Submission guidelines: Will the fallen VQR rise again?
For 86 years the Virginia Quarterly Review, UVA's award-winning literary journal, had appeared on bookstore shelves and in mailboxes each season. But that publishing streak was threatened last summer when the magazine's managing editor, 52-year-old Kevin Morrissey, took his own life. In a burst of violence and grief, the reputation of one of the nation's oldest and most distinguished literary journals, along with that of the youthful editor who had lifted the magazine to new heights, appeared in tatters.
Eight months later, however, the magazine has managed to preserve its publishing streak, gotten nominated again for several National Magazine Awards, and has already won in the digital category for an interactive website about the war in Afghanistan.
Despite the cloud that had been hanging over VQR, the good news suggests things are back to normal.
Or are they?
While the magazine could yet haul in more national awards, subscription rates and circulation numbers have plummeted. What's more, VQR has been stripped of its long-time bonds with the UVA President's Office and English Department, lost its staff and its coveted Lawn-area office, and has been officially placed under a professor of Biomedical Engineering known most recently for studying the use magnets in physical therapy.
More trouble for the VQR and the University, however, could loom on the horizon, as Morrissey's siblings, who contend that editor Ted Genoways mistreated their brother and that the University mishandled his pleas for help, suggested last year the possibility of a lawsuit. Asked recently about a suit, Morrissey's usually outspoken surviving sister, Maria, said she was "unable to comment at this time."
Ms. Morrissey, who said just weeks after her brother's death that she hoped some good could come out of the tragedy and vowed to push for policy changes concerning workplace bullying at UVA, has since become an advocate for the cause. Recently, she was invited to speak to state legislators in Albany, New York, as they consider a new Healthy Workplace Bill, designed in part to prevent "psychological violence."
"I'm willing to do anything that I can to save others from Kevin's fate and spare another family the pain of losing a loved one to workplace bullying-related suicide," says Ms. Morrissey. "If even one life is saved, it will be worth it."
What went wrong?
Following the tragedy, grief-stricken VQR staffers and Morrissey family members alleged that Genoways had treated Morrissey cruelly in the weeks before his death. Later, it was revealed that Morrissey had reached out to UVA officials as many as 18 times to address the workplace in the weeks before his fateful decision. One VQR staffer called Genoways' treatment of Morrissey "egregious," while others accused him of squandering VQR funds, being an absentee boss, and courting a wealthy, 24-year-old donor by creating a job for her without an official search.
What's more, a 32-year veteran employee of VQR, Candace Pugh, came forward to claim she was harassed and "forced out" by Genoways five years earlier.
"I can understand why Kevin did what he did," said Pugh, who won a year-long severance package. "That man should not be in charge of other people. He’s a danger."
In an email to colleagues just two days after Morrissey's death, Genoways himself called the tensions in the office "poisonous." Indeed, one VQR staffer had already resigned, and another had told UVA officials she believed Morrissey was suicidal. Representatives of the President's Office eventually intervened to assure staff members that things would change. But that change came too late.
"Our family is convinced," Maria Morrissey told the Hook, "by all that we have learned since Kevin's death that, were it not for Genoways' relentless bullying, Kevin would be alive today."
Rush to judgment?
The story made national headlines, including an expose on NBC's Today Show, which portrayed Genoways as a "workplace bully." Contributing writers to VQR came to his defense, as did the executive director of the American Society of Magazine Editors, Sid Holt, accusing the Hook and other media of a rush to judgment.
Thirty VQR writers signed a letter to the Hook criticizing the mainstream media for being "all too eager to generate news without carefully investigating the matter." Holt went even further, accusing the Hook of "journalistic malpractice" and of printing "rumor and innuendo."
"Suicide is a difficult and complex issue, requiring sensitive analysis," wrote the VQR writers. "We emphatically believe that Genoways and Morrissey deserve a full and impartial investigation from the University of Virginia."
