Former Gazette editor claims he was fired advocating for women, but many women say differently

Editor’s note: I have been employed by Newspapers of New England since 2014 and was working for the Daily Hampshire Gazette and then the Valley Advocate at the time that most of the events reported in this story took place. There is some inherent awkwardness of writing about and interviewing my former boss, my current employer, and several former colleagues, but I did the best I could to be fair to all sides. -Dave E.

At a few minutes before 9 a.m. on the last day of January, staff members at the Daily Hampshire Gazette, the Greenfield Recorder, and the Valley Advocate got a bombshell email in their inboxes.

Now-former Executive Editor Jeffrey Good claimed in the email he was fired for standing up to his boss, publisher Michael Rifanburg, for pay equity on behalf of three women he named and for the rest of the newsroom in general.

But accounts from former colleagues, Rifanburg, and women he named in his email as having stood up for, dispute that characterization, even as reports from national publications including Poynter, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe published Good’s version of the story that he was standing up for pay equity.

Sarah Crosby, one of three women he named without permission in the staff-wide email, which quickly found its way to several national news outlets, claimed that Good was not the equal-pay advocate he claimed to be.

“The narrative in Jeff’s email does not accurately describe what I experienced over the last several months after voicing my concerns about pay disparity,” Crosby wrote in a statement. “The several closed-door meetings Jeff and I had continued a culture that was secretive, stressful, and difficult to move the issue forward in.”

Crosby continued that she was disappointed in Good’s decision to publish her name without her consent, and added that she was also disappointed in early reporting of the story by the Poynter Institute, which got ahold of Good’s email and initially published a story based on it without attempting to contact her or the other women named in the email. Poynter has since updated the story with statements from Rifanburg, and from the three women.

The full email is published at the end of the story.

Different stories

Good said he wrote the Jan. 31 email in an effort to be transparent.

“I was surprised to get fired and I wanted to know why and I thought the staff might have the same question when I just disappeared suddenly,” he said. “I just decided to tell the story as best I could.”

Regarding his decision to name the three women staffers in the email, he said he apologizes to them for not checking with them first.

“My thinking was that it was well known in the newsroom that they had been leading the charge on this, and I wanted to celebrate their role in it, because they led the way to this open conversation,” he said.

Good said he shares responsibility for the pay disparity situation, but that it was not a product of intentional discrimination.

“Some women staffers had been hired at a certain rate of pay and then some male staffers came in with higher salaries from previous jobs or competing job offers that led us to bring them in at slightly higher salaries,” Good said.

Almost everyone interviewed for this story said pay inequality is an issue with the Gazette and its sister papers, and that addressing it is overdue. Publisher Rifanburg said in a statement Wednesday that the company has been looking into it for some time and that there will be a meeting in the coming week.

At the same time, he disputed that Good was the one who brought the matter up.

“Respectfully, the Daily Hampshire Gazette and the Recorder disagree with Mr. Good’s negative characterizations about our ongoing efforts to meet and work with employees to address pay concerns,” Rifanburg wrote in a statement. “Since 2016, we have been actively engaged at the Gazette and Recorder in reviewing pay in all areas to determine if there are differences in pay and address any differences we find. We started and took these measures before Mr. Good was involved, and we will continue with these important analyses after Mr. Good’s departure. We started this review, not Mr. Good.”

Rifanburg called Good’s departure a “transition” that has nothing to do with his participation in addressing pay equity issues.

He added that he commended any employee for voicing concerns about pay equity in the workplace.

‘No friend to women’

Laurie Loisel, who worked at the Gazette for 29 years and was managing editor at the time Good joined the newsroom in 2014, is one of several women who say they felt forced out by Good.

“I read his memo and he makes it sound like he’s a friend to women and my experience is he’s no friend to women,” Loisel said.

She said her experience was that he was demeaning and patronizing to her and that he marginalized women.

“I felt like he picked on me with these things that nobody else criticized me for that were not important things, and even when I fixed all of them he still demoted me,” she said. “I really felt like he didn’t want me at the table where things were decided.”

Loisel said she was bumped from her role as managing editor into a reporter position in 2015. She left the company a few months later.

Loisel described Good as arbitrary, capricious, lacking in clarity, lacking in communication, and dishonest.

“He talks about these courageous newswomen, but several women left because of him, including me,” she said.

