If you care about independent journalism in the Philadelphia region, it’s time to start worrying.
Yesterday we learned that the Philadelphia Media Network, owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Daily News and Philly.com, silenced a perfectly innocuous blog post about a group of investors that had expressed an interest in buying the company.
The company isn’t much interested in these suitors, and the innocuous post was purged and replaced with a company statement that made it clear it isn’t negotiating with the group, headed by developer Bart Blatstein.
I wrote about this yesterday.
What I’ve learned since then is stomach-turning, and raises serious questions about whether the owners of these papers should be running any media organization, anywhere.
The Blatstein group announced its existence to the Inquirer in news release Monday. I’ve acquired a copy of the Inquirer’s news “budget” – the story list prepared that day for Tuesday’s paper. As you can see in the photo above, there were plans to write a story about the Blatstein group. Veteran reporter Andy Maykuth was assigned to it.
The story was spiked.
On Tuesday, after the Daily News blog post was scrubbed of offensive material, the paper planned to write a story for Wednesday’s newspaper about the Blatstein initiative. Nothing sensational, mind you – just , here’s a new group with some well-heeled investors, and the company they want to buy isn’t interested.
That story was also spiked. I’m told by sources with firsthand knowledge that staff members were told that the orders to kill it came from “up above,” and further that if anybody so much as Tweeted about Blatstein, they could be fired (see ADDED CONTEXT on this below).
Pat Loeb at KYW Newsradio also weighed in.
Finally, at midday Wednesday, a piece by Inquirer staff writer Mike Armstrong appeared on Philly.com
What’s really amazing about all this is that it’s hard to imagine how the owners of Philadelphia Media Network would be harmed by some simple, straight-ahead reporting on the Blatstein group.
The existence of the partnership and its ambitions would be noted for the public record, a response from the company would be included, and the papers’ owners would be free to engage or ignore the group as they choose.
But the fact that company would risk the credibility of these venerable institutions and their fine journalists for a marginal edge in public relations demonstrates what I’ve heard from so many of their reporters lately: they just don’t get it.
Think about it: You run two newspapers. A story comes up that involves your business. Rather than letting reporters do their jobs, you use the papers as house organs to push your own spin.
There’s a really troubling implication here for all of us.
It’s widely believed among the newspaper staffs that the current owners favor the bidders that include Rendell, South Jersey power broker George Norcross, Flyers owner Ed Snider and others.
When Rendell spoke to reporters last week, he praised Philadelphia Media Network’s current CEO, Greg Osberg.
If the region’s largest media organization is bought by politicians and businesspeople with wide-ranging interests, and the management in charge will abandon journalism without a second thought to shill for the owners, we got trouble.
I can’t leave the subject without giving the owners of the papers credit for letting the great journalists at both papers keep doing great work when the company’s interests aren’t involved.
The Inquirer and Daily News, whatever their problems and faults, regularly give us great stories.
But if you toss out journalistic judgment like sandwich wrapper when the bosses have an interest in the subject, you’re not going to keep the good journalists or your readers’ trust for long.
UPDATE: In my haste to get this post up yesterday, I neglected to mention that I did speak to Philadelphia Media Network spokesman Mark Block and others before writing. Block wasn’t commenting on the issues generally, and wasn’t in a position to address the spiking of Andy Maykuth’s story, or the reports that Daily News staffers were threatened with dismissal if they wrote anything about the Blatstein group. On Tuesday, Block defended the removal of the Daily News blog post by saying that the company was simply trying to give readers the most accurate and relevant information.
Maykuth declined to speak to me, and my calls to Inquirer editor Stan Wischnowski and Daily News editor Larry Platt weren’t returned.
ADDED CONTEXT: The information about staff members being threatened with dismissal if they posted anytning on social media came from multiple sources at the Daily News, who declined to speak publicly for obvious reasons.
Since this was posted, two people from the paper have since contacted me offer some context. They said months before, the company had issued a social media policy and warned that violation of its provisions could result in dismissal. On the Tuesday in question, the two people said, city editor Gar Joseph was concerned that reporters angry about the story being spiked might vent their fury on Twitter or Facebook.
They said Joseph told them they shouldn’t put anything about the controversy on social media because he didn’t want to see someone fired because of this. They said he wasn’t relaying a direct order from above, but reminding reporters of the stakes if they violated the company policy.
I went back to one of my original sources, who stuck by the original account: that Joseph said the story was spiked, that no one should go to social media without risking dismissal, and this had come from “upstairs.”
While it’s clear to me many reporters at the paper perceived this as a direct threat from management, it may be this was not a directive from publisher Greg Osberg. When I asked company spokesman Mark Block about it over a two-day stretch, he declined comment.