Devilish Directives 

NBJ’s managing editor harasses a disheartened staff

NBJ’s managing editor harasses a disheartened staff

Demoralized and frustrated, staffers at the Nashville Business Journal have been polishing résumés since the arrival last fall of managing editor John Cummins.

“There’s no morale left,” one source familiar with the paper says. “[Cummins] manages people by belittling them.” A former business editor at The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Cummins has been described as someone only he himself could love. He apparently is fond of telling reporters that he knows “someone in Arkansas who can do your job and do it better.” He punctuates orders with reminders that staffers may be fired if they fail to obey and likes to preach to those under him that “shit rolls downhill.”

For some, the final straw may have been this year-end memo, copied below, that “basically says you can be fired for asking a question,” says one staffer who received it.

Distributed to all editorial employees, the memo refers to a “Reporter’s Guide,” a 2-inch-thick company manual with training tips for business reporters:

Every one of you is required to read and learn your Reporter’s Guide and the various journalism education materials we hand out. If you separately come to editors and ask us story questions or business writing questions that are covered in your Reporter’s Guide, it will be noted poorly in your evaluation. It can also lead to more severe disciplinary action, up to and including termination.

Likewise, if holes in your final copy repeatedly show that you didn’t bother finding basic business story information covered in the Reporter’s Guide, it will also lead to disciplinary action. Each one of you is required to know where to find basic public company information available in SEC filings. Each one of you is expected to be able to find your way around FreeEdgar and similar Web sites. Failure to do this will also lead to disciplinary action.

Each one of you is expected to turn in copy that has been spell-checked and is free of basic errors such as sentence fragments, grammar errors, etc. Failure to do this will again lead to disciplinary action. There are very basic, “starting” requirements to be a business writer. We are not feature writers temporarily doing business writing. I advise each of you to sit down and honestly ask yourselves if you’re truly happy writing for a business journal. If you are, welcome...it’s going to be challenging, but we will make the NBJ the best business journal in the country. If you aren’t, that’s fine: I applaud you for being honest. Just please let me know, and we’ll devise an exit strategy suitable for both of us.

Asked about the memo and Cummins’ managerial tactics, NBJ publisher Bill McMeekin admits Cummins “may have been a little bit too strong coming out of the gate, but he wanted to help us make our paper better and I fully support him in that.” McMeekin adds that when Cummins wrote the memo, the new editor “had not had the benefit yet” of the company’s management training program.

Sources report that although McMeekin received copies of Cummins’ memos, the publisher only recently learned how tense things had gotten in the newsroom. The atmosphere at the paper has improved somewhat in the last few weeks, presumably because McMeekin spoke with Cummins about his management style, although the publisher won’t say whether he and Cummins had a come-to-Jesus.

Some sources say departing editor Bill Lewis, who recently announced his resignation, shares the blame for not taking a more active role in the paper’s day-to-day operations. McMeekin says that he is hiring a new editor “as soon as possible” and confirms that Cummins had initially asked for the job but has voluntarily withdrawn his application.

One of 40 similar papers owned by American City Business Journals, NBJ has long struggled with management and staff issues. Although the paper has increased reporters’ salaries, it has yet to find the right mix of people who can restore the paper to its glory days in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Tennessean and Banner business writers grabbed NBJ to get stories for the dailies.

Cummins, 35, acknowledges that he has “toned it down” lately and that he “was more used to the daily newsroom kind of management style.” An Army veteran, he says his four years as a private “taught me a lot” but recognizes that “you can’t bring Army management into civilian life.” He says he’s scheduled to attend management training classes this summer. “There are always conflicts in any job,” he says. “But I don’t have horns or a hooked tail.” Although Cummins says he didn’t have management problems in Arkansas, a staffer there decorated the editor’s picture with devil’s horns. The defaced photo now hangs proudly on the wall of Cummins’ office.

Old news

The Channel 4-WSMV teaser last Wednesday night sounded incredible: “The governor’s involvement in a local murder. The story at 10.” But any viewer who thought Don Sundquist had finally shot a recalcitrant legislator was disappointed. The governor’s “involvement” consisted of offering a $7,500 reward for information about a triple slaying last summer in Smyrna. He made the offer two months ago.

Send an e-mail to Henry at hwalker@nashvillescene.com.

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