Kathleen Mellen, who served as arts editor for the Gazette for 15 years, said she was another woman driven away from the paper by Good. She also said gender pay inequality issues had long been an issue at the paper.

“Those pleas for equality in pay fell on very deaf ears and continued to under Jeff’s leadership,” Mellen said. “I fought for years to get up to the level men were at, and never was able to achieve it. And Jeff was as much of a brick wall as anyone else.”

While Mellen said she did not feel Good was sexist toward her, she did feel bullied by him. She left the paper in January 2017.

Rebecca Everett, a reporter at the Gazette from 2009 through 2015, said she did not feel discriminated against due to her sex, but she did name Good’s treatment of Loisel as one of the reasons she left the paper.

“From the outside, it did seem like he didn’t appreciate her role as a strong woman who voices her opinions in the newsroom,” Everett said.

Low pay was another contributing factor to her leaving. She joined the staff at competitor Masslive in 2015 and said she was better paid.
Samantha Wood, whom Good hired to be managing editor for the Gazette in January 2016, said she lasted less than four months.

“I left the company because I found it impossible to work with Jeff Good,” she said, adding that he questioned all of her decisions. “I was micromanaged out the door.”

Wood said she began to wonder if she was being treated differently than male editors, but said she was hesitant to bring it up because she didn’t have direct evidence.

Wood said she has had difficult supervisors in the past, but had always been able to establish a good working relationship. Good was an exception, she said.

She said she believes Good sent the email to spin the story of his firing.

“I think it was driven purely by self interest,” she said, adding that she didn’t think he is a feminist champion. “I didn’t see that; I didn’t experience it, and I think it would be a mischaracterization.”

Former Advocate Editor Kristin Palpini, who left the Advocate in October, said she spoke with Good about her own pay, and believed him when he told her that she was being paid fairly, writing a column about it.

But since hearing about Good sending an email saying he had brought the issue up, she isn’t sure if her column was accurate and whether she was paid less than her male colleagues.

“I’m hopeful that the women who – it sounds like – know they are being underpaid can find some justice,” she said.

Chris Lindahl, who wrote for the Gazette between 2014 and 2016 said he credits Good with helping him become a better journalist.

“When I look back at the stories that I’ve written so far in my career, some of the best stories I’ve written were at the Gazette and they were written under Jeff’s direct guidance,” Lindahl said.

Lindahl said Good had an ability to bring out the best in reporters and felt constantly challenged to do better professionally.

At the same, however, he said he disagreed with Good’s management style, particularly how communication was handled when Loisel was moved from managing editor to reporter.

“I don’t think anyone saw it coming nor do I think anyone felt that it was appropriate, and Jeff offered us no explanation that I found satisfactory,” Lindahl said. “Laurie was a beloved mentor to a lot of people in that newsroom. I still go to her for advice.”

Greg Saulmon, who served as managing editor of the Gazette from April to December 2015, said part of the attraction of taking the job was that Good seemed like a respected editor and one he could learn from.

Saulmon found that Good had a more forgiving attitude than he expected, and said that Good had nothing to do with his decision to leave at the end of less than a year.

At the same time, Saulmon said he knows that as a white man it is possible Good could have had a different relationship with him than with women staff members.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m undercutting in any way any experience of any woman who works there,” he said. “My experience very well could be completely different and I can’t speak universally as to what he was like for everybody to work under.”

Jodie Tillman worked as a news reporter at the Valley News in Lebanon, N.H., from 2001 to 2006 with Good as her direct supervisor. Tillman, who has been a journalist for 15 years and now lives in Virginia, said her experiences with Good were positive and that she learned many of the basics of reporting from him.

She said Good has been supportive of her throughout her career, that they have kept in touch, and that she did not experience him being sexist.

“Jeff had really, really high standards and if he thought someone wasn’t meeting them, he wasn’t shy about letting them know,” she said. “I remember that with both men and women.”

Good said former staffers negative characterizations of him were misguided.

“It’s disappointing that as women who helped lead the way for a new generation of women journalists at the Gazette, Ms. Loisel and Ms. Mellen are not taking the opportunity to celebrate them,” he said. “They choose to grind an old ax based in issues with their work, not mine. I disagree with their opinion of me, as would many other women who have worked with me, but I support their right to express it.”

