick Mitchell, a reporter who worked with Giles in Rochester before moving to the Chicago Sun-Times. "The business has changed. It's now a business."

Some say the careers of people like Giles, who moved from Ohio to Rochester to Detroit, are typical of the new era of journalism in which editors, particularly at Gannett, are less attached to the communities they serve.

"Newspapering no longer is a place where loyalties are rewarded," says Mike Zeigler, who is still at the Democrat and Chronicle, where he worked with Giles. "Editors serve tours of duty at newspapers. They move up the ladder and out."

The pressures of making a profit and working for a chain instead of for an independent institution shape the way that Gannett editors operate in the newsroom, some say.

"Gannett has a very definite outlook on how a newsroom runs," says Gary Jacobsen, editor and publisher of the Arlington Morning News in Arlington, Texas, who has worked for the company on and off over the years.

"When you're there for a while you adapt to that outlook," Jacobsen says. "Bob did the same thing and I did the same thing."

Giles was more than a follower of the Gannett practice. He was also a leader, authoring a book entitled Newsroom Management: A Guide to Theory and Practice, and developing a system for periodic evaluations of employee performance in a number of categories, ranging from spelling accuracy to acceptance of criticism of their work to ability to produce under pressure.

Many Gannett newspapers now rate employee performances using similar systems.

Works Well with Others

But some of Giles's colleagues allege that as a manager he was business-like to the point of ruthlessness.

"Anyone with even a whiff of disagreement with Giles ended up getting handed his head," says Meyers, the former Nieman fellow who writes for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Giles's critics cite as examples a number of incidents in which he and editors under his direct supervision demoted key personnel at their whim.

Phil Hand, who was the metro editor at Rochester's Democrat and Chronicle, says he was relieved of his post and sent to work in the composing room after complaining that the management was putting too many demands on his department.

He says he was taken out to dinner by Giles and the managing editor, and shortly after was demoted.

"It was a very demeaning thing," Hand says. "After close to 30 years in the business, I ended up going to the composing room, where the newest kid on the copy desk taught me my job."

The dismissal angered many at the paper, including Bob Mimzesheimer, a young journalist at the paper who is now a book critic for USA Today, the national newspaper that is the flagship of the Gannett chain.

"This was a reporter and editor that any young reporter could learn a great deal from," Mimzesheimer says. "They wasted the end of his career, maybe because he wasn't corporate enough."

Another late career casualty was Rex Schaeffer, the librarian at the newspapers' Rochester headquarters, who says he was demoted to assistant librarian by Giles after he allowed researchers from Rochester-based Eastman Kodak, a subject of occasionally critical coverage in the newspapers, to visit the library.

"I had been the librarian there for 30 some years," Schaeffer says. "[After the incident] my assistant became the librarian and I became the assistant."

" It was not done with any discussion with me," Schaeffer says. "Instead of taking the position that 'This was not a good thing, let's talk about it,' Giles summarily demoted me."

Many journalists from Giles's Rochester years also remember the case of John Dougherty, now deceased, who was managing editor of the Times-Union for many years before Giles transferred him to the same post at the Democrat and Chronicle.

A number of journalists from the two papers say that Dougherty was devastated by the reassignment, in which he was forced to take over the paper he had competed against for his entire career.

"He was humiliated beyond belief," Zeigler says. "I think he literally lost the will to live because he lost the thing that meant the most to him, and that was the Times-Union."

Giles says that in the cases of Hand and Dougherty, he acted because he felt he could improve the papers under his charge.

"An editor has to have the authority to make changes in the newspaper that he believes will bring improvement to the paper," Giles says. "The details and circumstances were in those cases...the basic motivation. [In each case,] the decision was made because I believed a change would improve the paper."

He adds that in transferring Dougherty, he opened up the opportunity for a woman to become managing editor at the Times-Union.

