Jeffrey Good was fired Monday from his job as the executive editor for a group of New England newspapers. Then he was asked to sign a non-disparagement clause in exchange for a generous severance payment. He said no.

So Good feels free to detail the circumstances that preceded his dismissal, and they are worth detailing. “My firing, your fair pay,” reads the subject line in an email that Good sent on Wednesday morning to his now-former colleagues. The opening sounded like something that came from the keyboard of a guy who’s been in journalism for 37 years: “Publisher Mike Rifanburg informed me this week that I am being fired. The reason: I advocated for transparency and fair pay for our female colleagues at the Daily Hampshire Gazette and its sister publications,” reads the email.

As the email makes plain, Good received complaints in recent months from three women in the newsroom — two reporters and one photojournalist — that they were underpaid in comparison to male colleagues. “I listened to what they had to say,” recalled Good. “I looked at the numbers and started comparing them and I said, ‘Yeah, they have a point.’ ” He brought the matter to Rifanburg, who also agreed; raises were issued. The equity problem stemmed from men who were given higher salaries because they either arrived at the company from jobs with higher salaries or had competing offers, says Good, who accepted a “share” of the blame for not heading off the problem.

In a statement, the three journalists — Lisa Spear, Sarah Crosby and Emily Cutts — stated, “Our job as journalists is to ask tough questions and to tell the truth. That charge does not stop when we walk through the doors of our own newsroom. Pay parity is a complicated and important issue and we look forward to continuing the conversation.”

According to Good, the entry-level pay for a reporter at the newspapers is about $30,000, with an annual salary increase of 2 percent — which amounts to $600 a year.

“Some” of the raise seekers received boosts that were higher than the annual increase, according to Good, who credited Rifanburg for his cooperation. “Initially, I felt like we were really working in partnership,” said Good.

The way Good told the story, however, management didn’t sustain the generosity or its willingness to plumb the pay-equity problem. Not all the staffers were happy with the raises, and then another wave of requests rolled in. “Other women came forward and said, ‘We feel like we’ve suffered the same thing.’ All of this put pressure on the budget. We hadn’t budgeted for a bunch of big raises,” said Good. In one meeting, Good alleged, Rifanburg called the raise-seekers “girls” and “selfish young ladies.”

Not only did female staffers want their financial due, they wanted a meeting to pose questions about compensation. That latter part turned out to be tricky. “Where things really broke down, honestly, was on the point of transparency,” said Good. Staffers wanted to know how the company reached decisions about pay and raises, preferably in a meeting that included the publisher. Good indicated that he’d be happy to participate in such a meeting, but claimed Rifanburg wasn’t quite as happy. “He rejected the idea of a staff meeting and berated me for supporting it,” Good wrote in his email to former colleagues. “’You should be a leader,’ he said. ‘Instead, you are being led.’ ”

Staffers broke through the resistance: After Good failed to secure the meeting, they appealed directly to the publisher. Next Thursday, they’re scheduled to hash it all out. Employers across many industries have struggled to address pay-gap issues. As reported in this blog, management at The Washington Post has clashed with the Washington-Baltimore News Guild over its analysis of the newspaper’s pay gap.

Good won’t be there for the proceedings, of course. On Monday, he went into his weekly meeting with Rifanburg. As Good recollected, Rifanburg said “I need a change in leadership.” As the executive editor for the Newspapers of New England’s Pioneer Valley newspaper group, the 59-year-old Good had overseen the work of 60-plus staffers spread across the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Greenfield Recorder, Athol Daily News, Amherst Bulletin and Valley Advocate, with a coverage area of Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties in western Massachusetts. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for editorial writing while working for the St. Petersburg Times, and has worked at New England newspapers over the past two decades.

In a statement to the Erik Wemple Blog, Rifanburg wrote:

Respectfully, the Daily Hampshire Gazette and the Recorder disagree with Mr. Good’s negative characterizations about our ongoing efforts to meet and work with employees to address pay concerns. Since 2016, we have been actively engaged at the Gazette and Recorder in reviewing pay in all areas to determine if there are differences in pay and address any differences we find. We started and took these measures before Mr. Good was involved, and we will continue with these important analyses after Mr. Good’s departure. We started this review, not Mr. Good. Although we cannot discuss personnel matters out of respect for our employees, Mr. Good’s transition is in no way due to his participation in the Gazette’s ongoing efforts to address pay equity issues.

