Is Greg Osberg at least a good business manager?

    I promise some day I’ll move on, but I have to take at least one more bite of the ongoing story about the strange and disturbing days at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com.

    Last week, the company that owns the papers and Philly.com engaged in a heavy-handed muzzling of its own reporters, apparently to keep news of an unfriendly suitor from reaching the public. Details are available at the link in the box to the right.

    Plenty of reporters at the papers are worried about the prospect of company CEO and Publisher Greg Osberg remaining at the helm if an investor group associated with former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell buys the outfit.

    Rendell has opined that Osberg has done an “excellent job” of running Philadelphia Media Network. Recent events suggest his standards of journalism are far from excellent.

    If he isn’t responsible for the shameful abuses of journalistic practice there, he hasn’t bothered to explain who is.

    So far, Osberg hasn’t consented to an interview, and he declined an opportunity to appear with me today on Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane.

    But reporters I speak with raise another question: Is he even good at the business side of running the company? Some tell me he’s run the papers into the ground. Others say he has the right background and orientation to take the company into the digital age.

    It’s hard to know how to judge any media executive these days, given the hard times for the industry and the crappy economy generally. Just surviving may be an accomplishment.

    PNM is privately-held, so we don’t have revenue figures to compare.

    Company spokesman Mark Block says the last circulation report in September showed the Inquirer trending slightly up and the Daily News a little down.

    As a regular subscriber, it seems to me both papers get a little thinner every month.

    I give Osberg credit for coming up with some ideas, like the discounted tablet offered with subscriptions to the digital versions of the papers, and new apps and such.

    I have no idea if they’re winners in the long run, but at least he’s trying something new.

    But big ideas are one thing. Implementation is another.

    And the implementation of some these initiatives have been, well, flawed.

    Consider this review of the tablet launch, which notes that customers couldn’t order this high-tech product online. It had be done over the phone.

    “And in a somewhat surreal moment, despite running full page ads in the Sunday newspaper for the tablet, the order phone lines were closed on Sundays,” the review says. And those weren’t the only problems.

    Spokesman Block said the company learned from that critique and other feedback, and things improved.

    About ten days ago, I was contacted by a frustrated customer of the print product who shared the following letter she sent to the company on February 5 …

    February 5, 2012

    Philadelphia Inquirer Retention Center

    P. O. Box 13718

    Philadelphia, PA 19101

    For months I received no bills for my Philadelphia Inquirer subscription. On January 20 I received a bill and, in a separate envelope, a collection letter. The bill has the notice in bold print: “We were unable to generate renewal notices for several weeks. This notice could include an amount for that unbilled balance. We apologize for this inconvenience and thank you for your patience.” I wrote a check right then, #XXX, for the $96.36 balance, put the check and the invoice stub in an envelope you supplied, put a stamp on it and it went out in the mail. That was January 20.

    On Monday, January 23, I did not receive a newspaper. I called Monday and Tuesday but either the line was busy or a recording played. One day I tried online access but that would not work. Every day I checked my bank account to see if my check had cleared. On Saturday, January 28, a collector called me because my account was delinquent. I was very offended and spoke to a collection supervisor. He assured me that on Monday, January 30, I would have a paper. I did not and have not received a paper since it was stopped on January 23. Your collection supervisor’s word is unreliable.

    On Wednesday, February 1, I called the number on the dunning letter I received: 1-877-997-8632. A woman answered the call, but said that she did not know why “they” put her department’s number on the letter. She worked in billing and did not have access to the accounts and could only take a message. I left a message saying I had sent a check and I wished delivery would resume.

    It seems that things are a mess at the Inquirer. You are unable to send invoices reliably, unable to cash checks and post payments, the collectors are unable to follow through on promises, and the billing department cannot access customer accounts. It is a shame that the very talented reporting staff has such inept operations to rely on.

    I am sending another check for $96.36, #XXX, because the first one I sent has not cleared my bank account. It is enclosed in the same envelope as this letter. My incredible irritation at the bungling you have done is somewhat surpassed by my pleasure in reading the paper in the mornings. However, now that I have had two weeks to read other papers online, I do see how I can adapt.

    Do you report account information to a credit bureau? I would hate to think that my high credit rating could be damaged by this bungled mess. Please let me know.

    Sincerely,

    I didn’t include the subscribers’ name here, but I did provide it with her permission to Block, along with a copy of her letter.

    Block said the subscriber was one of some dozens of customers who experienced problems as the company was upgrading its customer service software and operations. When I asked why they didn’t make sure the new system was tested and ready before they switched over, he said the old system was so outdated that they were in a hurry to replace it before it failed.

    Whatever. All I know is if you can’t service customers who actually want to buy your product, and cash checks when they try to pay you, you got problems.

    It’s good to see the saga of the Philly papers is getting some attention among the national media. It can only help.

    Finally, I want to add some context to something I reported a few days ago: that on Tuesday, Feb. 7, when a story in the Daily News about a bidder for the company was spiked, staff members were told that if they posted on anything on social media about the bidder they could be fired. This came from multiple sources at the paper, who declined to speak publicly for obvious reasons.

    Two people have since contacted me offer some context. They said that, 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 story: 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 that 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.

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