DRAGLINE REPRINT: The plot thickens at the Charleston Gazette-Mail
A Dragline follow-up on Doug Skaff's influence at the Charleston Gazette-Mail
Note from Douglas John Imbrogno | Editor, WestVirginiaVille.com
The Dec. 13, 2022, issue of WestVirginiaVille’s substack newsletter wholly concerned recent events at the newspaper where I happily spent the bulk of my newspaper career. In its heyday, The Charleston Gazette — and for a while, its succesor manifestation, the Gazette-Mail — was one of a handful of great, small, family-owned newspapers in America, fearless in taking on the powers-that-be. When Doug Skaff, current president of HD Media LLC, which now owns the paper (who is also — go figure — the minority Democratic leader of the W.Va. House of Representatives) did a suck-up, softball video interview with no less than Don Blankenship, the man chiefly responsible for the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia which killed 29 men, three Gazette-Mail reporters objected on social media. And were shown the door within 24 hours.
Neither Skaff, nor HD Media honcho Doug Reynolds, nor Gazette-Mail editor Lee Wolverton have yet to publicly acknowledge this mess of the paper’s own making. Meanwhile, Dragline reporter Kyle Vass came out with a story yesterday about some alleged troubling behaviour on Skaff’s part in operating this once-great newpaper, according to sources within the building. Read on.
Reprinted from the Dec. 21, 2022 Dragline.substack.com
Gazette-Mail Staff Say Skaff Abuses Power as President
House Minority Leader and President of HD Media, Doug Skaff (D – Kanawha), allegedly directed staff to delete a story about his 2015 gambling scandal from the paper’s website. Reporters who’ve worked under Skaff say his conflicted presence undermines the Pulitzer Prize-winning paper’s integrity.
House Minority Leader Doug Skaff sits in on a public hearing in the House of Delegates chamber at the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, W. Va, on Monday, February 28, 2022. Skaff also serves as the President of HD Media, a company that runs several newspapers across the state. (Photo/Kyle Vass)
Reprinted from Dragline: Dec. 21, 2022 • Written by Kyle Vass
Last Monday, when an all-newsroom meeting began at the Charleston Gazette-Mail, three reporters weren’t in the room. Lee Wolverton, executive editor for HD Media (the company that owns the Gazette-Mail) opened the meeting by announcing to all present: “Effective immediately, three of your colleagues are no longer employed by HD Media.”
Without naming names, Wolverton explained that Caity Coyne, Lacie Pierson, and Ryan Quinn were let go from the company over a series of critical tweets they posted about HD Media President Doug Skaff.
The social media posts criticized Skaff – who also serves as the state’s Democratic House minority leader – for inviting former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship to be a guest on the latest episode of his webcast, “Outside the Echo Chamber.”
Blankenship was released from federal prison in 2017 after serving one year on a misdemeanor charge connected with one of the deadliest coal mine disasters in history. To this day, he takes no credit for his involvement in the 2010 Upper Big Branch disaster that killed 29 miners.
Blankenship (who paid the newspaper and its parent company $9,655 for political ads during his 2018 U.S. Senate bid) used his guest appearance to bash the media over its coverage of his role in the disaster, deny climate change as a hoax, and promote his new book.
Skaff concluded the webcast episode by assuring viewers that Blankenship was a “good guy” whose “heart was in the right place.” When news of the episode hit social media, it prompted considerable blowback from Gazette-Mail readers and staff alike.
During the newsroom meeting, Wolverton defended the company’s decision, explaining that Gazette-Mail employees should respect Skaff because he holds the purse strings.
“He’s responsible for the revenue side of the company – the money side of the company,” he said. “That kind of disrespect can’t be tolerated.”
While Wolverton agreed with the company decision to fire them, the issue at hand was the “disrespect” shown to the company’s high-profile president: top-most executive at the company and the top-most Democrat in the House of Delegates.
Read more about the legacy of The Charleston Gazette in light of the firings of three reporters who objected to the Gazette-Mail giving a platform to Don Blankenship.
But where management saw disrespect, the reporters saw “sustained outrage,” the unofficial motto of their newspaper and longstanding tradition of its newsroom holding powerful people to account; people like Skaff.
A recent investigation by Dragline into how the paper has covered Skaff before and after his arrival as President of HD Media revealed a loose end on the paper’s website with respect to its coverage of the politician.
The investigation found a Gazette-Mail story about Skaff had been removed from the website.
