Losing Job, Consumer Columnist Cries Foul
The Hartford Courant and its former consumer columnist, George Gombossy, agree on one thing: that Mr. Gombossy was laid off this month. But was it because he would not stop unfavorable articles about advertisers, or because his job was simply eliminated?
The disagreement addresses a delicate area in journalism. As ad revenue drops, publishing executives are willing to go far to keep advertisers happy, running front-page ads and ads that look like news articles. Mr. Gombossy is claiming that Courant executives, under pressure from advertisers, did not want him to write critical reports about them, and fired him when he would not change his stance.
But Courant executives say that their reporters are welcome to write about advertisers, and that the separation between advertising and editorial content still stands. Mr. Gombossyâ€™s complaints are just those of a â€œdisgruntled employee,â€ Richard Graziano, the paperâ€™s publisher, said on a voicemail message.
The argument comes at a time of upheaval for The Courant. It is owned by the Tribune Company, which filed for bankruptcy protection in December. The Courant laid off 100 employees in February as part of continued staff reductions.
In the spring, the Tribune Company merged operations of its Hartford television properties and The Courant. It replaced the paperâ€™s publisher with Mr. Graziano, a Tribune television executive, and installed Jeff Levine as senior vice president and director of content, overseeing editorial operations. The paperâ€™s top two editors, longtime employees, departed soon after Mr. Levine joined, and Naedine Hazell became editor and print platform manager.
The new bosses meant new rules, Mr. Gombossy said. He had been at The Courant for 40 years, and became the investigative consumer columnist three years ago, writing a watchdog column where he resolved complaints of readers and looked into unfair practices at companies.
A few months ago, Mr. Gombossy said, he was called into a meeting with Courant executives. He had written columns about a Connecticut contracting company that was also a Courant advertiser. Mr. Levine said that he had received a letter from the contractor about the columns, and asked Mr. Gombossy to meet with the company and to â€œbe nice to themâ€ because an advertising deal was at risk, Mr. Gombossy said.
â€œAt that point, I told them Iâ€™m refusing and I said, â€˜Youâ€™ve got to fire me if you insist on me doing that,â€™Â â€ Mr. Gombossy said. According to him, Mr. Levine then backpedaled on the demand to meet with the advertiser, but said that he could not write about a major advertiser unless it was cleared by Mr. Levine.
Ms. Hazell, who also attended the meeting, had a different recollection. â€œWe said we wanted to go to more helpful news, and less gotcha news,â€ she said.
When Mr. Gombossy asked for an example, she pointed to his articles about the contracting company, which had asked to speak with him. â€œWould he be willing to at least talk to them, and could he be nice in a conversation like that?â€ she recalled saying. He said no. â€œIt was a very broad conversation about overall tone, and we said, would you be willing to talk to peopleâ€ â€” that is, companies he was investigating â€” â€œabout their complaints.â€ She said there was no mandate that he get clearance from editors to write about advertisers.
Mr. Gombossy said he had another run-in with the executives after posting a reader comment on his blog about a grocery chain that was a large advertiser. â€œThis time, I was told that the publisher was furious with me and theyâ€™re thinking about firing me, and by running that blog I had caused the possible loss of a $100,000 advertising contract,â€ Mr. Gombossy said in a telephone interview.
He was told, he said, that he could not post blog comments critical of big advertisers, in addition to not writing about them without approval by an editor.
Ms. Hazellâ€™s account is different. The meeting was about blog comments that were â€œfairly inflammatory and in some cases libelous,â€ she said. â€œWe never said he had to get clearance to write about an advertiser,â€ she said. But she did alert him to an agreement between the advertising and news sides that her predecessor had agreed to, and that she would be adhering to.
â€œIf there was going to be a story in the newspaper about a major advertiser, the advertiser would get a heads-up. They wouldnâ€™t know the tenor of the story,â€ she said. Mr. Gombossy then requested a list of major advertisers, which the executives supplied.
One of the advertisers on the list, Mr. Gombossy said, was the mattress company Sleepyâ€™s. Mr. Gombossy had been looking into consumer complaints about the company, and had prepared a column to be printed on Aug. 2. That column said that the Connecticut attorney general was investigating the company, a fact the attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, confirmed in an interview last week.
Mr. Gombossy said he had the column approved by his editor. But the article did not run, and on Aug. 3, he said, he was called into the office. â€œI was told that my position was being eliminated, and they were going to have a different kind of consumer columnist,â€ he said. He said his performance reviews had always been strong. â€œThey had no intention of laying me off until this happened.â€
Ms. Hazell said the Sleepyâ€™s column was held, not killed. â€œGeorge could have written about Sleepyâ€™s,â€ she said. â€œWeâ€™ve never had and never will have a policy to favor advertisers in any form,â€ she said. â€œOur concerns had largely to do with sourcing.â€ In fact, she said, Mr. Gombossyâ€™s final column, which ran on Sunday, was about an advertiser, Connecticut Light & Power.
Mr. Gombossy was laid off because he was not interested in a different position, which would focus on consumer complaints and not investigative work, Ms. Hazell said. â€œMy understanding is that he just wasnâ€™t interested in the direction we were going,â€ she said.
Mr. Gombossy said he plans to file a lawsuit against The Courant. He has started a Web site, ctwatchdog.com, where he has posted the column about Sleepyâ€™s. Ms. Hazell said the posting was slightly different from the last version she saw.
Mr. Blumenthal, who often worked with Mr. Gombossy, said that he did not know what had happened between the columnist and The Courant, but that his departure was a â€œhuge, gaping loss for consumers.â€
â€œHe is one of a kind,â€ Mr. Blumenthal said.
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