Morrissey shot himself downtown by the railroad Coal Tower on UVA President John Casteen's last official day in office, and incoming President Teresa Sullivan announced that VQR staffers would be put on paid leave and that the winter issue of the magazine would be canceled, ending the magazine's remarkable publishing streak. And she ordered an investigation into VQR operations.
The resulting report could bring to mind the phrase "damning with faint praise." While Genoways was called a "creative, innovative manager" and officially cleared of any charges of workplace bullying, his management skills were deemed "questionable" and in need of "corrective action."
Notably missing was any mention of the "unacceptable workplace behavior" that Genoways had accused Morrissey of committing before Genoways banned Morrissey from the office just a week before his death. Similarly, there was no mention of the hiring of the wealthy young donor, whose position was filled by Genoways outside the state's usual guidelines for advertisement and then quietly eliminated during the investigation.
It was also revealed that documentation for a "substantial number of transactions" with an off-the-books credit card was missing, that Genoways had been less than frugal with VQR's endowment money, drawing nearly $500,000 from an $800,000 "rainy day" fund that former editor Staige Blackford had squirreled away during his 28 years at the magazine, and that Genoways had used VQR funds to subsidize the publication of his own book.
In the end, President Sullivan called for the creation of a task force to "strengthen" the University's "policies and structure with regard to acceptable workplace conduct."
So UVA stood by the embattled editor and allowed him to keep his job, while VQR staffers moved to other positions in the University. Circulation manager Sheila McMillen, who stayed through the fall and winter, was the last to go, leaving Genoways as the magazine's sole employee.
Numbers don't lie
While the VQR's status and annual budget had risen under Genoways (from roughly $200,000 in 2003 to nearly $800,000 in 2009-2010), circulation and subscription rates were falling fast.
VQR's website currently lists circulation at 7,000-plus, but Thomas Skalak, the Research VP and magnet expert (he is also an expert in blood vessel remodeling and biomechanics) who now oversees VQR, claims that current circulation is 5,000. But that number may be wishful thinking.
According to information obtained by a reporter, 3,221 copies of the Summer 2008 issue went to paid subscribers, and distributors (newsstands, bookstores, etc.) received 1441 copies. However, only 2564 copies of the Fall 2010 issue were even distributed; 1623 to paid subscribers, and 955 to distributors. What's more, for the last several years, only about 30 percent of those copies sent to distributors are sold.
Today, the VQR has only 1156 paid subscribers; a more than 60 percent drop since the summer of 2008.
The revered little journal was in circulation trouble.
But in January something remarkable happened. VQR announced that it had produced a winter issue after all. What's more, VQR won another National Magazine Award, this one a 2011 Digital Ellie for an elaborate interactive website about the war called "Assignment Afghanistan." VQR beat out National Geographic and Fast Company in the Multimedia Package category, despite the fact that the website wasn't officially announced until January 2011.
Then more good news. On April 5, the American Society of Magazine Editors, the organization that hands out the National Magazine Awards, announced that VQR had been nominated for six awards, including the coveted award for General Excellence, which the magazine had come out of nowhere to win in 2006.
Despite the pounding that Genoways had taken in the press, he still appears to possess his golden touch. Asked recently about his hopes for the future of the magazine, the editor was upbeat and passionate.
"VQR's goal– the goal of all literature, all journalism– is to challenge readers to live examined lives," he says. "That's the life I want to live: open-eyed, open-hearted."
An editor's note
Of course, the meticulous eye of a missing managing editor and reviews by VQR staff members who worked for him most likely helped improve the pages of those National Magazine Award nominations. Yet the Morrissey name was missing from the investigation, and from press releases touting the new awards.
Indeed, according to a former intern at the magazine who wished to remain anonymous, Morrissey was "very involved" in the editing of everything that appeared in VQR, and all staffers worked on the time-consuming task of editing, proofing, and fact-checking every story for publication in 2010.
For those people, the terrible events of last summer aren't so easily forgotten. And the lack of acknowledgment of Morrissey's contributions to the magazine leaves them bitter.