“Please be assured,” continues the statement, “that we commend any employee for voicing concerns about pay equity in the workplace and for suggesting ways in which pay structures can be improved or made more transparent.” It also references an “ongoing dialogue” with employees about pay issues.

Asked to react to the statement, Good wrote via email: “I’m glad to hear of the ‘ongoing dialogue,’ but make no mistake: It was these women who raised the tough questions and would not rest until the company answered them.”

Two former female staffers who worked under Good cautioned James Warren of Poynter not to view Good as an equal-pay crusader. “Jeff is not the hero he makes himself out to be,” said former Daily Hampshire Gazette managing editor for news Laurie Loisel.

Good responded to the criticism: “It’s disappointing that, as women who helped lead the way for a new generation of Gazette women journalists, Laurie and Kathleen [Mellen] are not celebrating the courage of their successors. Instead, they choose to grind an old ax.”

Update: One of the three original complainants, Sarah Crosby, said in an email reported by the Daily Hampshire Gazette:

The several closed-door meetings Jeff and I had continued a culture that was secretive, stressful and difficult to move the issue forward in. Additionally, I am disappointed in Jeff’s decision to name me and two other women in his company-wide email without our consent and without notifying us.

 

Below is Good’s complete email to his former colleagues:

Dear Colleagues,
Publisher Mike Rifanburg informed me this week that I am being fired. The reason: I advocated for transparency and fair pay for our female colleagues at the Daily Hampshire Gazette and its sister publications.
A group of three talented and courageous women in the Gazette newsroom — reporters Lisa Spear and Emily Cutts and photojournalist Sarah Crosby — complained in recent months that they were being underpaid, in light of their education, experience and contributions to our award-winning news reports. They were right. I went into Mike’s office and pushed for them — and others who had not yet complained, female and male — to be paid equitably.
I accept my share of blame for the situation that prompted the women’s protests. While I have always taken pride in seeking raises for deserving employees, I (and my boss) failed to see the gap developing as we hired some male reporters at higher-than-existing rates based on their previous salaries or competing job offers. I appreciated the women pointing out the disparity and felt honor-bound to address it as quickly as possible.
The newswomen, along with some male colleagues, also asked for greater transparency from management in how compensation decisions are made, for a staff gathering rather than exclusively one-on-one meetings.
I supported these requests, asking Mike to authorize raises for these women and others in our family of newspapers. I also advocated for a staff meeting at which we could do what the newspapers ask the leaders of other powerful institutions to do: Provide honest answers to fair questions.
Initially, Mike seemed to be a willing partner; he said he supported equity and approved some increases. But as more staffers clamored for raises and pressure on the budget increased, Mike became resentful and resistant in our closed-door meetings. He rejected the idea of a staff meeting and berated me for supporting it. “You should be a leader,” he said. “Instead, you are being led.”
Funny. I thought being a leader meant precisely this — listening respectfully to legitimate concerns and then responding to them in a clear and respectful way.
After Lisa, Sarah and Emily refused to give up, Mike finally relented and asked me to schedule the staff meeting now set for next Thursday, Feb. 8 at 4 p.m. But he is none too happy about it or about the raises. In our last conversation before he fired me, Mike repeatedly referred to Lisa, Sarah and Emily as “girls” and “selfish young ladies.”
I reject those demeaning terms. Instead, I would call our colleagues brave young women — women who are showing the way to a workplace defined by equity rather than exclusivity, a newsroom that stands for the things I’ve thought a newsroom should stand for since I began in this business 37 years ago: justice, respect and truth.
I’ve worked for Newspapers of New England since 2000, first at the Valley News in New Hampshire and, since 2014, here. I’m proud of the role I’ve been able to play in helping talented journalists to do their best work, in leading us to accolades including New England Newspaper of the Year and — most importantly — in serving our communities with journalism that stands up to bullies rather than shrinking before them.
I walk out of here with my head held high, proud of the work that we’ve done together over the years. I won’t yield to bullying, and I know you will not, either. Every day, you make me proud.
Jeff