mountainxlogoHere’s the latest insight into the turmoil at Mountain Xpress, Asheville’s alternative news weekly. I’ve been documenting a raft of recent staff turnover at Xpress, and now here’s this: a letter that former Xpress photographer Max Cooper sent to Xpress editor Margaret Williams seeking answers to exactly what was going on.

Cooper sent the letter on Thursday, Oct. 24. The next day, Publisher Jeff Fobes called Cooper and fired him over the phone.

Here’s the letter:

Margaret Williams Managing Editor
The Mountain Xpress 2 Wall Street Asheville, NC 28801

Margaret:

When you decided to transfer me into Editorial, you told me the tension in the department had died down. This ran counter to Jeff’s assertion that he didn’t know if “the bleeding had stopped.” Clearly, Xpress is still bleeding, as evidenced by the resignations of two editors in the past two days, neither of which have been acknowledged by management.

This is precisely why I preferred to remain in the Art & Design department. Not only were my objections overruled, they are now clearly proven valid. But because I am an Editorial staff member, Editorial direction and vision is now my concern. While I speak only for myself, I’m copying the rest of the news team so that your answers to my concerns will be heard by them as well.

We have heard the explanation that Rebecca was somehow to blame for the five resignations that more or less coincided with hers. If that is the case, why are people still leaving? What is being done to retain the staff we have left? Why has it been so difficult to retain leadership in A&E? Why are people being told that if they don’t like the way things are done, they can leave? How should we feel about this attitude? How does this trend empower us to serve an engaged readership?

Since August we have lost eight competent people, including two managers. We have replaced them with fewer positions, including an Art & Design manager who, by her own admission, cannot design covers. We have replaced outstanding staff content with lackluster freelance contributions. Members of staff are being publicly asked on Twitter to comment on rumors that we are going out of business. Morale is non-existent. Conflicts of interest are rampant: We run promotional pieces for friendly businesses written by their own staff, and our advertising salespeople are now contributing to editorial content. You’ve said our ad-to-editorial ratio is consistently low. If raises have been given I’m unaware of it, and there was no bonus for our hard work with this year’s Best of WNC project.

You have assembled a team of curious, insightful journalists. It’s our job to ask hard questions; thank you for your prompt attention to these.

Sincerely,

Max Cooper
cc: Jeff Fobes, David Forbes, Jake Frankel, Caitlin Byrd, Lea McClellan

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41 Comments

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  3. Independent media in Asheville is not only a need or expectation, it is imperative. Asheville has seen change in media for decades, but the internet is changing the ways we follow, consume, and react to and with it.

    From reader to advertiser, from activist to entrepreneur, from employees former to current, I imagine that we all want the team at Mountain Xpress to strive for a mission and vision that will continue a successful, independent print media.

    I liked this week’s cover. I used to work with the person who designed it. They replaced another person I know. I want this paper to work, but I’m not sure how this thread is going to help, and yet I read and contribute.

  4. You know… Unfortunately, as a journalist, a business owner, an Asheville creative-type, and a friend to both commenters and commentees, what I find most disturbing about this whole discourse is not really the topic, because I actually know both sides better than most in this case, but the actual failure of true citizen journalism. It’s actually personally upsetting. There is a lack of moderator in this case which seems necessary to keep the unfolding story from becoming petty, personal, and completely unbalanced. It actually makes me sad. Bring on the comments about anything, but be insightful and work hard to remove yourself too personally from the story. Everything happening at Mountain Xpress right now is all about making it a better community voice and a better community for its employees. And that is something to be supported. Even if you have reason to disbelieve or be skeptical of, it’s still a cause to give a chance to. We are an impassioned community, and that’s why we love living here. But our passions can also come across as powerful weapons. It’s our responsibility to use our passions intelligently.

    • You really want to argue that everything happening at the Xpress right now is about “making it a better community voice and a better community for its employees” when their most senior reporter is talking about unionizing? Maybe you need to step back from your own biases and look at what’s really happening…

  5. A few months ago I sat in the basement of our public library downtown with 2 enormous boxes before me. Dumping them onto the table, I sat for hours thumbing through each issue of the Mountain Xpress since their birth in August of 1994. Unveiling week by week twenty years of the history of this town I have come to love: the day our Fine Arts Theatre celebrated their grand opening, ads from The Hop, our beloved ice cream shop, when it was located in that old filling station on Merrimon. Then there were those businesses some of you may fondly remember, Be Here Now, 45 Cherry, Beanstreets Coffee… were you here when Julian Price wheeled through downtown in a wheelchair just to prove how difficult downtown was to navigate? Through changes in political leadership, controversy and heartbreak, celebrations and innovations, I don’t think anyone can argue that the Xpress, hasn’t played a key role in building and strengthening the local fabric of the Asheville we know and love. The past few years have proven to be challenging times for big and small media alike. While respecting those who have left the paper, we have the opportunity to stand together as a community and show our support for those who are weathering the changes and those who are coming aboard with new talent and ideas. This paper knows and has helped form our history as a city. Under the leadership of Jeff Fobes, it has birthed and nurtured some of our town’s best writers and artists. It has a mission to serve the people and I think you would be hard pressed to find many communities of this size and popularity where a locally-owned, mission-driven weekly publication still exists. While we have an obligation to keep our media in check, we also, as a community, have a responsibility to value the resources we have nurtured over the years and help them grow stronger instead of tearing them down.