"When you held VQR in your hands, so much of what you were holding was a product of Kevin Morrissey's hard work and humility," says Aja Gabel, a gradute of UVA's MFA Program who interned at the magazine in 2009-2010.
If the official accounts avoid the Morrissey name, Genoways does allude to the summertime tragedy in an editor's statement seeking an award.
"This was a dark year for VQR," writes Genoways. "Our managing editor committed suicide. Several staff members quit in protest of the University's handling of their reports of his depression."
Some former VQR staffers, however, are bristling.
"I did not leave VQR 'in protest' of anything," says former staffer Molly Minturn. "It's quite simple: I changed jobs within the University because I did not want to work for Ted Genoways anymore. The University administration understood this and helped me with the transition. For that, I will always be grateful."
"The reason Genoways gives for all of us leaving is just not true," says McMillen. " If we were annoyed at the University, why are we all still working there? We all left because of the editor."
Genoways went on to thank the contest-overseeing Holt for writing to President Sullivan to protest the University's handling of the investigation, "a move that proved critical to the magazine's survival," he wrote.
"VQR has been a finalist for General Excellence five times and won once," Genoways concluded. "Never has the editor faced such adversity nor achieved so much. We very much hope for a nomination this year of all years."
Asked if it was customary for the director of the American Society of Magazine Editors to come to the defense of a publication and its editor in this manner, Holt said that Society members "frequently consult me on editorial-management issues." In the wake of Kevin Morrissey’s suicide, Holt says that Genoways "sought my assistance."
As for the editor's note, Holt says he hadn't read it and that none of the judges who nominated VQR for the General Excellence Award mentioned it to him, adding that "judges frequently ignore the editor’s statement anyway."
One of this year's Award judges for another category, however, who spoke on condition of anonymity, found that hard to believe.
"We've all followed the VQR story very closely," says the judge. "I can't imagine the judges didn't read what Genoways had to say. Besides, the judging guidelines say you should 'pay close attention' to statements from the editor."
Holt dismisses the notion that the VQR story is so widely known.
"No one I know in New York has ever mentioned it to me," says Holt.
Asked if his strong advocacy for Genoways and the VQR might create appearances of impropriety, Holt accused a reporter of incompetence for asking such a question, and claimed he "barely knew" Genoways.
"Altogether, I imagine I have spent less than 20 minutes with Mr. Genoways," says Holt. "The only times Mr. Genoways and I have emailed each other were brief exchanges regarding the university investigation of his management practices and the eligibility of the [VQR contributor Elliott D.] Woods multimedia package."
Genoways, concerned about the eligibility of the interactive website for the Digital Ellie–- given the fact that it went live so late in the year–- says he contacted Holt directly, and that Holt assured him it was eligible.
"As an editor, let me see if I can now write your story for you," Holt mockingly offers a reporter. "For the sake of narrative drive, I will leave out the distraught sister, the charlatan-expert on bullying, and the disgruntled subeditors."
Concluding the narrative he imagines the Hook would use, Holt sarcastically accuses himself of "manipulating the awards to reward Genoways."
"It's easy to predict that the story you are planning will be biased, tendentious, petty, and downright silly," Holt continued, "and embarrassing to both you and The Hook. The only thing missing is the closed doors featured so prominently in [prior story] 'Tale of Woe'.”
While VQR has again preserved its continuous publishing streak and won over the judges for the National Magazine Awards, the declining subscription base suggests fresh reason for worry.
According to McMillen, she and Morrissey had expressed their concerns about the editorial direction of the magazine, which has grown less literary and more grimly topical, as a possible reason for fleeing subscribers.
But Genoways dismisses that.
"I think it's a bit of tunnel vision to be gauging our impact by looking at our current subscription numbers," counters Genoways. "For one thing, subscription numbers are down almost 40 percent across the industry. But, more importantly, there are a lot of other ways of measuring our civic engagement."
Genoways mentions VQR stories that have been reprinted in Utne Reader, used in radio broadcasts, or published on the VQR website.
But does it make financial sense to spend nearly $800,000 a year–- which includes a $170,000 compensation package for the editor–- on a magazine with so few subscribers?
