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The End of an Era
by Tench Phillips, co-owner Naro Cinema

Each year movie lovers eagerly await the holiday season for the bountiful harvest of prestigious films that have been held back by studios to release them during the major-awards season. Between the months of November and March, art houses like the Naro can draw good audiences for indy movies as well as foreign films that have received critical acclaim and media attention.

And of course we have the end-of-the-year rankings of the best movies compiled by numerous critics. But this year local newspaper readers may be deprived of the year-end selections made by the area’s long-time kingpin critic, Mal Vincent, not to mention his reviews of movies and theater that have informed Virginian-Pilot readers for more than forty years.

You are certainly justified in thinking that Mal has finally decided to call it quits so as not to have to write one more critique of a testosterone-driven Hollywood blockbuster. Or so as not to have to dutifully sit through another local stage play or Broadway touring production that he’s already experienced far too many times over the years. But Mal has had no immediate plans to retire. He loves and lives his professional life to the fullest.

Born and raised in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, Mal could have eased into a more traditional role of a Southern gentleman. Instead he chose the arduous path of a journalist, evolving over the years into a critic of national recognition within the movie industry. Mal spent much of his career traveling and collecting his interviews as an insider in Los Angeles and New York City. He developed numerous long-term relationships with some of the biggest actors, directors, and producers in the business, and has outworked and outlived many of them.

Mal has himself become quite a local celebrity. Each summer at the Naro he presents his Classic Movie Series to overflow crowds, enthralling audiences with his personal stories about life among the stars.

But instead of receiving the Pilot’s grateful acknowledgment for his lifelong dedication to the newspaper and to his adopted hometown, he unexpectedly received a pink slip handed to him by the Pilot’s management team. Mal was just one of many career writers whose positions were recently eliminated in this latest round of mass firings that have hollowed out the newsroom and the features department at the newspaper.

Some of those talented and colorful writers had built lasting relationships with their readers over the years. Word has it that popular writers like Teresa Annas, Tom Robinson, Bob Molinaro, and Dianne Tennant – whose bylines became so familiar and trusted for their insights and opinions – are no longer employed at the Pilot. And seasoned award-winning investigative reporters including Bill Sizemore were given early retirement and took a voluntary layoff.

We all have heard about the devastating effects that the web has had on the nation’s newspapers. The move by print publications to a subscription-based digital presence like e-pilot became necessary and the Pilot was an early adopter. But with the erosion of ad revenue, the management of Landmark, the Pilot’s parent media company, has always demanded a healthy profit for its owners. Apparently expenses had to be cut, and the benefits and salaries of their longtime writers were too much of a burden.

But did things have to turn out this way for the Norfolk-based, privately-held media company that has for decades enjoyed great success and has made many people very rich? Not all newspapers have so drastically cut their staffs. Could alternative journalistic models been implemented? For example, The Guardian newspaper based in the U.K. was endowed years ago by its former owners as a public trust. The Pilot owners, headed by members of the Frank Batten family, might have likewise funded and endowed their newsroom so as to maintain a high caliber of journalism.

Investigative reporting and the free-flow of information is a prerequisite for a just and democratic society. A good newspaper is crucial for the future of our community. More than ever we need a watchdog to monitor local government and its hidden relationships with big money and power. An endowed newsroom would have been a far greater egalitarian gift to our community than the Batten’s philanthropic contributions toward brick-and-mortar buildings at local universities (presumedly to hold journalism classes) and the construction of a Norfolk mega-church.

Our newspaper has been on the buyer’s market for years. Landmark has already divested its Roanoke and Greensboro papers to media syndicates. There is some speculation that the imperative to finalize negotiations with a new buyer is the reason for the mass firings. Why else would management risk creating such ill-will with its readership?

But the Pilot management is betting that we won’t notice the missing bylines over the next two months. And if some of these writers choose to return as free-lancers in 2015 – a policy propounded by management presumably to comply with federal tax laws – they’re hoping that readers won’t even realize that anything has changed.

Landmark is keeping any decision to divest the Pilot close to its chest; never mind that a sale to an outside media conglomerate could have a profound impact on our community. And that’s why a monopoly newspaper is not just another business; it should be held to a higher standard. It has a unique mission and responsibility to its community. This social contract demands a two-way commitment; we are loyal to our hometown paper and ask for the paper’s allegiance in return.

The departure of Mal Vincent as a full-time critic will most probably have a detrimental effect on the moviegoing and theater culture in our area and may especially impact the art films showcased at the Naro. We can only speculate on whether these smaller films will continue to receive some kind of newspaper coverage, as well as whether Mal will agree to the Pilot’s freelance policy after a lifelong career on the paper’s staff.

As of press time, there has yet to be an acknowledgement by the Pilot listing the names of  those who have been terminated, only a perfunctory report stating that nearly 25% of the paper’s staff has been let go. Letters to the editor from readers that are critical of Landmark’s staff firings are being suppressed – so much for the transparency of our free press. But then corporate media has always had an inherent conflict of interest that pits profits against an informed citizenry and, consequently, it has never been truly free.

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