    • Franzi, thank you for this.

    • While I can appreciate your view, I know that view is slightly blinded by the your business partnership between MX and Go Local. I don’t think anyone is questioning the value of MX. Alternative news media plays a great role in every community, especially AVL.

      The issue at hand is the mismanagement of MX’s employees. That’s why folks are leaving. Without the employees, there is no paper. Period. Jeff cannot run the paper by himself. Until he realizes that employee morale, proper compensation and the willingness for open dialogue are important factors in running a business, employee turnover will continue at it’s current pace.

      There will always be young, ambitious people willing to work for nothing in a hostile work environment just to get a foot in the door. Sooner or later, just as we’ve seen recently, they will also part ways with MX. Maybe we can just chalk it up to a cyclical thing, but it seems as though Jeff would want to keep top writers, designer and sales folks on staff instead of watching them walk out the door and into the arms of competition.

      • “While I can appreciate your view, I know that view is slightly blinded by the your business partnership between MX and Go Local.”

        Truer words never spoken. Transparency would do us all well.

        Pablum and sentimentalities about Asheville history doesn’t cloud the reality of unsound business management. The moral of this story is: treat your workers with respect and they will reward you tenfold.

  6. You can’t handle the truth

  7. Jack Nicholson says:

    I think it’s time we hear from the ole’ geezer himself.

    A open letter to the readers in the Xpress..Better yet you can make a special issue out of it and sell ads around it for profit. Make it three issues and tell your advertisers how beneficial it would be to run in all 3…

    Come on put those goats away and start writing Jeffrey.

    • This would be a great way to put all of this hearsay to bed, right? Problem is, he would never address these issues publicly. He always been a behind-closed-doors kind of guy.

  8. Think of what is going on at Mountain Xpress as a sort of stock market overcorrection. Every traditional print media outlet in the nation is “bleeding” and trying to figure out a new model for survival. And that seems to be all Mountain Xpress is really doing. Trying a sort of remodel to adapt to the new way of being a print publication. And people, especially people who have been doing the same thing the same way for a long time, don’t like change. It’s easier to bail than work hard at change. The changes Mountain Xpress are going through aren’t out of greed, or loss of mission, or management tirades. They’re just part of entrepreneurial survival. The business owner doesn’t have the “luxury” of bailing instead of working hard on change. Entrepreneurs have to make tough decisions and personal sacrifices at times to keep a business afloat and their employees with paychecks. There’s no real right way or wrong way. It’s business. After the storm is over and dust settles, an even stronger, more viable Mountain Xpress will emerge each and every Wednesday, just as it has for years and years now.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Barry.

    • When you look at it through the eyes of the business owner it sure doesn’t seem as sinister as most are suggesting.

    • I appreciate and respect Barry’s perspective – from one who is a current business owner, a supporting friend of Fobes and a former publisher. I always try to understand conflict and resolution by putting myself in other people’s shoes. Barry’s reasoning sounds like our father’s generation talking to us. If we followed this mentality that I’ll call ‘Fauxbian’, we would never have companies like Patagonia, Clif Bar Inc., Smith & Hawkens, New Belgium Brewery and Sierra Nevada — corporate leadership which puts a premium on their employees, work culture and sense of belonging, and an investment toward a common goal. This culture can’t be fabricated; it is based on mutual respect, honesty, reward, dedication and the willingness to walk in other people’s shoes. Culture is about how employees are treated and how they view the work environment. The reflection glaring from Xpress doesn’t include ‘to inspire.’

      Barry’s remarks, “There’s no real right way or wrong way. It’s business.” This top-down narrow response is exactly what I experienced during my eleven years at Xpress. My response to Barry is, “But this is Asheville!” Whether your 20 or 60, Asheville searches for the ideal, innovations and creativity. We like to have fun, play hard and work hard. FUN has been the elemental quality that I’ve searched for in 35 years of employment. I had fun at Xpress and found joy with the talented staff and colleagues. There was no joy in upper management. I told the publisher the first month that I worked there that this was the most compartmentalized company that I’d ever worked for. Eleven years later, I told the publisher and associate publisher that this is the most compartmentalized company that I have ever worked for.

      Barry brings up work ethic and change. Successful change comes from within. I didn’t bail out but instead encouraged change. He also says, “Every traditional print media outlet in the nation is “bleeding” and trying to figure out a new model for survival” Maybe traditional approaches like he suggests are part of the problem. Personally, I felt that Alt-Media and their associations were slow in their responses to the economic downturn. There were obvious signs, objective data and declining revenue streams way ahead of the downturn. Members of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia behaved like their corporate media giant competitors and refused to share information about circulation declines, ad revenue, etc. Alt-media has essentially become alt-advertising. I call like I see it. Best of I, Best of II, the Bestest of. Everybody but the advertisers sees the ploy.

