Valley City editor uses newspaper to blast owners
VALLEY CITY, N.D. - Concerned about corporate greed and a lack of journalism ethics, the top editor of the Valley City Times-Record opted for full disclosure with his readers before resigning this week.
Lee Morris' sudden departure came after several tumultuous weeks at the community newspaper that began with the July 26 firing of then-publisher Nikki Zinke, who Morris says stood up for independent newsgathering.
Morris said he believes faraway owners of the newspaper care more about the company's profit margin than delivering quality news.
The Times-Record is owned by Horizon Publications, an Illinois-based company that oversees 35 community newspapers across 16 states and two Canadian provinces.
Horizon officials declined to comment for this article.
Morris said recent corporate decisions that sought to both censor and sway news content were among the reasons he decided to resign.
But first, Morris said he wanted to tell the Valley City community what he knew and how he feared the quality of their news coverage might diminish under Horizon's mandate.
So, masked under the guise of a syndicated column on Monday's opinion page, Morris unleashed his concerns and contempt for Horizon's managers.
Morris told The Forum that he used the deceptive byline and headline to ensure the column wouldn't be scrapped before hitting the presses.
The Times-Record publishes afternoons Monday through Friday to an average 5,300 readers each day.
"I have serious problems with the direction the newspaper's going," Morris said Wednesday.
"I don't know that the news coverage at the Times-Record is going to change tomorrow or next month," he added, "but I think over time it's going to be a subtle, gradual shift to news that doesn't serve the community like we thought we were."
In his column Monday, Morris vilified the paper's production manager, Tina Olson, who he says admitted to wanting Zinke fired.
Olson declined to comment and deferred to Horizon management, who also declined to respond.
Morris said he has no qualms with Olson but said her zeal to turn more profit led to Zinke's unwarranted departure.
"I like Tina. I just don't think she understands what she's done," he said.
Under Zinke's leadership, the Times-Record won the North Dakota Newspaper Association's First Amendment Award this year.
The award is given out annually to the publication that best exemplifies the ideals of the First Amendment.
The achievement marked a high-point in Zinke's and Morris' efforts to improve journalism quality at the Times-Record in recent years.
"That's what we devoted ourselves to, completely," Morris said. "Firing Nikki was an affront to us because Nikki led us fabulously through so much."
Zinke did not respond to a message over Facebook, an online social networking site, seeking comment.
Morris said Zinke continually stood up for the newspaper against people in the community who didn't like what the Times-Record published.
However, Horizon officials wanted an approach that emphasized positive press for local groups and didn't rock the boat, he said.
In emails Morris kept, Horizon corporate publisher Leonard Martin specifically told Morris to not publish letters to the editor that included personal attacks against Valley City's embattled police chief or scrutiny of other city officials.
Under that policy, Morris said letters the paper would've ordinarily published never saw print.
"It's a very slippery slope when you start deciding what's OK to print and what's not OK to print on the opinion page - which should be open to every person," he said.
The town of about 6,500 people has faced several controversial issues in recent years from perpetual flooding to scandals within city government.
Morris was a Forum reporter, copy editor and page designer from mid-2007 to early 2009. He joined the Times-Record as news editor in May 2009.
Tina Olson is also a former Forum Communications Co. employee. She was on the Jamestown Sun's composing staff until late last year.
Morris said he's unsure if any other Times-Record employee would leave after his and Zinke's exits.
But Morris said he's now leaving journalism altogether.
The 26-year-old Moorhead native plans to return to the classroom and study biology at the University of North Dakota - a move he'd been considering for some time.
"When this happened, it made the decision a lot easier," Morris said. "I'm going to be just fine. My concern is for that community. That's my community, those are my people."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541