"Making 'financial sense,'" says Genoways, "is the wrong way of approaching what an organization like VQR does. It's a nonprofit, mission-driven publication; by its very nature, it is not intended to make financial sense.
"The University isn't in the business of making money," he continues. "For example, the University library isn't making money, but that doesn't mean you should close it. It means you have to find a way to subsidize it."
However, according to a recent article in the New York Times, literary journals across the country are actually thriving.
“It’s a great time for lit magazines,” Jeffrey Lependorf, executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, told the Times. “I don’t think there are any fewer now than 20 years ago.”
According to the Times, they're thriving because many have adopted business models shared by online ventures: small or non-existent staffs, low overhead, targeted audiences. In fact, the article points out that "magazines associated with academic institutions" are the ones that are struggling and disappearing, some weighed down by bloated budgets and expectations of getting subsidized.
Indeed, Middlebury College and Washington & Lee University both shut down their literary magazines, the New England Review and Shenandoah, for having subscription levels no better than VQR and for being unable to eliminate their operating deficits. [Correction 4/21/11: while the two literary magazines mention above have experienced serious budget challenges, the Hook has been informed that they have NOT been shut down. However, Shenandoah has gone online-only, and NER has been ordered to be self-supporting or else its funding will be pulled. ]
Skalak says UVA is "paying special attention" to both the print and online readership of the VQR, but it's unclear how he expects a magazine with barely 1,000 subscribers to, as he tells the Hook, "compete with the best work of large national magazines."
"The economy has been in a period of contraction for some years now," Skalak explains, "and we expect to see that trend reverse in the next year or so."
Skalak also admits that uncertainty about the magazine's future following the events of last summer may have led to the sudden subscription decline. On a bright note, Skalak calls the VQR website's estimated 1,000 unique visitors per day an "excellent number."
Genoways claims that subscription revenues have covered the magazine's production and fulfillment costs in recent years.
"So the print edition effectively pays for itself," says Genoways, "and with continued subscription campaigns and well-managed printing costs, I'm confident that will continue to be the case."
The real question, says Genoways, is figuring out how to pay good contributors.
"Right now, the University subsidizes that content, as it subsidizes the creation of a great deal of content across the institution," he says. "But I think we should strive to find better outside support, in terms of grants, donations, advertising, licensing, and subscriptions. I think a sustainable nonprofit business model for VQR is an achievable goal."
But could the nature of VQR's content, as Morrissey and McMillen believed, be chasing subscribers away? Last year, VQR contributor Mariflo Stephens, who now teaches creative writing at Hollins University, told the Hook that she and three other colleagues, also VQR contributors, canceled their subscriptions because VQR had become too topical and "no longer a literary journal."
Skalak disputes that.
"VQR publishes more poetry today than it did under previous editors," he says. "Between 1988 and 2004, VQR placed three poems in Best American Poetry. Since then, under Ted Genoways, ten poems have been selected for that anthology."
According to a UVA release, the winter issue offers a "ground-breaking collaboration" with Look3, the Charlottesville photography festival. The issue consists entirely of photo essays and single shots by emerging photographers.
Although the skill and seriousness of the photography in the new winter issue can't be denied, as the photos depict with an unblinking eye life in places like the Gaza Strip and the silver mines of Bolivia, the themes can be grim. Of the more than four dozen photographs of people in the issue, only two are openly smiling: a pair of blind teenagers posing for a prom photo. There are some beautiful shots of pronghorn sheep in Wyoming, but for the most part the photos convey a feeling of ennui: a beauty queen stripped of her crown, old men aging in prison, a depressed widower, children with kerosene burns on their faces, a man with cerebral palsy, a woman lying in a coffin, and at least three shots of dead animals.
But that's not how Genoways sees it.
"I don't find anything grim about VQR's coverage," he says. "To look clearly at any injustice is the first step in righting it– and the belief that injustices can be redressed seems to me the ultimate expression of hope."
