Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Maybe not interference but self-censorship?

In a previous post (see below) I raised questions about whether the new lead investor in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, Brian Tierney, would be able to suppress his PR-man urge to meddle in the editorial content of the papers if his former clients and business associates complained to him about negative coverage.

Part of my comments appeared in a summary of blogosphere reaction to the new owners that appeared in Dan Rubin's Blinq blog that is part of the Inquirer's web product. Unfortunately, of the blog entries that Dan quoted online, only the blandest ones made it into the print version of his observations about the new owners.

Pardon me for thinking my line about "channelling Walter Annenberg" would be snarky enough to get picked up somewhere...readers old enough to remember the last time the Inquirer was in local hands will also recall Annenberg's dictum to the newsroom that Democratic Gov. Milton Schapp's name was not to be mentioned in the Inquirer, which led to some outrageous efforts to cover a sitting governor without naming him.

I like Dan very much, and he has quoted me approvingly in the past on several occasions.

And maybe I shouldn't bite the hand that fed me a page one photo with photo credit last week (Amtrak power outage, see images 5 and 6 in the flash album at http://inquirer.philly.com/slideshows/news/060525train/index.html -- #6 made the front page), but now I'm wondering if fully transparent blogging can coexist with local owners at a major media outlet.

It's easy for columnists to fire potshots when the corporate fathers are in California or Miami, but will they still be comfortable printing harsh criticism, even by someone other than themselves, when the boss/owner can walk right over to your desk, maybe you start thinking about whether you really want to put the tough-edged stuff in the column.

I know, I know all about news holes and word counts, and the need to prune and edit to fit the allotted space...I have been writing a technology column local to Cherry Hill for ten years, and it's hard to fit it all in in 650 words or less. But when I look at the blog entries that made the print column, vs. the ones that appeared in the online blog, I can't help but think Dan went a little to the soft side. Here are other examples.

Dan used the funny comment about Brian's hair looking vaguely like Donald Trump, from Philebrity, but he carefully excised the part where Philebrity opines that Brian is "cuckoo for Jesus and the Republican party," and then goes on to comment cynically on Brian's hands-off pledge, adding "but like all good Rebublicans [sic] do, Bri-Bri promises to retire from political life if the deal goes through to avoid potential conflicts in interests. How quaint."

Dan also omits from the print version the comment from Kiko's House: "The buyers have zero publishing experience and while they promise to keep their mitts off of the editorial content and have even signed so-called 'no interference' pledges, I'm taking a wait-and-see attitude."

Intentional self-censorship? Probably not, but it's awfully hard to reconcile publishing the unvarnished entries on the web, and ignoring them completely in the printed column. Is it because the new owners read the paper but not the blog?

This is not the only place I'm noticing self-censorship, or maybe just confusion and trepidation, about how to cover the new owners. A big Inquirer Sunday story by Jane Von Bergen about corporate executives and their high salaries this weekend mentioned that among the top five highest paid executives in the Philadelphia area is "an executive at home builder Toll Bros." He's not even mentioned by name in the article; you have to go to the table of executive pay to find out which one it is. It's not Bruce Toll, the head of the company, but nowhere in the article are we reminded that Bruce Toll is chairman of the investor group that just bought the Inquirer.

Back when a former president of Mexico was being investigated for corruption, every single time he was mentioned in the Wall Street Journal's coverage of that investigation, the paper reminded readers that he was a member of the Dow Jones board of directors, and that Dow Jones owned the Wall Street Journal.

Every time BusinessWeek magazine quotes a bond analyst from Standard & Poor's, the article reminds readers that S&P, like BusinessWeek, is "owned by The McGraw-Hill Companies."

This is pretty routine for publications to avoid any appearance of failing to disclose. Hope the Inquirer figures out how it wants to handle those disclosures in the future. Maybe I'm expecting too much, but the initial signs I'm seeing don't give me a strong feeling that they are going to be tough on the new owners in the paper...

CORRECTIONS DEPARTMENT -- Looks like my memory isn't as good as I think it is. All these years I thought that Brian's first profile in the Inquirer was written by Peter Binzen, but it appears that I may be thinking of a February 1985 profile by Ewart Rouse. Oh, well, sorry about that, Peter and Ewart. The main point, though, is that all my PR colleagues and I at Conrail thought it was odd that the first visible pitch Brian threw to the Inquirer was about himself, not about his client. We grew up in a kinder, gentler PR world in which the client's interests came first.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Does anyone really think Brian will keep his hands off editorial?

So now instead of representing clients and doing media relations with the major publications in Philadelphia, Brian Tierney now OWNS (or at least is "Mr. Outside" for the people who put up most of the money to own) the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News.

Freedom of the press is guaranteed -- fer shure -- to them what buys ink by the barrel. His clients must be dancing.

I refer blog readers to my posting about Brian a year ago. This is a guy whose idea of media relations is to trash publicly some of the finest reporters the Inquirer has to offer over the years because they wrote stories his clients didn't like.

Editor & Publisher pointed this out in Mark Fitzgerald's article in March, describing Brian's work on behalf of the Catholic Archdiocese.

What will he say to reporters investigating wrongdoing now, "nothing personal, just business?"

I've always told my clients and employers that public relations is not about manipulating the news, but engaging journalists in a dialogue about your business.

They are not always going to agree with your point of view, and if you have something negative going on, I can't stop them from writing about it -- and it would be a mistake to try.

What I can do as a responsible communications counselor, is to confront the questions candidly and if it's something the client can fix, fix it.

Most of us in PR don't blame the messenger -- but that's Brian's very contrary M.O., and it has made him a wealthy man, so should we argue with success?

Yeah, I think so.

At least one reporter I know said a business person told the reporter they were thinking about hiring Brian to be their PR counsel, and asked if the reporter would take Brian's calls. The response was "Yes, but I won't believe anything he says."

Is that the kind of reputation you and your business want in your dealings with the media?

The only bright light in all this is that both newspapers are staffed by journalists of great integrity and professionalism. I seriously doubt that Amanda Bennett and her editorial team will stand idly by and let Brian interfere in the newsroom. But money does talk and one has to wonder how long it will be before he gives in to the temptation to try. I worked for a newspaper where advertiser pressure over negative stories was felt by reporters.

The other thing that bothers me is wrapping himself in this "civic-mindedness" that he's somehow saving the community by buying the papers. Brian is saving Brian. He sold his firm twice, and landed at Advanta for a painfully short time, exiting with yet a few more millions (he's a good negotiator for his side of the contract!) and now needs something to do...

Also, people have short memories while they celebrate his "local focus." Brian's first official act when he opened his PR firm in 1984 was to take on Norfolk Southern as his client when that railroad was hand-picked by then-Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole to buy federally owned Conrail...and help them in their unsuccessful effort to ship 6,000 management jobs at the second-largest employer in the Delaware Valley out of Philadelphia.

If you don't think that would have been the outcome in 1984, flash forward to when John Snow (current Treasury Secretary, then CEO of CSX Corporation) sold out Conrail Chairman Dave Levan and made a side deal with NS to carve up Conrail. They carved it to the bone (the survivors call the switching railroad remnant of Conrail "rump Conrail,") and shut down all but a few management jobs here.

I guess we have to give Brian the benefit of the doubt until he behaves otherwise, but keep your eyes on the news columns of the Inky. If they suddenly stop referring to the present Democrat governor by name, we'll know Brian is channelling Walter Annenberg.