"John went from the smaller to the larger circulation paper," Giles says. "In doing so we opened up an opportunity for the first woman to become managing editor in Rochester."

Some at the papers say that Giles's decisions on personnel matters are typical of choices made in a competitive business.

"People in management aren't nice," says Mitchell, the ex-Sun-Times reporter. "They're not there to hold your hand. They're there to put out a paper and make some money doing it."

And even critics of the demotions say that maneuvering of this type is common in the newspaper business.

"I think stuff like this goes on in newsrooms all across the country," Zeigler says. "Every editor at the paper serves at the pleasure of the top editor."

Journalistic Style

Giles's years as an editor were also a time when newspapers saw their style and content changing in response to the pressures of other media, some Rochester observers and former colleagues say.

Dick Dougherty, who at age 80 still writes a humor column for the Democrat and Chronicle, says that the time in which Giles worked as an editor was one of transition for the newspaper business.

"The era of the newspaper of record was coming to a close and they were searching for a thing that works," he says. "There was a little less instinctive journalism going on and a little more reliance on readership surveys and that sort of thing. I consider that to be a defense mechanism by the business at large from competition by TV."

Many journalists who worked with Giles in Rochester say that in the face of these sorts of pressures he maintained rock-solid journalistic standards.

"He was a pro newsman and I think he did a lot to improve the coverage of the paper," says Dick Dougherty.

Those who worked for Giles cite a number of major investigative projects as examples of quality journalism under his watch.

Ziegler remembers a story for which three reporters spent two months investigating a questionable manslaughter conviction. Mitchell recalls being given a month to work on a story that detailed how Rochester was undercounted in the U.S. census. And Michael Cortz, now at the Chicago Tribune, says he spent six or seven months investigating improprieties by newspaper book reviewers--including reviewers at Gannett papers.

But others who worked under Giles in Rochester and Detroit say while he was editor, the paper exhibited a soft approach to news.

"It seemed to me as the years progressed that we got much softer," says Hand, the metro editor. "You just felt that there were somehow pressures [in this direction] brought up in the front offices."

Scott Martel, who worked with Giles in Rochester and is now with the Los Angeles Times, said that under Giles's editorship, the newspapers printed a lot of "fluffy" news.

Martel says that Giles and the editors under his supervision assigned reporters soft news when there was more weighty news that should have been covered.

Other reporters say that Giles and the editors he hired sometimes created obstacles to investigative reporting.

"When it came to challenging powerful institutions, particularly private institutions, we didn't exactly add a chapter to Profiles in Courage," Meyers says.

Meyers says editors delayed printing an investigative story he wrote which showed that Rochester ambulances were delivering soda for a commercial venture run by the ambulance company when they were suppose to be responding to medical emergencies.

"The story just languished and couldn't get in the paper," Meyers says. "They kept sitting on it. Giles was the chief handwringer. Weeks passed."

By the time the story was printed, so much time had gone by that the city had already begun an investigation into the company--in Meyer's opinion, because he had brought the problem to their attention during his research for the article.

"The article had the city going to bat when the city had been asleep," Meyers says.

Giles counters that his newspapers have always had aggressive coverage.

"My orientation as a newspaper editor is very much hard news," Giles says.

And while he says that he does not remember Meyer's story specifically, Giles notes that often editors must hold investigative stories so that more reporting can be done.

"There are a lot of reasons for holding up an investigative story if in the opinion of the editors it's not thoroughly reported or there are problems with sourcing," Giles says.

Even Giles's critics say that what he did in Rochester was no worse than what was happening at other Gannett newspapers at the time. Giles, they say, simply followed the trend in Gannett--and in American journalism.

"I can't say he was any worse than any of the other Gannett editors," Martel says. "He was very respected within Gannett. I'd be hard-put to say that Giles did [what he did] because of his own policies, but you didn't see him raising a lot of red flags or stamping his feet when Gannett was imposing these cookie cutter approaches to journalism."

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