Genoways agrees that readers should not be overwhelmed with a "litany of woes," as it "not only risks turning them off, but it misrepresents the range of emotion that any magazine should capture and represent." But that is not something he believes VQR has been guilty of.
"The initial impression that I keep hearing– and one I share– is wonderment," he says of the new issue. "I suppose you could look at the lives of native Greenlanders or miners in Bolivia or a man living with cerebral palsy in Connecticut and see only the hardships and challenges they face. I see the determination."
Some may see hubris
Still, the new issue and "Assignment Afghanistan" appear to solidify the topical concept and intensify the focus on war reporting.
The new interactive website presents the on-the-ground reporting and photography of Elliott D.Woods. Indeed, the sophisticated website, outsourced to Bluecadet Interactive and funded by about $22,000 from the VQR and private donations, presents Woods' work in a stunning multi-media format, which includes a page dedicated to Woods himself, complete with a highly stylized full-page photo of the journalist in battle gear.
As the Hook revealed regarding the issue of paying for content, Woods was one of several contributors earning (often in advance) hefty amounts by VQR's historic standards, sometimes as much as $6,000 for a story and travel expenses. Indeed, that does not seem to have changed; according to Skalak, Woods has been paid $11,000 for his work on the interactive website.
Following the suicide, Woods came to Genoways' defense, calling him the "creative genius responsible for the magazine's success" and lambasting this reporter for his coverage, calling one story "an objectionable piece of tabloid-style journalism from top to bottom."
In the new winter issue, Woods is announced as the winner of the 2010 Staige D. Blackford Prize for Non-Fiction. One of his VQR stories has also been nominated for a National Magazine Award.
"This stand-alone website signals a new era in VQR’s development," declares Genoways on the VQR blog. "Some may see hubris in such ambition, but we see a challenge— and an opportunity for innovation."
A closer look at Look3
If Skalak, Genoways, and UVA had hoped to distance themselves from the events of last summer, the collaboration with Look3 seems an odd choice, as it was that collaboration, along with the transition to the VPR office, that created much of VQR's internal strife.
As previously reported, Genoways, on leave with a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship last spring, shifted much of the responsibility of making the transition to Skalak's office over to 24-year-old Alana Levinson-LaBrosse, a wealthy donor who had pledged $1.5 million to UVA's Young Writer's Workshop. According to an internal VQR document obtained by the Hook (and emails from Genoways) the Workshop would join the move to the vice-president's office along with VQR and Look3.
After bringing her on board as a volunteer, Genoways secured a formal position for Levinson-LaBrosse as "development director" without conducting a competitive search. And despite her lack of work experience, he offered her an annual salary of $39,000– just $3,000 less than the salary of associate editor and circulation manager McMillen, who had been at the magazine since 2005.
What's more, Levinson-LaBrosse's father, Silicon Valley tycoon Frank Levinson, who committed $20 million to UVA a decade ago, pledged $150,000 ($75,000 of which was delivered) to the collaboration with Look3 (the private funding mentioned earlier) that his daughter was helping to organizing for Genoways.
VQR staff, particularly Morrissey, allegedly voiced discomfort with the new office dynamic.
"I feel Alana was a major component in Kevin's despair," McMillen told the Hook, "in that he felt he was being shoved out by an inexperienced intern nearly 30 years his junior, simply because she was rich."
The University eliminated Levinson-LaBrosse's position at VQR shortly after the investigation was announced and offered her a job elsewhere at the University, but she rejected that offer.
"Given the fact that the University had stood by while I had been accused of buying my job as a donor at the institution," the former Echols Scholar told C-Ville Weekly, "I did not accept this offer. I resigned.”
Genoways and Levinson-LaBrosse, interviewed in stories for Slate and C-Ville Weekly, together suggested that Morrissey may have thwarted efforts to collect financial information for the transition to the office of the VPR. But a document prepared by Morrissey and recently obtained by the Hook, suggests otherwise.
