Thursday, February 16, 2012

Inside baseball on the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News sales talks

(But not the inside scoop, I'm afraid. I'm merely a spectator.)

News arrived this morning that the chief executive of the Philadelphia Media Network, publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and, may have massaged stories about its own sale to buyers.

He denies it, of course, but the obvious interest is to play down bad news (it's been a rough decade for the beleaguered company; 37 layoffs occurred only yesterday) until the sale goes through. The potential for pressure is there.

I've complained before about the problem of Philadelphia being a one-newspaper-company town, and here we are confronting it head-on: there are few broad-interest news outlets willing to cover the sale of a major employer in the city, because most of the bootstrap reporting on such topics is done by the company in question. (Which is why the New York Times and Washington Post have stepped in to fill the void.)

It was bad when the company's products began to degrade in terms of quality.

It was worse when the company hit bankruptcy.

It was even worse when the company continued to lay off whatever value it had lying around, from its building to its talent.

And it was even worse when the company's only interested suitors are the major city power players who have, for much of their careers, been the subject to critical coverage by the paper. (As Erik Wemple wrote this morning in the Washington Post, "How could the reporters at these Philadelphia papers cover anything aside from Halloween without crossing this ownership group? How could the papers avoid becoming a factory line of conflict-of-interest disclosures?")

Now, this: a potential violation of the very ethical core to a newsgathering organization.

However hellish the business, the PMN should have taken steps to avoid all this.

It should have walled off a reporting group to report on the company, with zero intervention. Placed barriers where they needed to be, for the benefit of both parties. Explained, publicly, what it was going to do ahead of time. And, for the reporters' sake, made sure that every word that went live in those reports was perfect, because any edits to the published product would be immediately suspect.

You say you didn't intervene? Release email conversations to the public. Let us decide, instead of leaving it he said, she said. (A journalistic no-no, as any editor with his head screwed on straight will tell you.)

For a company that has been troubled for so long, it's amazing that there is still confusion when it comes to managing internal reportage around its activity.

Like General Motors, this company's going to have to fail, and fail hard, before it ever has the chance of succeeding again. It's just too bad it came from its own mismanagement, and not stiff competition.

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