Veteran Connecticut Post reporter Anne Amato, still on the payroll, is suing the Hearst Corporation, the paper’s owner, for picking on old scribes. Is this grounds for a discrimination lawsuit? Seems like a bunch of grizzled scribes, in a sea of younger journalists, are still around and still producing for the Post. Amato claims, however, she was unjustly threatened with termination. Amato’s hired that old legal warhorse John R. Williams to represent her. Williams’ complaint doesn’t exactly overwhelm with information about how Amato was harmed.
Williams claims, according to a story by the Valley Independent, that 25-year-old Post reporter Brittany Lyte (Amato’s Facebook friend) was rewarded with a surfing sabbatical while Amato, a former state politics editor, was banished to cover the Valley. Amato had initially filed a complaint with the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, but it did not go far. One thing’s for sure, Amato’s editors will be, at least for a while, treating her very cautiously.
A Connecticut Post reporter is suing her employer, claiming the newspaper is trying to “rid itself of its older reporters.”
The three-page lawsuit, filed by Anne Amato, the Post’s Valley reporter, alleges age discrimination and seeks compensatory and punitive damages in excess of $15,000.
According to the lawsuit, which is posted at the end of this story, Amato’s bosses at the Post put her on a “personal improvement plan” in October 2011 and were gearing up to fire her by Dec. 7, 2011.
Amato, 64, still works at the newspaper but claims the Post’s owner, the Hearst Corporation, has a pattern of targeting older reporters.
Amato’s lawyer, John Williams of New Haven, contrasted his client’s predicament with 25-year-old Post reporter Brittany Lyte, who Williams said is on sabbatical while traveling the world learning to surf.
The situation is “strong evidence” of age discrimination, Williams said.
Lyte graduated from college in 2009. She has worked for the Hearst Corporation for three years.
“It’s pretty appalling,” Williams said. “You have a reporter whose commitment to the paper extends no further than that, then you have somebody like Anne, a dogged reporter from the ground level up, and you treat her like they did.”
Post publisher John DeAugustine and executive editor Barbara Roessner did not return calls and e-mails for comment left Wednesday.
Both Amato and Lyte declined comment.
Amato is a familiar face in the lower Naugatuck Valley. She previously worked at the former Evening Sentinel. She was an editor at The Hour in Norwalk.
At the Post, she’s previously served as Naugatuck Valley bureau chief and was the paper’s state politics editor.
She has deep sources in Shelton and was the first to report the “Team Tate” prom proposal controversy in 2011.
Her problems with her bosses first came to light in December 2011, after she filed an age discrimination complaint with the state’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.
Her complaint didn’t go far in the commission’s process, as Amato received a “release of jurisdiction” in June which allowed her to pursue a civil lawsuit against her employer.
Williams said Wednesday Amato may be willing to settle the lawsuit but that he has received “zero” communication from the Post or Hearst.
“The time to settle these cases are usually at the CHRO,” he said. “The reason we requested a release of jurisdiction is that they came in with no settlement position.”
Hearst owns four daily newspapers in Fairfield County–The News-Times of Danbury, The Connecticut Post, The Stamford Advocate and The Greenwich Time.
The leadership structure at the Post has changed since Amato first complained to the state commission.
Earlier this year, Tom Baden, her former editor, was transferred to Danbury to replace editor Art Cummings. David McCumber, former Stamford Advocate and Hearst Connecticut executive editor, was re-assigned to Washington, D.C.
Roessner, a former Hartford Courant editor, was hired as McCumber’s replacement. Robert Fredericks, a Bridgeport native, is now the Post’s editor.
In addition to Amato, the lawsuit says three other “highly respected” Post reporters over the age of 40 “were given threats of termination” by the newspaper.
“The defendant had established a pattern of terminating or threatening to terminate older employees of The Connecticut Post with outstanding performance records by placing them on such Performance Improvement Plans without just cause,” the lawsuit says.
The Post “was attempting to rid itself of its older reporters regardless of their skill and work records,” the document says.
Williams said that the Post honchos didn’t follow through with their plans to fire the reporters because of Amato’s initial discrimination complaint to the state commission.
The Post “unreasonably and without cause placed the plaintiff in great fear of losing her employment and caused her to suffer severe emotional distress,” the lawsuit claims.
