By Chuck Strouse
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Gail Bobb is a single mom. A pretty, prim 39-year-old native of Guyana, she moved to South Florida in 2001 with her two nearly grown kids, Frank and Theresa. "It was paradise," she recalls with a Caribbean lilt. "At first."
Bobb padded the pavement for four months until, finally, she was hired for an entry-level sales position by the Forum Group, a Deerfield Beach subsidiary of America's second-largest newspaper publisher, the Tribune Company. Soon a slim, efficient human resources officer was presenting her with a sheaf of employment papers, "like a Bible," Bobb says. She signed them all. "I was changing my life," she comments. "I'd been turned down for two jobs. I had college tuition to pay."
That first year Bobb earned a decent salary, mostly commissions. But soon the numbers dropped off. After three years, she quit and went to work hawking ads -- again in an entry-level spot -- at New Times in Miami. Then, on November 9, Tribune -- in the person of big-time Republican lawyer Juan Enjamio -- sued her and New Timesin an attempt to force her from the job. The reason: Tribune claims that one of the documents she autographed back in 2001, printed in tiny letters, prohibited her from working for any competing publication.
"Mind-boggling," she says. "They say I know secrets, but I don't know anything. The question is, with my daughter in her first year of college and my son in his last, why are they trying to take away my livelihood?"
The answer is that Tribune is one of the most dishonest and rapacious employers in America. Not only did it sue New Times, Bobb, and recently hired New TimesBroward-Palm Beach classified ad sales representative Joel Valez-Stokes like a schoolyard bully, but two days later, the company cut 100 jobs at Newsday in one of the biggest circulation scandals in American history. So far it's set aside $95 million to pay advertisers for its lies in that one.
Suing two classified ad salespeople and an alternative weekly publisher, of course, is just a footnote to the New York-area circulation scandal -- which, by the way, has been banished to briefs in the business pages of Fort Lauderdale's major newspaper, the Tribune-owned South Florida Sun-Sentinel. But both are emblematic of a culture at the company that has long put profit above people. Indeed, I have firsthand experience. I worked for the Sentinelin the Nineties, reporting stories in a half dozen countries, including the former Soviet Union and Cuba, and heading the newspaper's Miami bureau.
First let's recap the circulation scandal, in case you missed it. Starting in 2000, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), the group that monitors newspaper delivery, Newsdaybegan exaggerating the number of newspapers it delivered. Hoy, a Spanish-language partner, apparently did the same. This cheated advertisers, who pay rates based on readership.
In February several of those advertisers sued in federal court. Four months later Tribune acknowledged the problem. But the fudge factor was alleged to be less than ten percent. Back then, the company asserted it had published more than 650,000 papers in both languages on Sundays. The magnitude of the deceit grew, though, as federal authorities and auditors zeroed in. Eventually ABC found that Tribune's lie amounted to fifteen percent, or about 100,000 papers a day.
By September, nine Newsday executives had been whacked in response to the scandal. On October 27, following steep circulation drops at the Tribune-owned Los Angeles Timesand Chicago Tribune (more lies, perhaps?) and dwindling profits, Jack Fuller, president of Tribune's publishing division and a journalism legend, retired. The company had "gotten its arms around" the scandal, he said.
Not so fast. On November 9, the day Tribune sued Bobb, Valez-Stokes, and New Times, Newsdayeditor Howard Schneider -- who had allowed his reporters to cover the scandal aggressively -- resigned, citing conflicts with the publisher. You can guess what the two argued about. It wasn't the cost of peanut butter.
The complaint against the New Times advertising representatives was filed in Broward County by Enjamio, who has given sizable campaign contributions to Gov. Jeb Bush and represented Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood in a recent case involving absentee ballots in Broward County.
Why hire such a high-powered attorney to go after a couple of low-level advertising execs? Hard to say. Enjamio declined comment. As did Kevin Courtney, the Sun-Sentinel communications manager. The communications manager? Why would a newspaper need to manage communications? Maybe that says something about the Tribune-inspired gestalt of the Sentinel.
The meat of the complaint also raises questions.
It's true that Forum has agreements with the names of Bobb and Valez-Stokes, who was hired by Tribune in 1998, that forbid them from working for the competition after leaving the firm. (Bobb for a year, Valez-Stokes for six months.) And it's also accurate that they now work for a competitor. Technically they were hired by Forum Publishing, a Tribune subsidiary that publishes 25 community and niche newspapers including the Jewish Journal and City Link, a faux alternative publication that has recently taken particular aim at young readers -- a market New Times dominates.
But neither ad rep recalls signing the document. "I don't remember that," says Valez-Stokes, a divorced father who has epilepsy and raised his daughter, Jazmine, alone. "The first time I saw it was when [Tribune] sent it to me after I stopped working there."
The lawsuit, which includes the alleged noncompete agreements, was filed after several warning letters had been sent by Tribune to New Times. It not only orders this newspaper to terminate Bobb and Valez-Stokes but demands that we refuse ads from the pair's former clients at Tribune.
Really, aren't advertisers smart enough to make up their own minds? It's clear from the circulation scandal and the lawsuit that the company doesn't much respect the people who pay its freight.
Moreover, such noncompete agreements are rare in the media industry and virtually unheard of in lower-level jobs like those held by Bobb and Valez-Stokes. New Times requires no such documents. And neither the Miami Herald -- where I worked before heading to the Sentinel, by the way -- nor the Palm Beach Post employs them. Like Bobb and Valez-Stokes, I don't remember signing a noncompete agreement.
"No, we do not have noncompete agreements," Robert Beatty, general counsel and vice president of public affairs for the Herald, says tersely.
The Postgenerally doesn't employ them either, informs Tom Giuffrida, the newspaper's publisher. Giuffrida, who has the pluck to answer his phone unlike Sentinel publisher Robert Gremillion, says his paper has twice signed noncompete contracts -- but only with senior executives as part of severance packages. But lower-level types? "We have never done anything like that," he says. "It doesn't seem right. This prohibits them from changing jobs unless they move to another city."
Neither Bobb nor Valez-Stokes has plans to move from South Florida. Bobb's daughter Theresa, who lives with her, is six months pregnant. Valez-Stokes is paying Jazmine's tuition at Florida Atlantic University.
Both say they departed their jobs at Forum/Tribune because the newspapers weren't delivering on what they promised advertisers. "Too many of our advertisers were dissatisfied," Bobb says.
Does that sound a little like Newsday?
Editor's note: Chuck Strouse is the editor of New Times Broward-Palm Beach. From May 1998 to August 2000 he was managing editor of Miami New Times.