Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Chestnut Hill Yokels ...

Phantom of the Local
by John Lombardi

Back in February, rumors began bumping shoulders again: 'They're gonna off Pete at last, even though they haven't been able to vote him out.' 'They're bringing in a new publisher, to assume the business worries of the Local . This guy is a killer, might of been in Iraq, family heavy in the news biz.' ' Then: 'He's an advertising director!, no war chops, that was another guy Rob Remus loved!' 'Maybe he's got a brother in news . . .?' Then: 'He can help revivify the Germantown Ave. business district , because he'll help shunt all the Bad News Boys -- Feldman, Foster, Recko , etc. -- off into the info reservation, isolate them completely like the Cavalry did the Sioux!' 'Yeah, put 'em in the Germantown Newspapers group that Jim Foster started, (taking even Scott Alloway out of the Local mix), restricting 'em to Northwest Notebook, minimizing their visibility . . .' News was on the run, the way Gen. Phil Sheridan and Gen. George Custer got after Crazy Horse & Sitting Bull . . .

Through the spring election, though control squeezed tighter & gloomier, nobody was actually canned. Pete slunk around like the Ghost of Editing Past, bequeathing a News Editor job to Joel ('Self-Referential') Hoffman , the apple of the Temple Journalism Dept's eye, because the Exec Committee objected to some goofy story Len Lear snuck into LocaLife, and Pete hates confrontation . . . so he figured he'd let a Deputy handle things next time . . . A regular Pat Garrett.

Meanwhile, no reportage about the new dude was allowed in the Local, and curiously, none appeared in the Germantown Newspapers or the Northwest Notebook, either. The publisher or associate publisher -- even his title was folded close to Dina Hitchcock's thorny breast -- was a forbidden topic. (Like what really happened between Jimmy Pack and Uncle Remus that chilly day in November?) But finally some facts oozed out between Hitch's bloody claws: The Delaware County Daily Times had been the new guy's home for 2 1/4 years! A little daily down near the Delaware line. As working class as Gloucester, New Jersey. The man -- Larry Hochberger, it turned out -- had been Classified Advertising Director -- not Display Ads, where you occasionally come in contact with other living, breathing beings, like, say, Sonia Leounes does . . . Classified, which is computer-based and as hypo-allergenic as a web-site, was Hochberger's stage, where he reportedly sold ads on an e-mail plan as effective as Pizza Hut's . . . It was bloodless but profitable -- or at least the CHCA Exec Committee who hired him thought so:

'Won't it be swell to get such smarts going on the Hill?'

I did my best to engage Mr. Hochberger. Called him up last week at the Times and got this bitten-off exchange: "Who'd ja say you were with?"

"Northwest Notebook, Mr. Hochberger."

"Well, can't talk now. I'm still working for my old company!"

"Right, but could we arrange a few minutes after work or on the weekend?"

"Try not to work weekends. Try me Monday at the Local."

"Any time that might be best?

"No, no. Can't say. Gotta go!"

"Well, thank y--"

Click!!


Sources from the Local itself have all but dried up on these matters. (Everyone knows who you were anyway, but let that pass). Word was down -- like it had come down from the Exec Committee after Rob Remus's tag team match with Jimmy that NO mention of their "disagreement" should be exposed to reporters, lest they invent crappy spin. But through heavy scrounging, two days before the Official Story comes out in the Local, I was able to learn from people in or formerly in CHCA, who would know, and from Hochberger's old employers -- who would only speak on deep background -- that "Hochy," as the troops called him, is average-height, rumpled like a news-guy, in his 50s and as determined as a staple gun: He wanted, for example, $75,000. CHCA offered $54,000, and came up steadily to $74,000 through the dead of the winter. They'd already formed plans last fall through a "fact-finding" trio -- Dina, Mark Keintz, Rob Remus -- to do some salary-cutting, and started with the grotesque ousting of Jimmy Pack (which he played right into, and made easy for them.) That saved a fast $32,000 a year. Next the spotlight is on bookkeeping operations, where, it is rumored , the ill Lois Thompson, Claudia Bordo and/ or Joan Forjohn may be up for the knife (two out of three, it's said in salary ranges from the high 20s to the low 30s). Those would technically cover Hochy's new bite, but in an economy like this, other possible cuts include Pete's $54,000, and Community Manager Philip LeCalsey's salary, said to be $53,000.