Does This Case Have Legs?
The fact that Amato wasn’t actually fired could weaken her lawsuit, according to Jonathan Orleans, a labor attorney with Pullman and Comley, LLC in Bridgeport.
Amato was only threatened with termination, according to her lawsuit.
“Based on that, one wonders what her damages are? I’m not sure she’s been harmed at this point,” Orleans said. “That’s part of her burden in the case. I’m speculating, though, because I have not read the case.”
The lawyer defending Hearst against Amato’s claims made the same point, arguing the case should be dismissed because “(Amato) has not alleged any actionable adverse employment action.”
A judge hasn’t ruled on the motion.
Orleans has represented the Post in previous employment matters, but is not connected to Amato’s lawsuit nor any other Post lawsuit at the moment.
Did You Say Surfing?
Orleans said connecting age discrimination to Lyte’s surfing sabbatical and Amato’s newsroom problems could be misleading.
“There could be evidence of something like that happening, but, again, the plaintiff has to get over the hurdle of whether she has experienced any harm,” Orleans said.
The labor lawyer said “an employer might have lots of different reasons for giving one employee a leave of absence and not giving another employee a leave of absence.”
The reasons could be based on performance.
“Employers have some discretion in that regard as long as they don’t discriminate,” Orleans said.
In fact, Lyte’s brief career in journalism has been distinguished by two high honors.
Earlier this year her reporting earned her the “Publick Occurrences Award” from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. She also received the Stephen A. Collins Public Service Award from the Connecticut Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Lyte covers Stratford for the Post. Another reporter is covering her beat while she is away, according to a post on her publicly available (as of Wednesday, Dec. 6) Facebook profile.
Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, said there is a “long tradition in journalism” of letting people take sabbaticals to write books–he took one himself while working for the Boston Phoenix, he pointed out.
Learning to surf is a new one, he said, but when a company is struggling to meet its bottom line, a sabbatical is a sabbatical–assuming the person isn’t collecting his or her salary.
“I would imagine that in this incredibly challenging environment, if one of your people came to you and said ‘I would like to leave the paper for a year and not get paid,’ that is attractive for a whole host of reasons,” Kennedy said. “As a general proposition, that would be pretty attractive to any company that is dealing with a tough economic environment.”
Complaints of age discrimination aren’t unheard of in the news business–especially in television news.
Former Fox CT television anchor Shelly Sindland filed a complaint with the state over the way she was allegedly treated by her bosses.
A columnist for the American Journalism Review two years ago wondered whether such complaints are “career suicide.”
In February, a veteran print reporter sent a letter to Romenesko, a highly-read journalism site, wondering whether newspaper age discrimination is simply ignored by newspapers.
At the same time, print media has taken a merciless beating in the last 10 years in terms of circulation, advertising and staff.
Those factors put experienced reporters with higher salaries at risk.
“We’re in a business where experience is great, but a willingness to hustle and a willingness to take less money might be seen as even more valuable to management,” Kennedy said. “If you’ve got older, more experienced reporters who are higher up on the pay scale–I have no insight into the Connecticut Post, I want to make that clear–but in general, people at the higher end of the pay scale may find they’re vulnerable in a shrinking business.”
In general, Orleans, the labor attorney, said he is not aware of an increase of age discrimination claims among print reporters. But the ingredients are there.
“What I’ve seen more of, really, are news stories about reductions in staffs at newspapers and some degree of replacing employed reporters with contractors,” he said. “Those are circumstances that you might expect to lead to age claims.”
Age has traditionally been an issue in newsrooms, albeit in whispers. The advent of the Internet deepened the generational divide between some reporters.
Journalism professor Vivian Martin of Central Connecticut State University said that “people have always had a suspicion that this business is for the young.”
“I remember being a young reporter and hearing people say they didn’t want to turn 40 in the newsroom,” Martin said in an e-mail. “But, of course, many people went on to have great careers beyond 40. Nevertheless, from my involvement with various national groups of journalism educators, I have had conversations with colleagues who say their new grads are getting hired for positions that people used to go into with more years under their belt.
“The younger people may have multimedia skills some older journalists have not embraced, and the younger ones are cheaper,” Martin went on. “That said, I cannot quantify the trend.”