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Kevin Whitmer, the senior vice president of content and development for NJ Advance Media. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

Whitmer was pushed out of top newspaper job

NJ Advance Media VP who ran Star-Ledger/NJ.com was told to leave after he failed to hit revenue goals

By David Wildstein, November 24 2021 4:22 pm

The decision by Kevin Whitmer to leave his top post at NJ Advance Media at the end of this year was not his own, with his bosses at the Newhouse-owned Advance Publications telling him that his 18-year stint at the Star-Ledger and NJ.com was over, the New Jersey Globe has learned.

Whitmer announced last week that he was “stepping away” from his role as senior vice president for content, expansion and development and ending his 13-year tenure as editor, but didn’t say that he’d been pushed out for not hitting revenue goals set by his employers and other reasons.

While Whitmer never said he was departing voluntarily – instead, he noted that it was “time for a new perspective” at the helm – a column that ran on the NJ.com website and on the front page of the Star-Ledger – gave the impression that the decision was his.

“In short, it is time — time for a new perspective and new leadership as our newsroom emerges from 16 long years of industry turmoil and budget cuts, and now turns the corner on a road to growth and an incredibly promising future,” Whitmer wrote.  “The next leader will step into this great opportunity with the resources to do more journalism and make a number of hires.”

Over the last year, Whitmer officiously sought to expand the number of paid digital subscriptions, with an increasing number of stories appearing behind a paywall and a shift away from local news coverage with a new emphasis on reports aimed at generating added page views.

“Kevin made himself the public face of the push for more revenue and he never disclosed that his own job was on the line if he didn’t make his numbers,” a colleague, speaking on the condition of anonymity told the New Jersey Globe.  “We all knew he was under a great deal of pressure.  His stress became our stress.”

But Whitmer’s situation was aggravated by business pacts with RWJ Barnabas Health and the New Jersey Cannabis Industry Association.

Whitmer, sources said, had made a deal with RWJ Barnabas Health to fund a new reporter position who would, in turn, cover the hospital beat.  The company agreed to pay NJ Advance Media a certain amount, with Whitmer using some of the money to pay the reporter’s salary and a substantial balance left over was earmarked to enhance Whitmer’s bottom line revenues.

The deal folded quickly when the terms of the agreement met some resistance at the newspaper.

RWJBarnabas Health president and CEO Barry Ostrowsky initially did not respond to a November 18 text message seeking comment.  Reached on his cell phone the following day, Ostrowsky indicated that a response was forthcoming, but none came.  He did not respond to a November 22 text message.

A spokesperson did not respond to a November 17 e-mail and phone call seeking comment.

Internally, NJ Advance Media staffers surreptitiously referred to Whitmer as “Biff.”

In late 2019, reporter Sue Livio had begun working on a story regarding allegations of sexual harassment against the head of New Jersey Cannabis Industry Association.

That put Livio on a collision course with Whitmer, who had formed a business partnership with the association and it’s president, Hugh O’Beirne.  Whitmer had invested heavily in a subscription-based product, NJ Cannabis Insider, and in plans for a joint public event with the association where the two would split the revenues.

An upcoming event was expected to produce revenue for NJ Cannabis Insider and improve Whitmer’s profits in the project, two sources confirmed, who sought to kill Livio’s story in order to protect his business relationship.

“Sue pushed back and (editorial page editor) Tom Moran supported her and said the story had to be written,” one of their co-workers confirmed.  “Kevin yielded and the story was written, but the damage had been done.”

After a story on an internal investigation was published, NJ Cannabis Insider ended its relationship with the cannabis industry group.

Whitmer and Steve Alessi, the president of NJ Advance Media, did not respond to November 23 e-mails seeking comment.

Last summer, a Black reporter, Tennyson Donyea, complained of racist attitudes by the leadership of NJ Advance Media and alleged that there was a corporate mission of appealing to white readers.

“Their microaggressions, the tone policing, and the dismissiveness are actually hostile,” Donyea wrote in a social media post.  “Their willful ignorance makes it hard to do our jobs.”

Instead, the company seeks to exploit the small number of journalists of color they do employ.

“They love to use our skin for their diversity efforts and marketing.  But once you start speaking up about inclusion and equity, and once you start calling out their racism, it’s a problem,” Donyea stated.  “It’s hypocritical because they can call out racism and tokenism when it’s about other organizations or people.”

Donyea later left NJ Advance Media and became a reporter for WHYY, a Philadelphia-based public radio station.

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