According to one Byzantine theory, which seems of a piece with the great recurring Richard Snowden Legend, the real-estate-and-coal-mine-meany, backer of the current ruling clique in CHCA/CHBA, plans to pressure Hochy to gradually assume the editorial direction of the Local as well as its business-side publishing work. Pete's salary would then be downsized by half, and he would be reduced to a kind of Managing Editor at, say, $27,000 to $30,000 a year. Since even someone with his demonstrated pliability ( he didn't insist on being in on the "fact-finding" trio's formative plans; permitted them to halve the ad director's commissions without a squeak; let them push his old pal Pack out the door; allowed Ron Recko's Oversight Committee to go down without a fight; gradually forbade reformer Jim Foster and radical critic Ed Feldman space in the Local's pages (while denying it ), & himself mercilessly rationalized the Local 's dumbing-down ) -- couldn't be expected to put up with such mendacity forever. The current forecast is that Pete will be gone sometime in dusty August, while his social and financial betters are cooling off in Bar Harbor, or over on Lake Geneva.

*
I tried Hochy again on Monday the 15th, his first day of work at the Local. Same electric pencil-sharpener replies:

" I've indicated to you that I don't want to answer your questions," he said. "This is for some kind of story, right?"

"Well it's for my column, but you told me to call you back today, when we spoke Friday."

"Don't remember that. Very busy . . ."

"You were Classified Ad Director of the Delaware County Daily Times, weren't you? "

"Yes, but . . ."

"How does that prepare you for a position as publisher of an old weekly that's clearly dying?"

Hochberger laughed dismissively: "Not dying! Good brand name!"

"How are you going to beef up your 6300 circulation? After 50 years? Think positive business stories are all people want to read?"

"I'm busy. I need to get back to work."

"A few minutes for a couple of questions?"

"Sorry."


Click!
*
What we know about Mr. Hochberger is that he's rude, unimaginative, has a family that he thinks the world of, and tends to see life as a business problem. Therefore if Pete and Sonia "perform" up to the standards he's promised Tolis Vardakis, Hitchcock, Keintz , and presumably Walter Sullivan he will enforce, those two have a chance of surviving. The true weirdos left in the office, who are few indeed at this point, are in for a rougher row to hoe.

Newspapers, when they were great, were outposts for free spirits who traded financial security for the chance of getting off some true insights a few dozen times a year, that made their lives, and those of their readers, worth living. The idea of speaking truth to power once in a while, even if they couldn't make it stick, is what Charles A. Dana, Stephen Crane, Upton Sinclair, Frank Harris, James Agee, Ernie Pyle and so many lesser-knowns, did for this country.

The Chestnut Hill Local was a good newspaper at several points in its medium-length life. It hasn't been for several years now, & I'm sorry to see it end like this.

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13 Comments:

Blogger reverend chris said...

This is a great essay.

Tue Jun 16, 11:00:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous a. hope said...

This is disturbing.

"One reason for the optimism is that Snowden's long-standing conflict with the community association appears to have ended after Snowden's allies won control of the association in elections this year. The business community campaigned on a "Positively Chestnut Hill" slate that promised to tone down the Local's news reporting, which they complained was disproportionately influenced by anti-Snowden activists."

http://www.philly.com/philly/business/48054042.html

a.hope

Tue Jun 16, 04:14:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Walt Sullivan said...