Publication before verification

Good’s email was sent to all staff members, but former staff members also got their hands on it. Former Greenfield Recorder reporter Miranda Davis tweeted the email in its entirety, and national news organization Poynter picked it up from there.

The initial version of the Poynter story was published without comment from any of the players involved and its sole source was the email posted to Twitter.

Crosby, who had not consented to have her name published, said she was disappointed with the fact that Poynter did not reach out to her before publishing to get her side of the story.

Kelly McBride, Vice President of the Poynter Institute and formerly its ethics expert, said they picked the story up from Davis’s twitter page.

“In hindsight we could have waited a little longer, but our fear was that it was being discussed elsewhere and we would prefer it being discussed under the Poynter umbrella,” McBride said, adding that Poynter has several programs addressing pay inequality.

McBride confirmed that the reporter, James Warren, did not reach out to the three women named in the email, and that Poynter published the story before receiving a statement from the publisher.

“When a well-respected, well-known journalist makes a statement like that, I think that that is a legitimate story, and yes we have an obligation to reach out to the organization in question, and we did, and as soon as we had their statement, we included it in our story,” McBride said.

McBride said they heard back almost immediately from former colleagues of Good, who disputed Good’s version of events. As of the interview with the Advocate, she said she had not heard that Crosby was disputing Good’s characterization, as well, and said she would ask the reporter to add that to the story.

Mellen said she was one of the people who contacted Poynter.

“Poynter wrote this glowing story about Jeff and then put the email out there for people, never vetting it, never asking any questions,” she said.

“He [Good] is creating the story and people believe what they read. This is really fake news.”

Good’s email:

My firing; your pay

Dear Colleagues,

Publisher Mike Rifanburg informed me this week that I am being fired. The reason: I advocated for transparency and fair pay for our female colleagues at the Daily Hampshire Gazette and its sister publications.

A group of three talented and courageous women in the Gazette newsroom — reporters Lisa Spear and Emily Cutts and photojournalist Sarah Crosby — complained in recent months that they were being underpaid, in light of their education, experience and contributions to our award-winning news reports. They were right. I went into Mike’s office and pushed for them — and others who had not yet complained, female and male — to be paid equitably.

I accept my share of blame for the situation that prompted the women’s protests. While I have always taken pride in seeking raises for deserving employees, I (and my boss) failed to see the gap developing as we hired some male reporters at higher-than-existing rates based on their previous salaries or competing job offers. I appreciated the women pointing out the disparity and felt honor-bound to address it as quickly as possible.

The newswomen, along with some male colleagues, also asked for greater transparency from management in how compensation decisions are made, for a staff gathering rather than exclusively one-on-one meetings.

I supported these requests, asking Mike to authorize raises for these women and others in our family of newspapers. I also advocated for a staff meeting at which we could do what the newspapers ask the leaders of other powerful institutions to do: Provide honest answers to fair questions.

Initially, Mike seemed to be a willing partner; he said he supported equity and approved some increases. But as more staffers clamored for raises and pressure on the budget increased, Mike became resentful and resistant in our closed-door meetings. He rejected the idea of a staff meeting and berated me for supporting it. “You should be a leader,” he said. “Instead, you are being led.”
Funny. I thought being a leader meant precisely this — listening respectfully to legitimate concerns and then responding to them in a clear and respectful way.

After Lisa, Sarah and Emily refused to give up, Mike finally relented and asked me to schedule the staff meeting now set for next Thursday, Feb. 8 at 4 p.m. But he is none too happy about it or about the raises. In our last conversation before he fired me, Mike repeatedly referred to Lisa, Sarah and Emily as “girls” and “selfish young ladies.”

I reject those demeaning terms. Instead, I would call our colleagues brave young women — women who are showing the way to a workplace defined by equity rather than exclusivity, a newsroom that stands for the things I’ve thought a newsroom should stand for since I began in this business 37 years ago: justice, respect and truth.

I’ve worked for Newspapers of New England since 2000, first at the Valley News in New Hampshire and, since 2014, here. I’m proud of the role I’ve been able to play in helping talented journalists to do their best work, in leading us to accolades including New England Newspaper of the Year and — most importantly — in serving our communities with journalism that stands up to bullies rather than shrinking before them.

I walk out of here with my head held high, proud of the work that we’ve done together over the years. I won’t yield to bullying, and I know you will not, either. Every day, you make me proud.

Jeff

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@valleyadvocate.com.

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