NYTimes: Watchdog fired by Courant

August 18, 2009

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. Gombossy’s complaints are just those of a “disgruntled employee,” Richard Graziano, the paper’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 paper’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 paper’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 “be nice to them” because an advertising deal was at risk, Mr. Gombossy said.

“At that point, I told them I’m refusing and I said, ‘You’ve got to fire me if you insist on me doing that,’ ” 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. “We said we wanted to go to more helpful news, and less gotcha news,” 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. “Would he be willing to at least talk to them, and could he be nice in a conversation like that?” she recalled saying. He said no. “It was a very broad conversation about overall tone, and we said, would you be willing to talk to people” — that is, companies he was investigating — “about their complaints.” 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. “This time, I was told that the publisher was furious with me and they’re thinking about firing me, and by running that blog I had caused the possible loss of a $100,000 advertising contract,” 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. Hazell’s account is different. The meeting was about blog comments that were “fairly inflammatory and in some cases libelous,” she said. “We never said he had to get clearance to write about an advertiser,” 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.

“If there was going to be a story in the newspaper about a major advertiser, the advertiser would get a heads-up. They wouldn’t know the tenor of the story,” 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 Sleepy’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. “I was told that my position was being eliminated, and they were going to have a different kind of consumer columnist,” he said. He said his performance reviews had always been strong. “They had no intention of laying me off until this happened.”

Ms. Hazell said the Sleepy’s column was held, not killed. “George could have written about Sleepy’s,” she said. “We’ve never had and never will have a policy to favor advertisers in any form,” she said. “Our concerns had largely to do with sourcing.” In fact, she said, Mr. Gombossy’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. “My understanding is that he just wasn’t interested in the direction we were going,” 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 Sleepy’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 “huge, gaping loss for consumers.”

“He is one of a kind,” Mr. Blumenthal said.

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11 Comments on "NYTimes: Watchdog fired by Courant"

  1. George Gombossy | August 17, 2009 at 9:45 pm |

    This is not totally accurate, when I am fully awake I will note what is inaccurate and what statements attributed to Ms. Hazell are false. It will be great to have her explain under oath the difference between her recollections even now and the documents she sent me. Lawsuit to be filed next month.
    The Dog

    • What exactly did the current do that is illegal, as opposed to unethical?

      Are you putting your pension at stake with your stance?

  2. George Gombossy | August 18, 2009 at 6:16 am |

    Ms. Hazell’s memory is faulty. She did not attend the first meeting with Jeff Levine and myself where Jeff ordered me to “be nice” to a plumbing company that was under state investigation and was apparently dangling a six digit advertising contract to try to reign my columns and comments in. It was there he told us that it would be on my head if we lose advertising money because of my work.
    Mz. Hazell could not attend the meeting, it was me and Jeff and Lynne Delucia who were there.
    Immediately after the meeting I went next door to Naedine’s office, apprised her of what had just taken place. She said I did the right thing by refusing Jeff’s request. That view changed quickly.
    Naedine attended a meeting the following week where Jeff directed me to alert him about any column that had a negative connotation against a key Courant advertiser because he personally wanted to vet those.
    And as to Rich’s claim that I was a disgruntled employee – I think he must still be thinking about some people over at Fox 61 he has some very public issues with. I was probably the happiest Courant employee who did not even have an updated resume. I loved what I did. I loved working with Lynne Delucia – my direct editor – and editors Dan Haar, Peter Sleight and Kevin Hunt. They are real journalists.

    • FYI: It is Peter Sleight NOT Peter Slate.

      Thank you, I changed it, everyone needs an editor. The Dog

  3. George,
    I’m 100 percent on your side, but I think you ought to link to the Times story, not reprint it on your website. That’s not quite kosher.

    • I was just about to comment about this as well. You can link to the Times story or quote from it, but not reprint it in its entirety. Plus, the format in which you have your own headline for a story which is simply the fact that the nytimes ran a story is misleading as to authorship.

  4. Mr. Graziano wins the “biggest loser” prize again. What a jerk. He has more personal and professional problems than the people on reality television (maybe they’ll do the next show about him – he’ll need the work soon!).

  5. George, I’m afraid I have to agree that reprinting the Times story is technically a copyright violation.

  6. Anonymous’s suggestion is really exciting me. I think the Courant would be a great location for a reality TV show. Shift the reality from the page, where pursuring truth about the community was the norm, to looking inward, at the workings of a dying company. It has everything – low budget (required), inward looking self-obsession, instrospection, escapism from the responsibilities of citizenship. Let’s face it, the action has shifted from the page to the offices, at Fox 61 too, which is facing an accusation that it is taking money for stories. It could be like Schopenauer morphed with Sam Zell with a DUI ticket hanging out of his shirt pocket and empties strewn around the office. Episode one can focus on the philosopher honchos honing and honing and honing their philisophical justifications for sucking up to advertisers. It will be based on pure reason of course. Photo desk can do the morphing — heck, why hold back now?

  7. Episode 2 can be Bastille Day in the Marketing Department where account managers are released into the news room to engage in orgies.

  8. Hi there Anon. Reading about the “new” Courant is jarring. I was there when we used to send copy to the State Desk by teletype and stringers were paid a quarter per inch. In the Groton bureau I covered New London (at a modest but full-time pay) and we had about 650 daily readers. We didn’t suck up to advertisers because we had no (local) advertisers.

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