John: Larry only just began to work for us all yesterday and you're already on his case! You make everything out to be a conspiracy. Everything about the hiring of our Associate Publisher has been always out in the open, just as everything about anything will always be out in the open. Months ago, the Board approved the hiring of an Associate Publisher. We established a Search Committee who received many job applications and then interviewed many qualified people. Pete and the Local staff participated in the interview process. They recommended Larry as the most qualified, which he is. The Board in open session on May 28 heard from him and unanimously except for one approved Larry's hiring. Just read the Minutes. They are in the public domain available to all. They show that "The Associate Publisher ... will have authority over all non-editorial departments," and that he "will recieve a salary of $74,000 per year plus one-half of the first $20,000 profit, and one-quarter of the next $10,000 profit, generated by the Local."
The Job Description and Larry's extrodinary resume had been already distributed to every Board Member before they were asked to vote, and are available from me to anyone who asks to see them.
Richard Snowden had nothing to do with any of this except to cast his one vote as the representative designated by the Parking Foundation. I will not join with you or anyone in making Richard a pariah. Richard has made enormous contributions to the Chestnut Hill Community. Recognize that. He has also in the past done some things with which I do not agree. Get over it and let's move on. He is not behind everything that goes on. He is one Board Member to whom I listen just as I listen to every Board Member. He does not run me. Nobody does. Nobody ever will. And he has never tried.
Now as to the possible future extension of the Associate Publisher's responsibility to include the Editorial Department of the Local, I have received from several Board Members some with expertise in newspaper publishing that reasonable suggestion. I have received no such suggestion from Richard. It is I who proposed to the Executive Committee that idea as one for future consideration for future recommendation to the Board who alone may approve it. I have pointed out that the Editor would continue to supervise the staff members in the Editorial Department and that our Bylaws explicitly provide that, "Any form of prior censorship expressed or implied is prohibited." This is just an idea. It may never come before the Board. If it does, it will likely not be until September or later. If it does, it will most definitely not intrude upon the pre-publication authority of our Editor. Understand that the Editor would continue and would not be downgraded in responsibility or pay or anything else. If you just read Larry's resume, you would have seen that he has more than 25 years of Media Management experience not only in overseeing Advertising, Circulation, Production, Budgetary Planning, and in Stratigic Planning, but also in Writing, Reporting, and Editing. So if the Board were ever to give him responsibility over the Editorial Department, which it may never, they would have the right man for that job too.
You mock the fact that when you called Larry when he was still working for his prior employer he wasn't able really to talk with you. Well, if you ever want to talk with anyone about anything having to do with CHCA, including the Local, just call me as the President ultimately responsible for everything. The same applies to anyone. My phone number is (215) 247-7431. I'll be glad to talk with anyone to give them the straight facts. And my e-mail address is WALTERJSULLIVAN@aol.com if anyone wants to e-mail me.

Tue Jun 16, 05:05:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jeremiade said...

You are paying $74,000 to $87,500 to get $20,000 to $30,000 of extra profit. Good thinking! But then I think Lombardi is more truthful and accurate than you are on this point.

Wed Jun 17, 08:05:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Walt Sullivan said...

Jeremiade: I quoted directly from the minutes and by the way directly from the offer letter which I wrote, all of public record. How dare you say that John is more truthful and accurate than I am on this point. Now if you disagree with the hiring itself, that's another matter and completely your privilege. Your mathematical analysis, however, is all wrong. The idea is that we can substantially boost advertising revenue and somewhat boost circulation thereby increasing net profit, all to an extent that justifies the hiring. In any event, Pete himself has long requested relief from the responsibilities over everything besides editorial, and he and other Local employees subscribed to the establishment of the Associate Publisher position and participated in the process.

Wed Jun 17, 12:11:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jeremiade said...

Well Mr. Sullivan, I dare because I am right. Mr. Lombardi was weak on some facts and he explained why in entertaining detail. You, on the other hand, have always been weak on explanation. How dare you challenge my mathematical analysis which is nothing more that a restatement of your own writing. It is quite telling that you didn't bother to ask me where you are wrong. I urge you to keep an open mind on all matters and I will continue to wish you well in your efforts. As to your opinion piece in the Local, it was OK but you could have saved some words by not apologizing for your verbosity.

Wed Jun 17, 06:51:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Walt Sullivan said...

Jeremiade: Anyone has the absolute right to disagree with anything I say or do, and with anything our CHCA does. My point was only that you had no basis to infer that what I had written, drawing from the Minutes and the offer letter, was less than truthful or accurate. Now I understand that you were not challenging my truthfulness in that, but were apparently suggesting that our hiring of the AP may not have been the right course? And that it may not have been a cost-effective step? If so, I don't agree. But I shall keep an open mind on all matters. I invite you to tell me where you believe I am wrong. I thank you for your good wishes.

Thu Jun 18, 12:51:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is puzzling how this new publisher is being paid $74,000+ when the paper has not turned a profit in some time, the staff has been downsized through attrition and firings, and most of the current staff have not gotten raises in a couple of years, and have also had their benefits significantly cut (downgraded health plan, increased employee contributions, generous 401K match reduced to zero, etc.). That's the math I can't wrap my head around.

Thu Jun 18, 01:03:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jeremiade said...

Both Lombardi and www.philly.com addressed the issue.

Thu Jun 18, 02:25:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous John Lombardi said...

