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Home / Articles / News / 40th Anniversary Issue /  Almost Murdered
MAIN-Murdered
Betsy James

Almost Murdered

How SFR persevered against the biggest newspaper chain in America

June 24, 2014, 12:00 am

R

ichard McCord couldn’t believe what had just happened. Here he was in February 1981 at the Portland District Courthouse in a last-ditch effort to get a copy of a large lawsuit filed against mega newspaper corporation the Gannett Company. McCord was worried that Gannett, which by now owned the Santa Fe New Mexican, was going to employ dirty tactics to drive his own baby, the weekly Santa Fe Reporter, out of business.

Echoes of Gannett’s shrill maneuvers persisted throughout McCord’s trip to Oregon, but he couldn’t find any hard evidence to support them. The parent company of Salem Community Press, a weekly newspaper that went out of business in 1978, accused its Gannett-owned morning Oregon Statesman and afternoon Capital Journal dailies of engaging in serious antitrust violations that led to their demise.

In court, they were asking for up to $6 million in damages.

"Like every living thing, the Santa Fe Reporter would someday die. But it would not be this year, or the next, or the next. And it would not be at the hands of these bastards."

Back at home, Wayne Vann, the advertising executive who led the Gannett-owned Salem dailies on a rampage to make the Community Press defunct, had just been promoted to a new post as president and general manager the New Mexican. Presumably, he intended for the Reporter to have the same fate as its Salemite counterpart.

No one in Oregon would share the specifics of how Gannett’s tactics drove the Community Press out of business. The details in the lawsuit against Gannett were sealed by gag order.

So McCord tried his last straw: going to the courthouse and simply asking for the case. He could hardly hold back when the clerk handed over a foot-thick pile detailing the allegations, sworn affidavits and cross-examinations of the many people involved.

“They must have thought I was a lawyer,” McCord tells SFR.

For the next three days, McCord planted himself in the courthouse during business hours and vigorously copied all of the details of the lawsuit by hand. At any minute, he thought that a clerk, or perhaps the judge herself, would discover that he was looking at a file clearly marked “CONFIDENTIAL” and take it away from him.

Minute by minute, hour by hour, McCord learned about Gannett’s vicious campaign to take all of the advertisers from Community Press and monopolize the newspaper business in Salem. According to the court documents, Vann oversaw a campaign that the Gannettoids dubbed “Operation Demolition.” In it, Gannett paid its advertising staffers bonuses for every advertising account that they drove out of the Community Press and into their publications.

Advertising staffers who succeeded in their efforts were dubbed “Dobermans.” And to further enhance the carrot on the stick, Gannett would wait until just before Christmas to pay the bonuses.

“When an advertiser is demolished from The Community Press, you receive a code C for credit $10.00 per account each week the account stays demolished,” read one internal memo written to the advertising staff by Vann.

Vann pushed his staff to do so by any means and his higher-ups at Gannett did everything to encourage him. In a memo to a top Gannett official, Statesman Journal publisher N.S. “Buddy” Hayden wrote that the demise of the Community Press’ Sunday edition after six months of Operation Demolition was “a source of inspiration and pride to all of us here.”

“We are doing the job the way it ought to be done,” Hayden wrote. “We are getting results. We have protected the franchise.”

As he read through the court file, McCord’s initial suspicions about Gannett now seemed justified.

“They started offering free advertising to people who had quit using the weekly,” he says. “They offered free vacations to people who would quit using the weekly. They said, ‘If you quit using them we’ll show you a good time.’ They started rumor campaigns that the weekly was going out of business. When they drove the advertisers out, they told the few remaining ones, ‘We’re not going to accept you back.’”

While the expected aftermath of the Community Press demise resulted in several unemployed reporters from that publication, employees at the Gannett papers soon learned that they were up the creek. In the summer of 1980, Gannett merged the morning and afternoon papers into the Statesman Journal, laying off 31 employees and dropping 90 columns worth of news space in the process.

Local advertisers now had only one option for newspaper print ads.

McCord, determined to prevent this from happening in Santa Fe, raced back to his office and typed up what would become one of the signature exposés in his 14 years at the helm of SFR.

“What Gannett had in mind for us was unacceptable,” he later wrote in 1996 book The Chain Gang: One Newspaper versus the Gannett Empire. “Like every living thing, the Santa Fe Reporter would someday die. But it would not be this year, or the next, or the next. And it would not be at the hands of these bastards.”

On March 5, 1981, SFR published “The Newspaper That Was Murdered,” a six-page spread devoted to uncovering Gannett’s ruthless campaign in Salem. In the report, Gannett officials wouldn’t discuss Salem because of the pending lawsuit. Though they did deny that they intentionally drove the weekly out of business.

Still, McCord devoted the last page of the report to a commentary urging advertisers and readers that any rumors about SFR going out of business were untrue. He wrote that antitrust experts were advising SFR to speak out, something that the Community Press never did.

McCord added that SFR wasn’t afraid of friendly competition.

“If the new regime at The New Mexican keeps it clean, there will be no complaints from us,” he wrote. “But based on the record in Salem, when Gannett tries to kill something, it turns readily to a number of weapons that clean competition would abhor: greed, lies, deceit, fraud, intimidation, bribery, fear, pressure, illegality.”

McCord wasn’t able to get Vann to comment for the story; Vann was apparently out of town, though McCord reached his wife and told her to get Vann to contact him.

“I waited until the last day to call him,” McCord says today. “I didn’t want to tell him three, four days beforehand and get a gag order to prevent our report, [but] I made a very genuine effort to reach him.”

After the story published, Gannett settled with the defunct Salem weekly for an undisclosed sum (McCord says rumors had the figure at $4-$5 million).

Eventually, McCord ran into Vann, who told him he felt “injured” by the exposé. Vann left the New Mexican in 1986. Two years later, McCord sold SFR to former news staffer Hope Aldrich. In 1989, Robert McKinney bought his daily paper back after a lengthy trial, pushing the conglomerate’s reach completely out of Santa Fe. Today, his daughter Robin McKinney Martin owns the paper.

The New Mexican caught up with Vann years later, shortly after McCord published The Chain Gang. In the interview, Vann, now living in Tucson, denied that he ever planned to kill McCord’s weekly. But he did admit that he thought SFR at the time had more of Santa Fe’s advertising market than it was entitled to.

“He portrayed me as a person sent to town to run him out of business,” Vann said of McCord. “I wasn’t sent here to do that. I was just sent to get [the New Mexican] back on its feet.”

By online accounts, Vann died in 2006. When SFR called an Arizona phone number associated with his name, it led to endless rings. Gannett also declined to comment for this story.

To this day, McCord is adamant that if it hadn’t been for that fluke at the Portland courthouse that got him to view the sealed lawsuit against Gannett, SFR would have been history a long time ago.

“If I didn’t know about this beforehand, they would have driven us out of business,” he says. “They would have started rumor campaigns to sign up advertisers. A lot of people would have gone for it. I knew they were going to do this.”   


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