Judge awards unemployment benefit to fired newspaper editor

The former Iowa weekly newspaper editor has committed no wrongdoing by publicly calling for action to save the publication, an administrative judge has ruled.

Tyler Anderson, who has worked for the weekly Lake City Graphic-Advocate since 2019, was fired from the newspaper in April 2022. At the time, his employer, Mid-America Publishing, cited a company policy that prohibits employees from disclosing confidential information about the company.

State records show the company’s dispute with Anderson dates back to late 2021, when Anderson’s manager retired and he became the de facto editor of the newspaper.

Sometime in April 2022, Mid-America CEO Matt Grohe texted Anderson and said, “Hi, Tyler. Just a warning, we are closing Lake City Graphic. The last edition will be on May 4th. We appreciate all your efforts, but not being able to hire staff over there leaves us in an untenable position.”

At the time, the company had not publicly commented on the closure and, according to government records, considered the information about the proposed closure to be confidential.

Tyler Anderson, then editor of the Lake City Graphic-Advocate, tweeted information about his boss’s plans to shut down the newspaper earlier this year. (Screenshot by Iowa Capital Dispatch)

On April 12, Anderson posted a screenshot of Grohe’s text message on his personal Twitter account with the added comment, “What do you do when your company’s CEO sends you this information?”

Later that same day, via the newspaper’s Twitter account, Anderson retweeted his own tweet about the text message. Anderson also posted Grohe’s text message to his personal Facebook page, along with a call to action asking for support to help save the newspaper.

On April 14, the company suspended Anderson for violating its confidentiality policy by publicly posting Grohe’s text message and failing to sign an acknowledgment that he had read the employee handbook.

Anderson then posted a new message on Twitter: “Just got a call from the brave and fearless leader. I have been suspended until further notice. Guys, this person wants rid of me for posting information that the public needs to know. Don’t let people like that take away your local news source! #SaveTheGA.”

On April 15, the company fired Anderson, and Grohe texted Anderson to say his employment was terminated immediately. That same day, Anderson tweeted, “I am justified in my actions. I did the right thing. I have the moral superiority in this fight. This incredible community deserves a great newspaper.”

On April 26, Grohe posted a note on Facebook, saying the decision to shut down the paper was not easy for him. “The newspaper hasn’t made any money for years,” he wrote. “Last year wasn’t that bad, it only lost $18,000, but it’s on track to lose more this year, so we’re reviewing options. After all, it is a business.”

After Anderson filed for unemployment benefits, a hearing was held before Administrative Judge Daniel Zeno, who recently ruled that Mid-America “had not established that Mr. Anderson’s actions on April 14 were wrongdoing” and awarded Anderson unemployment benefits.

Anderson said Friday that Mid-America appealed the judge’s decision to the state Employment Appeal Board, after which he decided not to pursue the matter further. He said he may have violated the company’s confidentiality policy, but the graphic advocate has been his “heart and soul” for three years.

Grohe said Friday that Mid-America looked forward to his appeal being heard by the board.

Mid-America eventually backed out of plans to close the Graphic-Advocate and then initiated efforts to sell the newspaper, leading to a dispute with Nelson Media Company over ownership. For a short time, two different and competing versions of the Graphic-Advocate were released. Nelson eventually settled on an entirely new publication, Calhoun County Phoenix, where Anderson now works, leaving Lake City with two newspapers.

Mid-America publishes 22 community newspapers in Iowa, some of which use content provided by the Iowa Capital Dispatch.