By Randi B. Hagi, senior contributor
Nicole “Nikki” Fox, former photo editor for The Daily News-Record, filed a discrimination lawsuit against Ogden Newspapers of Virginia, LLC, the company that bought the newspaper in spring 2018, along with other Virginia papers owned by the Byrd family.
Ogden ended Fox’s employment in April, shortly after assuming operations at the newspaper. Fox’s lawsuit claims the decision was based on her age and gender.
Fox is seeking reinstatement as photo editor of the Daily News-Record, back pay and other lost benefits, as well as legal fees and compensatory and punitive damages.
Fox, who is now 42, began working for the Daily News-Record in 2005, according to the suit. She had been the photo editor for eight years when she was terminated.
Fox and her attorney Timothy Cupp, did not respond to The Citizen’s request for comment. A representative at West Virginia headquarters of Ogden Newspapers referred questions to the company’s regional manager at its Frederick, Maryland, office. The regional manager did not return a message seeking comment.
Per federal law, Fox first filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on July 2, 2018, before filing the lawsuit. On June 3, 2019, Fox received a “Dismissal and Notice of Rights” letter from the commission, which allowed her to file a lawsuit within 90 days.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for Western Virginia on Aug. 26 — less than a week before that 90-window closed.
When Ogden took the helm of the Daily News-Record in March 2018, company representatives told the existing employees they would all keep their jobs, after reapplying for them as a formality, according to the lawsuit.
In a complaint she submitted to the EEOC, Fox wrote: “On March 6, 2018, Robert Nutting, President of Ogden Newspapers, Inc. … told me and other DN-R employees that all the Byrd employees would be offered a job with Ogden Newspapers of Virginia LLC … I was informed by other DN-R managers that Mr. Nutting said that no one would be getting a pay cut, and not to apply for another job.”
The Daily News-Record reported in article about the paper’s sale on March 6 that “Nutting said Ogden pledged to the Byrd family that each employee will be offered a job when the deal closes, which is scheduled for March 31.”
Stephen Swofford, a staff photographer who also lost his job in the acquisition, told The Citizen, “They used those actual words: ‘everyone will keep your job.’”
Swofford now works as a staff photographer for The Chieftain newspaper in Pueblo, Colorado.
But on March 26, Fox wrote in her EEOC filing, an Ogden manager informed her that she would become an Ogden employee on Apr. 1, would receive the two weeks’ vacation she was entitled, and then would officially be terminated on Apr. 13.
Despite technically being employed by Ogden for those two weeks, Fox said in the filing she was told she shouldn’t show up at the office and soon found she was blocked from network access to the newspaper.
On Monday, Apr. 2, “I found that all of my passwords had been changed and that l could not access my email or log into the DN-R website,” Fox wrote.
Ogden kept one of the three staff photographers. He was the youngest and least experienced, Swofford said.
Swofford said that he and the photographer who kept his job were interviewed together by an Ogden manager during the acquisition.
“The very first thing they asked us was, ‘How good are you at writing articles? Because we don’t believe in having photographers,’” Swofford said.
Swofford said the manager did not describe any system or rubric for determining who to lay off, besides the fact that photographers were not “in [their] business model.” He said Ogden and other large newspaper companies aggressively prune their staff in an effort to “be the Walmart of journalism, and it hasn’t worked for any of them yet.”
Fox’s lawsuit states that the Ogden manager who fired her “gave no reason for the non-selection of her for the photographer position.”
And Swofford said the layoffs were not just limited to the photography department.
Fox echoed that in the statement she submitted to the EEOC.
“I believe that l and other older employees over 40 who were similarly situated to me were terminated due to our age,” she wrote.
Swofford said Fox was an asset to the Daily News-Record.
“Nikki is the best boss, let alone the best editor, I’ve ever had … her departure from the industry is a loss for all of Virginia. She deserved better,” Swofford wrote in an email to The Citizen.
Swofford said he’s rooting for his former boss.
“I hope she nails their ass to the wall,” Swofford said.
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