AMERICA'S ART PHILOSOPHER: Nightly Noodle Monthly
I Got Fired For Being A Journalist

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by Isaac Avilucea

NORTH ADAMS, MASS — Usually, it’s a cardinal sin in journalism to bog down ledes with numbers, but the math on this is staggering: I drove more than 2,000 miles from Albuquerque, NM to North Adams, Mass. to get fired in 18 days.

In short, I got railroaded by reactionary politics after a story that should have blown over, blew up.

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A colleague suggested contacting Poynter to get the story out. I did that, but haven’t heard back, so I’m forging ahead with an account after the North Adams Transcript ran an editorial distancing itself from a Friday feature about McCann Tech girls soccer player Cheyanne Alcombright’s decision to transfer from Mount Greylock Regional High School.

[Note: Since publication, The Poynter Institute HAS picked up the story!]

The ABCs of this are as such: Sports editor Josh Colligan was the only editor to read my story during the editorial process.

Colligan didn’t flag it or ask me to rewrite passages Thursday afternoon and sent out a tweet the next day praising the story.

Editor-in-chief Michael Foster, admittedly, didn’t read the story pre-publication because he said he only reads A1 copy. But he fired me following a conference call between the head of New England Newspapers Inc. and school superintendents.

Saturday, in further backpedaling from the story, the Transcript apologized:

A segment of the story in question unintentionally cast aspersions on the academics of McCann and colored in a pallor the social environment at MountGreylock. This serious editorial mistake has caused a great amount of angst for many — and rightfully so. … The mistakes we have made are felt throughout the Northern Berkshire community, and as part of that family, the Transcript extends a sincere and heartfelt apology to all affected by them.

If you’re still wondering why, in a span of two weeks, I went from bubbling at joining the Transcript staff to waiving the banner of ex-NENI employee, you should be more concerned about how badly this bodes for newspapers’ reputations when a small-town daily declares itself part of the “family.” What I learned is that blood is thicker than water in watershed moments, and I’m not kin in North Adams. Before I go on, I must exonerate Colligan. It wasn’t his decision to part ways; he was actually an ardent backer. I hope he survives the ordeal. But Friday night, Colligan, exasperated and at a loss for words, didn’t know his fate as we shook hands.

I awoke Friday morning with stubs for legs after the Transcript effectively cut me at the knees.

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North Adams, Mass., where journalism is deader than these people.

The story on Alcombright focused on her decision to transfer to McCann, in North Adams, this year after spending seventh, eighth and ninth grade at Mount Greylock in Williamstown.

At Mount Greylock, Alcombright said she experienced social isolation and was evicted from her clique. When she tried out for the Mount Greylock soccer team, she was slotted on the junior varsity because she missed preseason workouts. The day of the Mounties’ first game, the head coach, Tom Ostheimer, took her jersey and encouraged her to go out for the team the next year. She described a stuffy culture at Mount Greylock and compared the school’s social dynamics to the movie “Mean Girls,” while acknowledging the curriculum equipped students for college. In transferring to McCann, Alcombright compromised academics and athletics for happiness.

“I feel like they challenged you more at Greylock than they do here,” she said. “They just kinda give you work and you do it. I don’t mean to sound [arrogant], but I feel ahead of everybody in my grade because their academics are behind what Mount Greylock is doing. I feel like I already know everything I’m doing, basically. So it’s easier here.”

That quote actually didn’t appear in the story, but was foundation for a line in the “offending” passage. That passage reads as follows:

But there’s a reason she’s not at MountGreylock anymore, choosing to transfer to a school with somewhat inferior academics and athletics. Part of it has to do with the stuffy social atmosphere that pervades the school. “If you take the movie ‘Mean Girls,’” Alcombright said, “that’s MountGreylock. To be completely honest, everybody at MountGreylock, even though they’re friends and in their friend group, they all hate each other.”

This is the justification the Transcript used for parting ways with me. Before I arrived for work, I sensed it was going that direction after waking to a call from Colligan, who phoned from the road while headed to Plattsburgh for an alumni panel. He said Foster was bothered by the story after fielding calls from school principals and angry parents.

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Above is the offending article.

Initially, Colligan said to set aside time so we could meet with McCann brass to discuss the article. I was OK walking into the principal’s office for a stern scolding so long as the newspaper backed me. Every indication from Colligan told me that was the case.

But Foster’s aura immediately unsettled me when I arrived at the Transcript office. I couldn’t remember the password to log into the computer, so I texted Colligan.

“I’m all flustered. What’s my password?”

“No reason to be flustered.”

Before Foster roped me into a meeting, he took a phone call, and I overheard him ask the person on the other end if he or she wanted us to remove the story from the website. By that time, the online version was scrubbed of the passage.

When we finally sat down in the conference room, Foster accused me of “gravely editorializing” the quote setup. I explained the story was based on reporting from interviews, and this was Alcombright’s account, so I felt secure not bogging down a feature with attribution, especially because the quotes supported it.

But it became increasingly apparent Foster was more concerned about what was said, not the presentation. He criticized the “Mean Girls” quote, saying the Transcript wasn’t into propagating stereotypes. The story’s central question was, “Why did Alcombright leave Mount Greylock?” The “Mean Girls” quote summarized her rationale in a sound-bite. Foster said I needed to be discerning about quoting sources since I was the “adult” in the situation.

In the back of my head I thought, “Did the Transcript hire me as a filterer or a reporter? I’m not here to filter what people say; I’m here to report what people say.” I vigorously defended my work, which only irritated Foster, who said he got the impression I wasn’t “getting it.”

What was he intimating? Foster broke by saying he hadn’t decided my status and asked for a copy of the recording. Meanwhile, while this took place, the head of NENI was on a conference call with school superintendents.

I went about my daily routine, pounding out stories. Four o’clock rolled around, my sports editor walked in, and I was shuffled into another meeting. Foster, with Colligan sitting across the table, terminated my employment. In explaining the dismissal, he said McCann’s superintendent barred me from campus and the Transcript couldn’t have a reporter on staff with those restrictions.

I walked out of the conference room, gathered my belongings and turned in the company-issued phone. As I walked toward my car, Foster emerged asking for my parking pass. That was our last interaction. Our first, he told me journalism was about “building doors, not walls.” But if that door leads straight to journalist hell, I’d rather build a wall.

Editor’s Note: Isaac Avilucea is currently seeking steady employment/writing opportunities on the East Coast. If you know of any editors who could use an intrepid young scribe on their team, email Isaac directly at IJAVILU at GMAIL dot COM.

And that’s the word from the Nightly Noodle Monthly!

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