In his Sunday column, Tennessean editor Mark Silverman rightly lauded his staff’s thorough reporting of last week’s tornadoes, giving “thanks to the dedicated journalists with whom I’m privileged to work.”
If only he acted that graciously in the newsroom.
After a string of recent Tennessean defections, current and former staffers have harped on Silverman’s management style, depicting him as temperamental, erratic and irritable. Other than that, they like him just fine.
“I have often half-jokingly said that if The Tennessean were a country, Mark Silverman would be universally viewed as a tyrant,” says Melvin Claxton, a Pulitzer Prize winner who recently took a buyout offer from the paper and who clashed with Silverman when he worked with him at The Detroit News and The Tennessean. “The level of fear in the newsrooms under Mark’s stewardship in Detroit and Nashville was palpable.”
For good reason. A few months ago, Silverman tossed a newspaper at features editor Cindy Smith in a fit of rage that some say startled the diminutive journalist. Until then, Silverman, who arrived at the paper in September 2006 and immediately irritated his staff with his aggressive demeanor, seemed to have calmed down. But when he threw the newspaper, Silverman might as well have carved his surly reputation in stone, as staffers now share that story to anyone who will listen.
Details of the confrontation remain elusive. Did he hurl a rolled-up newspaper at the editor? Did he crumple it and then toss it at her? Did the newspaper hit its target or did it fall harmlessly on the floor? (Either way, Smith was surely in no danger if the ammo was a City Paper.)
Smith didn’t return calls for comment, but Silverman does little to cast doubt on his growing infamy, responding to questions about his purportedly temperamental management style by being, well, temperamental.
“We were in her office talking about a situation, and I threw a newspaper in the air,” he says, becoming more agitated with every word. “We were frustrated with the kinds of things that frustrate journalists all the time.”
He adds, “This is ridiculous.”
Not everyone who has left The Tennessean has harsh words for their onetime boss. Sandy Smith, a former arts editor at the paper, says that Silverman does his job well. “He’s a very smart man, he’s very funny and he knows his stuff,” she says. “What more can you ask for?”
But others who have worked with Silverman say that he treats his staff shabbily.
“Mark Silverman is an incredibly smart and talented journalist whose management skills could use some improvement,” emails Pamela Coyle, a former Tennessean assistant city editor who left last year. “One day he’d be chatty and personable in the newsroom; the next day in a planning meeting he would berate editors and belittle story ideas. It was often arbitrary and mean-spirited.”
And it’s not like she’s unfamiliar with a tumultuous work environment. Before arriving in Nashville, Coyle worked at the Times-Picayune during Hurricane Katrina and was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team that stayed behind to put out the paper during the wreckage. But as she portrays it, The Tennessean, with Hurricane Mark blowing through the newsroom, was much worse.
“With everyone running around scared, and solid story ideas getting killed by other managers every day, I found the atmosphere toxic,” she writes. “It was like walking into a storm every day and waiting for lightning to strike.”
Criticisms about Silverman’s management style stretch back more than a decade. In 1997, a Columbia Journalism Review story touched on his reputation for “intimidating subordinate editors” when he was editor of The Courier-Journal in Louisville.
“It was the talk of the building,” Phil Coffin, a former Metro editor who moved on to The New York Times, told CJR. “Department heads came out of meetings feeling ravaged.”
Silverman, in fact, seems resigned to yet another portrayal about how poorly he treats the workers who toil below him.
“You’re going to make me out to be a bully,” he tells Desperately. “And I don’t care.” —MP
Vandy bluedeviledMaybe Mike Schoenfeld got tired of waiting to learn who his next boss would be. Or maybe a lucrative gig at Duke, a university in a league above Vanderbilt (and that happens to be his and his wife’s alma mater), was just too difficult to reject. Maybe there was some of both.
In any case, Schoenfeld—a political and media genius who can be credited with spinning The Wall Street Journal so successfully that a much-feared 2006 story about erstwhile chancellor Gordon Gee’s pot-smoking wife wasn’t at all the national bombshell it could have been—will be departing as vice chancellor of public affairs at Vanderbilt for Blue Devil country in May. He declines to attribute his imminent adieu to anything but the auspicious opportunity that fell in his lap.
“I’ve been doing this for 12 years here,” he says, noting that he looks forward to a new challenge.
OK, but it couldn’t have helped that after eight months the Vanderbilt Board of Trust still hasn’t replaced Gee, leaving Schoenfeld to wonder whether the job ultimately would go to interim chancellor Nick Zeppos or someone else. By the standards of such searches, eight months is an eternity—even if the body has only done it seven times in 135 years.
Mike, good luck getting into Cameron to see the Tarheels kick Duke’s ass. —LG