Corinne Colbert, the former editor of The Athens NEWS, was fired by the Ohio branch of the paper’s publishing company Adams Publishing Group, or APG, on Friday.
APG is a newspaper company that is associated with newspapers in 20 states and several in Southeast Ohio including The Athens Messenger, The Logan Daily News and Circleville Herald.
The reasoning behind Colbert’s termination was listed as “failure to follow instructions (and) violation of company policy,” Colbert said. The company policy Colbert violated was the APG social media policy, Colbert said.
The social media posts that violated APG’s policy were since-deleted tweets posted Feb. 23 warning readers of a deceptive advertisement for “high-value collectible coins” that ran in The Athens NEWS. The advertisement was for Federated Mint, a company Colbert said various editors of APG papers first questioned the reputation of in December 2021.
“Under the terms of that social media policy … pretty much anything that you post other than retweeting our own content or speaking in purely positive terms about anything would be violations of the policy,” Colbert said.
According to the APG social media guidelines, it is encouraged that APG journalists let their communities get to know them through their social media. However, journalists should avoid posting personal opinions and political preferences.
“Nothing I said (on) social media was offensive, which is usually how people … lose their jobs over social media because they've done something offensive,” Colbert said. “They came after me because I expressed opinions.”
APG declined to comment on the situation.
A complaint about Federated Mint’s failure to fulfill an order was first reported to Colbert on Feb. 12, Colbert said. She reported the issue to the regional president of APG Media of Ohio, Mark Cohen, and Amanda Montgomery, the regional advertising manager at APG.
Colbert was allegedly told there was nothing APG could do. Cohen said APG could not vet every ad, she said.
Another complaint was reported concerning the Federated Mint ad to Alex Hulvalchick, the editor of The Athens Messenger, on Feb. 21.
“Alex Hulvalchick, who's the editor of The Athens Messenger, got a call from a woman who said that she had lost $1,000 responding to the ads that our papers had run in December from Federated Mint,” Colbert said. “When we expressed our ideas and our thoughts (about the ads) at the time, basically we were told to stay in our lane.”
After posting tweets on The Athens NEWS’ Twitter account warning readers of the Federated Mint ads, Colbert said she was ordered to delete the posts. She also met with Cohen in response to those posts made about the advertisements.
“I would say maybe 10 to 15 minutes (after posting to Twitter), Mark (Cohen) came back, (and) he was very angry with me (and) ordered me to take them down,” Colbert said. “He was particularly upset that I had named Adams Publishing Group. The first rule of Adams Publishing Group is you don't talk about Adams Publishing Group.”
Colbert proceeded to write an editorial about the Federated Mint ads, which was posted to The Athens NEWS’ website Feb. 23. The tweets have since been removed, but the editorial remains on the website.
Following the publishing of the editorial, Colbert had another meeting with Cohen and Robin Quillon, the regional president of APG Media of Eastern North Carolina. Quillon sold the advertisement spot to Federated Mint, Colbert said. She was allegedly told the ads made the company money that is needed to keep people employed.
Colbert was subsequently fired Friday morning in a meeting with Cohen and an APG human resources representative. Colbert took to social media again to announce her termination in a thread of tweets.
The post has been retweeted nearly 6,000 times and has nearly 30,000 likes. Many people have commented on the ethics of the situation and the journalism industry’s responsibility to protect readers from deceptive ads.
Aside from people on social media commenting on the situation, Mary Rogus, an associate professor of electronic journalism, believes the editor “first and foremost, (has) a duty to investigate the complaints.”
“Ethically, any company should not condone any advertising communication or create any advertising communication that is not truthful,” Rogus said. “When we say truthful, we don't just mean a set of facts. It's about context. It's about not (being) misleading. We can be truthful and still be deceptive or misleading.”
Nerissa Young, a journalism professor, said she hopes APG reevaluates its decision to run the Federated Mint ads if it is proven it has taken advantage of people.
“Regardless of the personnel issues, regardless of the free speech issues, I certainly would hope that they would revisit the agreement that they have with this advertiser and determine whether that is ultimately the best course for The Athens NEWS as it moves forward,” Young said.
Though Rogus and Young drew on their respective expertise to provide insight on general relationships between editorial and advertising sides of a newspaper, both said they could not comment on the specifics of the situation involving The Athens NEWS.
On Monday, APG used social media to reinforce its commitment to local news.
“APG understands the importance of local news to the communities we serve, which is why it is our priority and why we are dedicated to bringing it to our readers,” APG said in a tweet.
Colbert’s future plans
After her termination, Colbert started a fundraiser for an independent nonprofit newspaper in Athens County called the Athens County Independent.
Friday evening, Colbert tweeted about the Athens County Independent and asked people for donations. The original goal was $5,000, Colbert said. The fundraiser has since surpassed its original goal and has raised $15,246.
“The silver lining in all of it is that, hopefully, we're going to come out of this with a news source that the people of this county deserve,” Colbert said. “By us, for us.”