Spokesman Mark Block says he asked Philly.com to remove sale story from website

A Philadelphia Daily News reporter’s blog post about a potential buyer for his paper was removed from the company’s news site Tuesday because it was misleading, according to the spokesman who requested it be taken down.

The original story — a portion of which was published on JimRomenesko.com — said that a group of investors calling itself Philly Homegrown Media wanted to buy some or all of Philadelphia Media Network, which owns the Daily News, the Inquirer and Philly.com. Within a few hours, that story had been replaced by a short statement that simply said Philadelphia Media wasn’t involved in any discussions with that group.

The move prompted questions like this one from WHYY’s Dave Davies: “Are the owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News muzzling their own journalists to protect their financial interests?”

Mark Block, the company’s vice president for external relations, said by phone Tuesday night that he asked the website to replace the blog post, which he saw as little more than a rewritten press release from the group. In its place, he provided the company’s statement.

“In this scenario, I think I had a responsibility to look at that and say, ‘Wait, let’s get that right,’ ” Block told me. “I don’t think I was stepping on any toes.”

Block became involved after the post by Daily News reporter David Gambacorta was published. Block said he received an email from someone at Philly.com, which operates separately from the Daily News and Inquirer newsrooms, asking if the company would have a response. His immediate response upon reading the story about Bart Blatstein’s interest in bidding was, “This really isn’t going anywhere.”

When he provided Philly.com with the company’s response, he asked that it replace the original post.

“There are people who are actively bidding and negotiating for possible purchase” of Philadelphia Media Network, Block told me. “The press release gives you the perception that they’re one of those people. It would be dishonest to tell you that they are.”

Block said he didn’t have any reservations about asking for the post to be removed because he didn’t consider it original reported content and because it had been published on a blog — Philly Clout — rather than on another part of the news site.

“I’m commenting on a press release, I’m not commenting on an original-content story,” he said. “Had it been more of a story developed with original content, I don’t think it would have been on the blog; it would have been on the business page of Philly.com.”

He says his response was “very, very different than when I get a call from the newsroom” seeking a comment for a story for the paper or another part of the website.

But Daily News’ Gambacorta did at least some original reporting, as he spoke with Blatstein, who told him that “the thought of purchasing the papers occured [sic] to him last year, when Tower Investments bought PMN’s 400 N Broad headquarters.”

Blatstein’s company bought the paper’s building for about $20 million. The Philly papers will move out of the building later this year.

Last week, a group led by former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell revealed its interest in buying the company that owns the Inquirer and the Daily News. Two private equity owners — Angelo, Gordon and Alden Capital — want to sell their shares, which total about 60 percent. Rendell has said the group is motivated “more out of a sense of civic duty than a desire to earn a profit.” He also said he hopes current publisher Greg Osberg will remain.

When news organizations report on themselves

This situation is a reminder of the unique obstacles journalists face when they report on their own organizations. Ombuds and public editors have certain structural protections — including an editorial process and supervisory relationship that reinforces their independence. But other journalists at news organizations do not, leaving them vulnerable if they challenge their bosses as they would any other source or report on their own company as aggressively as they would another business.

“Especially as newsrooms go through ownership transitions, newsroom leaders must demonstrate their loyalty to their audience by maintaining a dedication to accuracy and transparency. You have to cover the transition just like you would cover another business deal. In addition to that, you have to explain, even over-explain, how and why you’re covering the transition, so the audience will trust you,” said Poynter’s Kelly McBride by email.

In this case, for example, would Philly.com have honored the same takedown request made by a spokesman for a different company? Or would they have asserted editorial independence and sought alternatives, perhaps adding the company’s statement to the blog post rather than substituting it in place of the original story? Other Philly.com stories about a possible sale have included quotes from Raymond Perelman stating that he might become a bidder, so did Philly.com decision makers probe why that would be treated differently than Blatstein’s declaration of interest in Tuesday’s story? Did Block have information that could have been shared with readers about Blatstein’s intent or the sellers’ inclinations?

In the Dec.-Jan. 2012 issue of AJR, Paul Farhi wrote about how poorly news organizations report on themselves.

As the news about many traditional news outlets ricochets from bad to worse, it’s hard to find a lot of honest self-assessment or even simple self-disclosure. Readers and viewers looking for straightforward information about their favorite newspapers and TV stations – layoffs, bureau closings, circulation declines and the like – are unlikely to find much of it in print or on the air. When news organizations bother to cover themselves, the stories tend to come dressed in euphemism, redolent of spin and obfuscation, if not outright untruth.

It seems the Philadelphia papers are increasingly comfortable pushing their own version of events, a version influenced by business interests rather than by their community’s interest in all the available facts.

Julie Moos contributed the final section of this story.

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    That was one of our (unanswered) questions. There were clearly alternatives other than replacing the story wholesale, but based on what Block said, they were not discussed. –Julie

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    Why couldn’t Block merely have asked that his rejoinder be posted on the Philly Clout blog, without removing the original post? 

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