In fact, a week-long office ban beginning on July 19 that Genoways placed on Morrissey and web editor Waldo Jaquith via email, in which he accused the two of “unacceptable workplace behavior,” was in response to complaints that Levinson-LaBrosse had made.
"They were asked to work from home because their pattern of unprofessional and, at times, explicitly rude behavior toward me in the office," Levinson-LaBrosse told C-Ville Weekly, "was preventing us, as a staff, from getting the transition materials together.”
Levinson-LaBrosse also claimed that it was she who finally gathered and deliver the materials to the VPR office.
However, a document (below) shows that Morrissey had compiled most of what Genoways had asked for on July 12, including a breakdown of VQR's income and expenses, detailed job descriptions, salary information for each employee, and a pie chart depicting the VQR's financial picture.
Asked about the document produced by Morrissey, which also lists Morrissey's many editorial duties– including evaluating manuscripts for publication, informing authors of the acceptance or rejection of the their work, and preparing manuscripts for publication–Genoways and Levinson-LaBrosse did not respond.
Asked where the funding for the Look3 collaboration came from, and if money were still forthcoming from the Levinsons, Skalak said that information was confidential. Levinson-LaBrosse tells the Hook that "no decision has been made" about her $1.5 million gift to the Young Writers Workshop.
No tenure for Ted
The fallout from the events of last summer not only alienated Genoways from his staff, but also from the UVA English Department, a natural ally that had been advising and unofficially supporting the magazine editorially for years. But that alienation may have begun years earlier.
According to emails obtained by the Hook, former UVA President John Casteen, along with departing UVA Provost Tim Garson, in 2007 asked the English Department not only to bring the mercurial editor into their department but to also consider him for immediate tenure, as Genoways claimed he was entertaining an offer from another university.
English faculty members took notice.
"This is an important moment for us," wrote a UVA English faculty member in an email to colleagues. "Those of you who tend not to respond to messages like this one should think twice before pressing delete. If we fulfill the desires of the president and provost, Ted Genoways could become a tenured Americanist within the year."
If Genoways' application for tenure were denied, advised department chair Jahan Ramazani in an email to faculty, "we will need to provide a paragraph explaining why."
Genoways' application was eventually denied. As previously reported, when Ramazani personally delivered the news, Genoways was infuriated. A source who was in the VQR office that day described him "roaring" at Ramazani behind a closed office door.
Not only did former President Casteen advocate for Genoways' tenure, he also appears to have looked the other way despite outbursts with department chairs, unexplained employee office bans, the draw-down of the rainy-day fund, and a questionable hire. (Casteen, who is currently out of the country, was not available for comment.)
As previously reported, Genoways established a VQR poetry book series in collaboration with the University of Georgia Press, designed to showcase the nation's most accomplished poets. Interestingly, the series included a book by the president's son, John Casteen IV, a book each by two members of VQR's advisory board, and one by Genoways himself.
In the new winter issue, a second book of poetry from Casteen IV, published again under the VQR series, is prominently advertised.
Skalak bristles at the suggestion that the books by Genoways and Casteen received special consideration, saying that both were accepted after "regular, anonymous peer review by outside reviewers selected by the University of Georgia Press."
Asked about the $2,000 payment by VQR to the University of Georgia Press (discovered during the UVA investigation) to subsidize printing costs for Genoways' book, Skalak declined to comment.
As for the future of VQR and his continuing support for Genoways, the biomedical engineer-turned-literary-publisher is ebullient.
“Given the outstanding record of creativity and innovation in the recent years of VQR’s history under Ted’s leadership," Skalak says, "we are convinced that VQR will continue to be a visible thought-leader in the publishing world."
Indeed, you can judge for yourself, as the new Spring 2011 issue of the VQR, entitled "Ruin & Rebirth," was recently published.
Note: This story originally appeared online on April 18 at 12:54pm.
4/22/11–While the literary journals Shenandoah and the New England Review have experienced serious funding challenges, the university-based publications have not been shut down as the Hook reported. However, Shenandoah has gone online-only, and NER has been ordered to be self-supporting or else its funding will be pulled.