Ex-Publisher Sues L.A. Times for $13 Million


      (CN) - The former publisher of the Los Angeles Times Magazine claims The Tribune Co. fired and defamed him for objecting to the newspaper's decision to save money by stopping distribution of its Sunday magazine to low-income and minority neighborhoods, while charging them the same price as "the white affluent subscribers."
     Steven Gellman sued the Tribune Co., the Los Angeles Times and Scott Pompe, the Times' senior vice president for advertising and targeted media, alleging wrongful firing, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violations of business and professions codes. He demands at $3 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages, plus costs, in Los Angeles Superior Court.
     Gellman says he began working for the defendants in July 2009 as publisher of the Times Sunday Magazine.
     "Shortly after plaintiff began working at the Los Angeles Times Magazine, he began receiving complaints from customers about defendants' discriminatory distribution of the LA Times Magazine," according to the complaint. "Defendants made the decision to eliminate distribution of the magazine in the Sunday paper to lower-income, and demographically minority neighborhoods, such as Highland Park and Compton. Although the minority subscribers in these ZIP codes were not receiving the Los Angeles Times magazine, they were still paying the same subscription price as the white affluent subscribers. Further, defendants continued to distribute the Los Angeles Times magazine in the Sunday paper in the white affluent neighborhoods."
     Gellman says he "brought these complaints directly to his direct manager, John T. O'Loughlin," who is not named as a defendant. He says O'Loughlin "dismissed the complaints, telling him that they had a 'story' for this and questioning the importance of the complaints."
     Gellman claims he attended a strategy meeting where he "witnessed defendants sexually harass an employee." He says he spoke to the defendants about reporting them to the Human Resources department, and that "Defendants were concerned that plaintiff was making waves by speaking out against the discriminatory distribution of the magazine and sexual harassment, and therefore prohibited plaintiff from contacting Human Resources."
     Immediately after this, Gellman says, "things changed for plaintiff." He says the defendants retaliated against him by changing his "reporting structure," and placing him directly under the manager he wanted to report for sexual harassment, who "was openly hostile to plaintiff."
     Gellman says that after his complaints about "discriminatory distribution practice and sexual harassment," the defendants "launched personal attacks against plaintiff's character and work habits in an attempt to isolate him from the other employees and weaken his position as publisher of the magazine."
     Gellman says he requested a meeting with Human Resources and with his direct manager in March 2010, "to discuss the hostile work environment created by defendants."
     He says he wrote an email to Human Resources on March 8, 2010, "stating his concerns about the hostile work environment that defendants had created for him," and he was fired 2 days later.
     He claims he was fired on the pretexts of "damages relationships, inability to manager his direct reports, and poor revenue. These reasons were false. In fact, plaintiff received bonuses for hitting revenue targets. Plaintiff was terminated because he complained about defendants' discriminatory distribution practices to their customers and sexual harassment."
     Gellman is represented by Deane Shanander with Shanander Thomas.
     The Times has been riddled with discord since Chicago real estate tycoon Sam Zell bought its corporate parent, Tribune Co., in 2007. (The Tribune Co. bought the Times in 2000.) Zell loaded both companies with debt, essentially using Tribune's own money to complete his acquisition, and Tribune filed for bankruptcy a year later.
     Reporters were fired and quit and top editors left in droves, some of them blasting Tribune's new management in articles in other major newspapers.
     Though the fiasco occurred as major newspapers across the nation were suffering from the recession and loss of advertising to the Internet, criticism of Zell and his managers was particularly acerbic, and credible, coming as it did from respected journalists, many of whom moved on to jobs at other major newspapers.
     Accusations of the Tribune Co. abandoning minority neighborhoods are not new. In Chicago, the Tribune has long been accused of ignoring downtown news, ceding that area to the Sun-Times, in pursuit of "better demographics" in the affluent suburbs.