The story, originally published in 2015, detailed Skaff being charged and convicted of cheating during a game of blackjack at The Greenbrier. The story stated because of the conviction he was placed on a statewide casino ban list. It also referenced an AP story about a prior DUI conviction.
When this reporter publicly questioned the story’s deletion, the newsroom at the Gazette launched an internal investigation.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, multiple staff members reported to Dragline that Skaff had gone behind their backs and directed employees overseeing the operation of the website to delete the story. They described the move as an abuse of power that undermined the paper’s integrity.
The next day, the deleted story was reposted with two dates: one showing when the story originally ran and one showing when it was republished.
The current version of the story includes the following editor’s note: “Under HD Media policy, stories posted to our website are not removed under any circumstances but rather are updated, if necessary, to correct errors. The following story was removed from our site, contrary to company policy, and is reposted here.”
Staff members also told Dragline that Skaff said he deleted the story for fear that it might interfere with the company’s latest business endeavor: online sports betting.
In October of this year, Skaff wrote an opinion piece in the paper to announce that HD Media, through a partnership with Caesars Sportsbook, would begin offering gambling services on a site called Let’s Bet WV.
“It’s the ultimate win-win,” Skaff wrote of the new HD Media endeavor. “A portion of the proceeds from sports wagering helps fund critical state services, and it helps HD Media fund local journalism.”
Per W.Va. State Code §29-22E-10, any person applying to start a business that offers “interactive wagering,” cannot have previously been “convicted of a gambling-related offense, a theft or fraud offense.”
But according to a former employee for WV Lottery, Skaff is still on the statewide ban list and would have to be part of a public hearing in order to get his name removed.
And per W.Va. State Code §29-22E-10, any person applying to start a business that offers “interactive wagering,” cannot have previously been “convicted of a gambling-related offense, a theft or fraud offense.”
A records request with WV Lottery shows HD Media has an “interactive wagering license.” And, the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office confirmed that Skaff is listed as an officer for HD Media.
A lawyer with WV Lottery was unable to provide clarification by the time of publication as to whether Skaff’s legal history might impact HD Media’s license.
The history of Gazette-Mail and its reporters publicly holding politicians and public figures like Blankenship accountable goes back decades. Prior to its 2015 merger with rival newspaper the Charleston Daily Mail, The Charleston Gazette had long-held a reputation for taking on high-profile figures in the state.
Shortly after the merger, the newly formed Gazette-Mail filed for bankruptcy.
When HD Media, a company owned by former House of Delegates member and candidate for Attorney General Doug Reynolds, stepped in to buy the paper, critics began question to what degree a paper owned by a politician could serve as a watchdog for power and corruption.
In a Pacific Standard Magazine article from that time, journalist Brent Cunningham expressed skepticism. He opened his piece with a eulogy for a long-time investigative reporter at the Gazette, Paul Nyden.
“Nyden used to say he had two tenets that guided his work,” Cunningham wrote. “The first was: ‘Figure out who the bad guys are, and fuck ‘em.’ And the second was: ‘Then fuck ‘em again.’”
“Not exactly what they teach in J-school,” the author continued, “but in West Virginia, where the entire arc of the state’s history has been perverted by a seemingly endless run of bad guys, it’s not only a justifiable approach to journalism; it’s an essential one.”
In the 1970s, the Gazette took on a three-term governor (and father of U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito), Arch Moore, over allegations that the politician was involved in statewide corruption. Moore was eventually put in federal prison for five years, in part thanks to Nyden’s dogged reporting.
When a public figure stepped out of line in West Virginia, the Gazette famously pulled no punches. The Gazette-Mail’s motto of “sustained outrage” was inherited from the Gazette half of the merger.
Ryan Quinn, one of the reporters fired last week, once publicly stated the paper refused to cut any legislators slack for their connection to the company’s president.
In a social media post from three months before his firing, Quinn addressed a claim that he (or any reporter at the paper) would go easy on Democrats because Skaff was their boss.
Quinn tweeted: “If you're insinuating that President @dougskaff, because he's a Democrat, tells us reporters to quash stories on Democrats, you're wrong. We would just tell him to screw himself.”
“Doug [Skaff] would just take a phone call from someone involved in a story … Lawmakers were getting the impression they could talk to him and all their problems would be solved.” ~ Joe Severino
Telling Skaff to screw himself on that same platform for praising the “Dark Lord of Coal,” however, proved beyond the pale for HD Media. The reporters were fired for publicly channeling the very motto of their paper.
