Local newspapers face emptying newsrooms as multiple journalists resign in protest

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — The two newspapers in Athens and one in Vinton County are losing most of their editorial staff in the midst of a dispute over advertising.

The front page of the Athens News
[WOUB File Photo]
The editor of the Athens News was fired last week after she made a public apology to readers about advertisements for collectible coins that ran in the News, the Athens Messenger and other newspapers owned by APG Media of Ohio.

Corinne Colbert wrote in social media posts that the News and the Athens Messenger received calls from people who said they paid for the coins advertised but had not received them. She was told she was fired for violating the company’s social media policy.

The day before, the editor of the Athens Messenger put in her notice, motivated in part out of concern about the handling of the coin advertisements. Alex Hulvalchick said that after taking a call from a reader, she raised concerns about the coin ads with senior management. She resigned after being told the ads would continue to run.

“My job is not to harm people,” she said, “and by continuing to work at this paper I was facilitating active harm for people, and I just wasn’t comfortable doing that anymore.”

This week, three other APG employees announced their resignations: Cole Behrens, associate editor at the News and the only member of the news staff after Colbert’s firing; Dani Kington, the assistant editor at the Messenger; and Will Meyer, the editor of the Courier in Vinton County and the only member of the news staff after the paper’s multimedia journalist left a couple of weeks ago.

Kington’s decision to resign was motivated in large part by the company’s actions after concerns about the coin ads were raised. Kington felt that management was dismissive of employee’s concerns.

“After Corrine was fired,” Kington said, “the way that the aftermath of that situation was handled, I just couldn’t stomach working for this company any longer.”

WOUB reached out to Behrens, who did not want to comment at this time, and Meyer, who did not respond by the time this story was published. A call to Mark Cohen, president of APG Media of Ohio, was also not returned in time.

Hours after she was fired last Friday, Colbert launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to start a news organization covering Athens County, called The Athens Independent.

She has raised more than $16,300 so far, which she plans to use as seed money to lay the foundation for the new venture. Colbert said she plans to operate the news organization as a nonprofit and is meeting with investors.

The Independent will begin as an online publication, Colbert said, but she hopes at some point to print it as well because so many people in Athens County lack reliable broadband access.

While the decision to launch a news organization was an immediate response to being fired, Colbert said she is now looking long term.

“My focus is building something that will outlive me,” she said. “I don’t want this to be viewed as a vanity project or a revenge project or anything like that. I have my eye on 50, 60, 70 years down the road, and that when I’m gone there will still be an Athens Independent.”

Editor’s note: Next week, reporter David Forster will have a story breaking down the concerns underlying the coin ads and the company’s response.