Coverage of Scientology has long been an important story for The St. Petersburg Times, given that the church’s spiritual headquarters is located in nearby Clearwater, Fla.
So it came as a bit of a shock when, on Friday, the newspaper’s management announced that it would sell one of its sibling publications to a California media company whose top management are Scientologists. Governing magazine, which is based in Washington and for 23 years has covered the workings of local and state governments across the country, will be sold to e.Republic, whose founder and other top executives are Scientologists. The sale is expected to close after Thanksgiving.
The evening before the announcement, Governing’s staff gathered at the Willard InterContinental Washington hotel for its annual awards dinner, honoring its picks for the best government officials. On Friday, the staff learned of the magazine’s sale, which had long been in the works. And at a staff gathering, the question of Scientology was raised, given the paper’s aggressive coverage of the church.
“I’m aware that some of the top officials personally practice Scientology, but it never came up in the negotiations,” said Andrew Corty, a vice president of the Times Publishing Company, the holding company that runs the St. Petersburg paper and Governing. “It certainly was a question asked at our staff meeting.”
He added, “The reporting of the St. Petersburg Times has always been separate from our business functions.”
For years, e.Republic has been a respected publisher of Government Technology magazine, its flagship publication, which covers the intersection of those two subjects. E.Republic’s officials say that the personal religious affiliations of management have no bearing on the operations of the company.
The staff of Governing, nonetheless, is concerned. “There are certain tenets of the religion that affect management,” said Peter Harkness, who founded Governing in 1987 and who came out of retirement in August to serve as publisher during the sale process. “To my knowledge, they have not been proselytizing.”
Some of the anxiety among the staff stems from a 2001 article in the Sacramento News and Review, an independent weekly, about e.Republic. That article, which has been widely read by Governing’s reporters in the last few days, reported that e.Republic’s staff members are required to read a book on management called “Speaking From Experience,” written by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.
“There is concern,” Mr. Harkness said. “Unquestionably, there is concern.”
Mr. Harkness said that a recent allegation of religious bias at The Washington Times, which is owned by the Unification Church, has exacerbated anxiety among Governing’s staff. The opinion editor of The Washington Times recently filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying he was coerced to attend an event hosted by the Unification Church, according to The Associated Press. The founder of The Washington Times is the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, also the founder of the church.
A message left at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, where Dennis McKenna, the founder of e.Republic, was staying the weekend to meet with Governing employees, was returned by Paul Harney, the company’s chief operating officer. (Mr. McKenna has been a Scientologist for more than 30 years, and in a New York Times article in 1979 was identified as a church spokesman.)
Mr. Harney, who is not a Scientologist, said that he had been with the company for 13 years, and that he had never read Mr. Hubbard’s book, nor, he said, read the article in the Sacramento newspaper. “I’m sure if a management book is requested and we’ve got it, we would hand it out,” he said.
He said, “We’re a business like everyone else, trying to meet a quarterly number.”
He said Scientology had been raised in meetings with Governing staff members over the weekend. “Some people have asked about it. If they’ve brought it up, we’ve addressed it on an individual basis.”
Scientology “doesn’t guide how the company is run,” he added.
Staff members of Governing were reluctant to speak on the record because they did not want to antagonize their new employers. One person who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, “There have been some eyebrows raised based on the fact that the St. Pete Times has been doing these stories, while simultaneously they have been selling this to a company run by Scientologists.”
The newspaper’s series, which ran in three installments, in June, August and November, detailed what it described on its Web site as a “culture of intimidation and violence” under the church’s leader, David Miscavige. (The articles were based in part on interviews with church defectors, tales which the church has called “total lies.”)
The St. Petersburg Times, which is owned by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit group focused on journalism education, has faced financial challenges lately, like most print publications. To raise cash to shore up the newspaper, the group’s flagship, it has been selling subsidiaries. This year, it sold Congressional Quarterly, which tracks legislative activity, to Roll Call.
A more pressing concern for workers was whether or not they would keep their jobs. Many did not.
Of the publication’s 27 employees, 12 were kept on, nine were let go immediately and six others were asked to stay on in transitional roles.
Mr. Corty, the St. Petersburg executive who led the sale, said he was in a no-win situation: if he didn’t sell to e.Republic, which offered the highest bid out of six contenders, he would have been accused of discrimination.
“I felt I would have been criticized either way,” he said.