To Skaff, however, that motto has never existed under the banner of HD Media.
Skaff, responding to a request for comment via email, wrote, “I have never seen ‘sustained outrage’ used as an official motto of the Charleston Gazette Mail. HD Media’s motto is ‘Local News Means the World to Us.’ And since 2013, we at HD Media have grown our total newsroom positions from 33 to 60 to support journalism.”
When asked if he told the IT department at the Gazette-Mail to delete the 2015 article about his incident at the Greenbrier, Skaff didn’t answer the question. Instead, he responded, “The story in question is online and is available on the Gazette-Mail’s website.”
Skaff did not respond to a follow-up email asking him to answer the question as asked.
To Joe Severino, who began working at the paper right out of college, the allegations about Skaff are upsetting but came as no surprise.
“People would call all the time asking us to delete or update stories about them. And, if they were later found to be innocent or whatever, we would help them out and change it,” Severino said.
“Having small stories about people who were found to be innocent coming up in search results? That’s ruining lives. But Skaff wasn’t proven innocent. We would’ve never done that for anyone under those circumstances,” he said referring to the deleted article from 2015.
Severino was fired from the Gazette-Mail a week before the other three reporters. The reason he was given is he refused to go back to covering politics – a beat that Skaff’s shadow as both his boss and the top Democrat in the House loomed over.
In the nearly three years spent reporting for the Gazette-Mail, Severino said Skaff’s presence felt unavoidable in day-to-day reporting. The mere fact he held the most powerful position at the company and served as a sitting lawmaker came up constantly, Severino said.
He recalled one instance where a Democratic lawmaker in the House of Delegates called him to complain about the way she was portrayed in a story.
“Barbara [Fleischauer] (D-Monongalia) calls me up and says, and I quote, ‘I will give you a chance to publish a correction in the story. And, if you don’t, I’ll go above your head to Skaff.’”
Severino said such attempts were common with politicians and public figures. “Doug [Skaff] would just take a phone call from someone involved in a story … Lawmakers were getting the impression they could talk to him and all their problems would be solved.”
As a reporter covering the statehouse, city politics, and the police, he felt stymied when powerful people would go to the head of the company – a man they already had a working relationship with – instead of coming to him or his editors about stories he was working on.
The most egregious example of this, Severino said, was in 2021 when he stopped hearing back from city officials in Skaff’s hometown of South Charleston about a public records request pertaining to a police brutality case he had previously reported on.
… When Severino called the mayor a few days after the meeting, he “told me he had spoken to Skaff and thought the story was over.” That conversation, to Severino, is why his attempts to follow up with the city had dried up.
Frustrated after reaching out multiple times about his request, Severino attended a city council meeting. “They were all there. [Chief] Reinhardt, his deputies, the mayor, the city attorney. After the meeting, I was like, ‘Hey, have you all been ducking me?’”
He said the South Charleston Chief of Police waved him off at the time, saying there was a mix-up in their correspondence. But when Severino called the mayor a few days after the meeting, he “told me he had spoken to Skaff and thought the story was over.” That conversation, to Severino, is why his attempts to follow up with the city had dried up.
The thought that his boss, someone who HD Media management had assured him would never affect the work of the newsroom, was interfering in his work bothered him deeply – a feeling made worse by Skaff calling him to his office for a chat about the story.
“He saw me outside his office and waved me in. We talked about that story for 25 minutes,” Severino recalled. “The thing that stood out the most about that conversation was that he wanted to make sure ‘personal details’ were left out of the story,” Severino said.
When Severino asked Skaff what that meant, Skaff brought up the 2015 article that reported on his own misconduct – the same story staff members said he had deleted from the website.
“Skaff told me, ‘When Eric [Eyre] brought up personal details about my life, that really hurt. We don’t want to do that to anybody here,” Severino said.
When reached for comment about the allegations that Skaff had told staffers to delete a story, Dr. Joseph Jones, a journalism ethics professor at West Virginia University responded, “What you have uncovered is a clear violation of this institution-defining principle and clear answers must be given as to why and how this will be avoided in the future.”
Jones, who won the 2022 Penn State Davis Ethics Award, also addressed the recent firings. “Certain individuals are putting their own private interests ahead of social accountability and the public's need to know. The Charleston Gazette-Mail is a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper. If it and its journalists lack the independence necessary to serve the public interest, however, then we as citizens cannot trust it as a news source.”