      Corporate culture takes time to shift but with changes in leadership, it can be properly cultivated. While MX compares models, maybe they should start by finding a leader. Homer observed, “You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation.” Before one walks they must learn to crawl. Before one works they must learn to play. Before one leads, they must learn to work. This includes working for someone else before you try to manage your own business.

      A fair weather publisher may not survive during the economic storm especially when they don’t have the ‘depth’ to persevere. Back to Barry’s older generation commentary. I like what my father told me once, “Treat your employees well and make them happy. Happy employees then make your customers happy.”

    • Barry, I see your point, but I just don’t agree that you are accurately describing the situation in this case.

      Sometimes businesses have to downsize and evolve to remain viable; I don’t think that was the issue in this case. None of the departing employees were laid off, they all quit or were fired.

      You’re implying the the employees who left weren’t willing to “work for change” and “bailed.” By the looks of it, they left because of the way people have been treated over a long period of time, not because they realized, just now, that print was a sinking ship.

  9. And the MtnX website used to be my favorite place. It’s really borked now and the lively discussions are gone.

  10. MtnXp haws been bleeding for a while now…is this death by a thousand paper cuts?

    Sure hope something rises to replace the once informative indie.

  11. While I’m sure Jason is enjoying the schadenfreude of all this, the perception is true – all the best people at Xpress leave broken, overworked, completely disillusioned … and sort of heartbroken. The ones that have remained of value are looking for work, and just trying to be dysfunctional team players until they find something.

    From allegedly trying to sway city council members for money (remember the city grant for community powered media a couple years ago that ultimately went to Ponderwell?) to firing people without informing their managers, there is NOTHING true about Jeff’s claim to wanting open dialogue – about anything. He doesn’t appear to be any better than the politicians and paradigms he wishes to rail against.

    I’m not sure what his “Rosebud” is, but something is driving him. It’s not “community powered” or “open” anything, either. Those are just buzzwords to get local advertisers on board. For what? Only he knows and hides it behind a terrible hubris and mock humility.

    I hope our local businesses figure this out soon.

    • Perspective.

      It’s a little free community paper in Asheville, NC .. *eye roll* the way everyone is carrying on, they’re making it seem like it’s the NY Times or Washington Post. smh.

      • Shake your head all you want, but when people are passionate about local journalism and local business, and you have something like MX, which is an INSTITUTION locally, it is sad.

        Go read something else then.

  12. Pingback: Mountain Xpress photog: I did not leak letter, and coverage of Xpress turmoil is incomplete

  13. Losing Rebecca and Max definitely hurt and its obvious its a frustrating work environment. While the A Scene seems to be all about the foodies, this is the perfect time for the Xpress to grow. Jeff Fobes seems like a stubborn captain that is willing to go down with the ship. He might just get his wish

    • The Asheville Scene certainly covers the “foodie” world extensively, with in-depth coverage every week, but we really do a lot more than that: fashion, music, theater, movies, etc. Katie Wadington has a weekly “kid-friendly” feature and Karen Chavez regularly contributes outdoors/sports-related coverage. We were also the official guide to Mountain Oasis and were media sponsor of All Go West Festival in West AVL last April. Keep an eye on us – we have a thriving group of talented writers, photographers and designers who are putting out a completely locally-focused, high-quality publication every week, in print and digital forms. (I am the advertising manager of Scene, btw, with over 18 years of experience in Asheville media.)

      • Thanks for your comment James. As a former member of the Asheville Scene team, I agree that there’s plenty of solid content there. As an employee unceremoniously laid off by managers of the corporate owner, forgive me if I don’t go around town singing its praises these days.

        You should keep an eye on Ashvegas, James. I’ve got a group of just-as-talented writers, photographers and designers volunteering their expertise at Ashvegas and chomping at the bit to help me launch something new and fresh and locally owned. I’m putting out solid content every day in digital form. And there’s more to come.

        • James Fisher says:

          I love Ashvegas, Jason! And I see the growth- adding Stu Helm food criticism is an excellent move – he is hilarious and a great read! I am 100% for more diversity in local media, and hope Xpress finds its way again…as you know, I was there from almost day one through 2011 and feel like what was built had been important for Asheville. Keep rockin’, Ashvegas;)

          • You did a great job at Xpress, James, and you’re doing a great job for Asheville Scene. I, too, want to see Asheville have a thriving, successful alternative news weekly and my hope is that shedding light on the current situation will result in that. I had a great time working for Xpress.

      • I will say that The Scene dose a profoundly better job covering Asheville performing arts than the Xpress does. I haven’t seen a theater, or dance review in the Xpress in several years, and it seems all the A&E department cares about is the next hipster band coming to Asheville, or some “put a bird on it” precious overrated art project.

  14. Asheville City Paper has a nice ring to it. I am looking at you Charleston.

  15. this might be a dumb question – but, who/what is at the bottom of the problems at mountain x? i’ve heard (mostly) bad things – but, whassupwithdat?

  16. No one wants to be the last to flee a sinking ship, and the Mountain Xpress seems to be sliding quickly towards the bottom.

  17. With those CCs, he was begging to be fired.

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