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July 15, 2013

Reflections On Our Sale

Despite the rumors, our new owners are not moving us to Florida, Texas, or anywhere in between. The guestbook remains open to welcome visitors to the Chronicle's office in Middleburg, Va.

Never has a day at the Chronicle gone by in such a blur as Friday, July 12. In case you missed the news, that was when we finally announced that the Bellissimo family had acquired ownership of our 76-year-old publication.

Within minutes, we were buried under an avalanche of calls, emails, Tweets, Facebook and Forums posts—some of which were angry that one of Wellington, Fla.’s most controversial figures will now be standing at our helm.

“He’s going to make the Chronicle a P.R. rag!” we were told (though generally in all caps and with about 10 more exclamation points). “He’ll put a gag order on anything controversial you might want to publish. He’s going to censor anything negative about his shows from the Chronicle Forums. And then he’ll look up users’ logins, hunt down their IP addresses, figure out who they are, and blacklist them from his competitions!”

Trust me—every concern you readers have expressed so far has been something we as a staff previously worried over too. (Well, except for that last one. Admittedly, that did not occur to us… But having gotten to know the man pretty well these past few weeks, we can promise you he doesn’t have that kind of free time on his hands…)

As our executive editor Beth Rasin wrote in her July 12 commentary, the staff had plenty of doubts. I for one was less worried that Mark would expect us to promote his competitions and more concerned about how biased it might appear if we published anything negative about his competitors’. After all, “conflict of interest” doesn’t just mean a one-way street to self-promotion. 

Luckily, as Beth already explained, our fears were allayed within moments of actually meeting Mark. And I think his own words on the subject might help calm some of yours, too.

But we know the proof will be in the pudding. I hope you readers will stick with us through this transition and judge for yourselves whether the Chronicle maintains the integrity it’s upheld over the past seven decades, or whether it devolves into an equestrian tabloid built on the cornerstones of fluff, gossip and congratulatory drivel.

If the latter happens, I can promise you this: I’ll be the first one out of a job. Because, quite frankly, I don’t want to work for that type of publication, or for a boss who makes those sort of mandates. And after seven years here, I know my co-workers pretty well, and I can tell you with some certainty that they don’t either.

If we didn’t feel passionate about journalistic integrity, we would already be working elsewhere (likely way less hours and for way more pay!), at any of the countless public relations firms and equestrian blogs in existence today. Instead, we want to tackle what is hard, because it’s right. We are ferocious stewards of this magazine, and if you think we’d be content to watch the Chronicle wither away to nothing but a vanity rag, you’ve got another thing coming, mister.

Remember Molly Sorge’s in-depth look at illegal magnesium injections? Lisa Slade’s four-part series on the issue of horse slaughter in the United States? Our candid profile of legendary rider Mike Plumb and his struggle with alcoholism? These are the types of stories we’re most proud of publishing, and the type of coverage we want desperately to continue and expand.

But bringing these stories to fruition is like pushing water uphill. Federations and associations are often, shall we say, less than cooperative when it comes to granting information and access. (Many people never realize that, without some sort of equestrian Freedom of Information Act compelling them to do so, these organizations actually have no requirement to share anything with the press at all.)

Then there’s the fact that most riders and trainers would rather be strung up naked by their toenails than go on the record with us about anything even mildly controversial. In a world as small and interconnected as U.S. horse sport, individuals generally don’t want to sabotage their livelihood by saying things that could even remotely risk burning a bridge with their clients—not to mention their owners, the judges, the selectors, the team coach, their veterinarians and farriers, and on and on and on.

And then, of course, no matter what you end up publishing, there are thousands of twitchy fingers out there holding phones with lawyers on speed dial. 

These are not complaints. (OK, yes, they kind of are… but not merely for whining’s sake.) Rather, they’re the simple hurdles of reality that we must clear anew every day in the struggle to do our jobs well. And overcoming these challenges takes a lot of time (spent cultivating relationships with sources based on respect and trust, and then much more spent actually doing research, interviews and writing), energy (we have a very small staff and a 7-day-a-week news cycle) and financial backing.

So perhaps now you can see why, as a staff, we’re feeling exhilarated by this transition. After almost a year of ulcer-inducing worry about the future of the magazine—making calls, meeting with brokers and prospective buyers, keeping secrets, and all the while fretting over what our new owner might change, or who they might lay off, or whether they really understand what the Chronicle means to the sport horse industry—we’ve arrived at what we see as a best-case scenario outcome: a new steward for the Chronicle who is already opening doors to things we never thought possible. 

Whether or not you agree with Mark’s vision for Wellington and his impact there, it's impossible to deny his record of success as a businessman. The bottom line for us is that the brainpower, manpower, connections and resources he and his family bring to the Chronicle will empower us to do our jobs better. And at the end of the day, I know that’s what matters most to our readers. They will, as a journalist shouts in one of my favorite episodes of my favorite show, The West Wing, “Let us, for the love of Jesus Christ, do the news!”

We know we'll have to work even harder now to give full disclosure on any story that might be perceived as a conflict of interest, and we'll have to be even more vigilant about impartiality. There are some legitimate reasons for doubt, and I don't blame the skeptics out there. But we will be doing our best to walk that fine line, and we think the industry will be better for it—as some have pointed out, certainly better than if there were no Chronicle at all.

And the truth is that for every person screaming bloody murder on our Forums, there are two more who’ve already reached out to tell us how excited they are, via phone, email and yes, oddly, even fax. We’ve had advertisers already increasing their ad buys, and people who haven’t seen the Chronicle in years are checking it out again.

It’s heartening to know that so many of you are celebrating this transition with us. So thank you for your continued support and your faith in our future (or, at least, for deciding to reserve judgment for the time being!). And to the doubters, haters, conspiracy theorists and armchair quarterbacks: Given that apathy is the antithesis of love, we’re still flattered by your passion. We hope you'll give us a chance to prove you wrong.

Thanks for reading.

Kat Netzler, Senior Editor

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