Wis. newspaper editor demoted after column irks advertisers, files complaint to get job back

By Ryan J. Foley, AP
Thursday, October 7, 2010

Wis. editor demoted after column irks advertisers

MADISON, Wis. — A Wisconsin newspaper editor demoted after writing a column that offended advertisers has started a legal campaign to get her job back, saying she is taking a stand for editorial independence.

Autumn Drussell filed a discrimination complaint Wednesday with the Equal Rights Division seeking to be reinstated as editor of the Stoughton Courier Hub. Drussell said she is standing up for journalism at a time when struggling small newspapers are especially susceptible to advertiser influence.

Months after being named editor, Drussell wrote in a July column she was shopping more at low-cost big box stores because of the economy. She suggested that local businesses needed to improve customer service, stop badmouthing their areas and appeal to frugal customers, advice offered at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon she attended.

The column upset some of the newspaper’s advertisers in Stoughton, a city of 13,000 people, including hardware store owner Jim Gerber, who warned he would stop advertising until the economy improves.

“I will stop short from calling for your job — Walmart and Target need your money,” he wrote to the paper.

Days later, Drussell was called into a meeting with the general manager of Unified Newspaper Group, which owns the weekly and other newspapers in the region. Drussell, 35, said she was removed as editor and asked to sign a document agreeing not to write opinion pieces and be on probation for 90 days.

Unified is a division of Dubuque, Iowa-based Woodward Communications, Inc. Company officials did not respond to e-mail and phone messages from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Drussell, who works for the paper as a reporter and page designer, said she was baffled her bosses did not support her.

“I just don’t want what they did to be precedent-setting,” Drussell said. “It used to be that people at newspapers with an opinion were protected. Because of the constraints newspapers are under with the economy, it sounds like that’s not the case anymore and that’s starting to go away. That’s scary to me.”

A week after her column, the paper published an editorial urging readers to shop locally and acknowledging Drussell’s opinion left “many of our best supporters feeling betrayed.”

“While there were some legitimate points to be made … we as a newspaper erred in allowing those ideas to be overshadowed by the implications that local businesses should simply ride it out while residents shop at big box chain stores,” the editorial read.

Not everyone was upset with Drussell, the paper’s associate editor since 2007 and editor since May. City, school district and hospital leaders sent a letter to the company praising her work, Mayor Donna Olson said.

Drussell’s gender discrimination complaint notes she was demoted while a male superior, Jim Ferolie, who reviewed the column, wasn’t disciplined. Ferolie declined comment. Drussell is seeking back her job, lost wages and attorney’s fees.

Stephen Ward, a University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism ethics expert, called her demotion draconian and chilling.

“It really sends a signal that only certain ideas are legitimate,” he said.

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