To: Rev. Chris, A. Hope, Anonymous, Jeremiade & Walter Sullivan:


Walter, I'm not exactly accusing you of "conspiracy". More an inept scrambling for control. You're now the voice of a small group of businesspeople basically hostile to the idea of publishing information without vetting it for possible business/political angles they disagree with. Fear of "loss" seems the basis of your attitudes.

I don't see Snowden as the evil genius some of my friends do. I think he's just an inept jerk wasting a lot of his family's money in incomprehensibly wrong-headed & selfish schemes that even he doesn't fully understand. But the effect of joining everyone together in the Positively Chestnut Hill group was to emasculate the news, writing and direction of the Local even more than was the case over the last few years.

As far as the editor's "participation", with the staff, in the "interview" process that selected Larry Hochberger as an associate publisher (whom you admit may eventually assume editorial control), it was a rote affair. Pete seems to be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, and is hardly to be taken seriously. He kept his job, but lost the paper, and to hear some of his backers still moaning about "saving Pete's job", after he's banned them from the Local's pages, is futility itself.

His one burst of genuine journalistic courage last year during the 2008 election fiasco, brought the wrath of Remus, Keintz, Hitchcock & the rest of the politburo down on his and Jimmy Pack's heads, and has made the Local a phantom of itself.

And I'm talking about other editors' and writers' work -- Jim Sturdivant, Lea Sitton Stanley, Ruth Russell, Len Lear, Mike Mishak -- not just my own brief efforts.

Let me just ask you -- as appointed flak-catcher -- why full stories and comment on the Jimmy Pack/ Rob Remus conflict weren't allowed in the paper? Why weren't the details of Mr. Hochberger's background and something about his editorial attitudes published and discussed? Why wasn't he willing to answer questions in any form -- on the phone, by-e-mail -- in Northwest Notebook or any other venue?

Why must everything be so controlled?

John Lombardi
Cherry Hill, N.J.

Fri Jun 19, 02:08:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous R. said...

Speaking of personal income, I haven't gotten a raise/salary increase in over 3 years and I don't make even a modest $40 grand at the Local. With the decline in revenue and the state of finances, it is understandable, but when you read things about $74 grand being paid to new blood, and that you're made to understand that it's an investment - it also sends a clear message. It says, sure we'll find the money to pay this person but the people who do the work now, we'll they can wait til this new investment shows us a return.

I've generated an idea to bring in additional revenue with Chestnut Hill Art & Design, a graphic design service, which was simultaneously squished in between Jimmy J. Pack being fired and Scott Alloway departing for another paper. It's a little hard to focus with drama and energy being spent on other things, like hiring new blood for your dept.

I might add, I've brought in an additional $2,250 in the past year with projects that I've done under this umbrella. Not that this is a ground-breaking amount to behold, dear readers. Nor have I been privy to any sort of bonus or percentage of it. Yes, it's all gone to the Local/CHCA.

I know that much more could be made if this side project if it was nurtured and promoted. Maybe Larry can give that some help. The potential is there, so is the idea of adequate financial remuneration for the rest of us who put forth the honest effort and hard work in what we do.

Sat Jun 20, 08:44:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jeremiade said...

Walter Sullivan: R. is one of those employees whom you referred to as "valued". I guess when you speak of valued employees I again should not believe you. I place honest value on the people who produce the Local week after week. The psychological harm of hiring the new guy with the contract you described to the existing hard-working employees shows that you (and the board) know too little about being an employer. That comes as no surprise to me after the way you allowed Remus to treat Pack whether you believe it to have been justified or not.

Because of some of the reasonable things you wrote on other subjects, I took the effort to read some board meeting minutes. They were fairly uninformative which is why the Local should be reporting on meetings (with commentary). What struck me was the number of times that "questions were called". I know you see yourself as knowledgeable on Robert's Rules so you should have known it is improper to use that tactic to shut down discussion and it should not have been allowed. You have a great deal of work if you wish to restore credibility to the CHCA and treat the employees reasonably and professionally. Otherwise, as Lombardi comments, you may be presiding over the "end" of what has been a good newspaper.

Sun Jun 21, 08:00:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous John Lombardi said...

If R and Jeremiade were writing for the Local, it would be a much better paper. And if they continue to write for Northwest Notebook, it will be a better blog.

And Walter, why are you keeping as silent on my questions to you as Mr. Hochberger kept on my questions to him?

John Lombardi

Mon Jun 22, 01:10:00 PM EDT  

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