Covering Your Own Paper Not Easy

By: Joe Strupp

Many reporters at one time or another end up having to write about their own newspapers. But for Joseph DiStefano, former business writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer, much of 2006 was spent that way. From the moment that Knight Ridder announced plans to sell the paper in late 2005, to the Newspaper Guild contract battle that nearly ended in a strike at the very end of 2006, DiStefano had to walk a tightrope. “It is difficult in one respect, that you don’t have the sanctuary of the newsroom to fall back on, like other stories,” says DiStefano, 43, who left the Inquirer for Bloomberg News in January after nine years. “Anyone could come up to you, colleagues and union people. The publisher called me on two occasions to raise questions about things I had written.”

DiStefano, who started his career in 1988 as an Inquirer clerk and stringer, left in 1991 for stints at other papers in Gary, Ind., and Wilmington, Del., before returning in 1997. Although it was a bigger challenge writing about his own employers, he welcomed the opportunity. “It was a lot of fun and I am glad I got the assignment,” says DiStefano, who is married with six children. “Other times it was tragic, to cover the lives of colleagues who had to leave.”

With two newspapers in the same market for sale, rumors and speculation raged about whether another chain would buy, if a local owner would come in, if the dailies would merge, or if one paper, most likely the Daily News, would fold. When McClatchy revealed its purchase of Knight Ridder, but then shed some of the properties, the story took another turn ? leading to the investor group Philadelphia Media Holdings’ takeover in August.

“It was fascinating,” DiStefano says about the transaction. “The hardest part of the story was covering the sale ? all of the bidders wanted to talk. Most of the time it is like pulling teeth to get buyers to talk.”

PMH partners Brian Tierney, a well-known Philly publicist, and Bruce Toll, a local developer, became an editorial issue once they had bought the paper: Since both had strong ties to the political and business communities, DiStefano and other reporters had to disclose the newspaper’s new connection to them in a number of stories. “I think it is very much to Tierney’s credit and [former Knight Ridder CEO] Tony Ridder’s credit that they allowed the papers to be covered,” DiStefano says, “like we would any company.” But after the sale, when Tierney became publisher and announced plans to cut staff and resources, the story became even stickier. When contract talks reached a standoff, a strike threat arose and both union and management kept a close eye on DiStefano’s reporting.

“I received an irate call from a Teamster official who didn’t like that I reported details on a contract proposal,” he recalls. Tierney called a few times with questions about specific stories, but he says his new boss was always professional. “Is he supposed to do anything less because I work for him?” DiStefano asks. “At the end of the day, he didn’t force me to do anything.”

Guild president Henry Holcomb, a fellow business reporter who sat nearby in the same newsroom, also treated DiStefano as he would any reporter covering the union. “He often didn’t get me stuff I wanted from him,” the writer remembers, adding that the guild, like any union, distributed a lot of material DiStefano did not use, sparking some friction. “But [Holcomb] was careful not to directly criticize the coverage.”

During this time, DiStefano also had to think of his own future. As early as March 2006, he had been in talks with Bloomberg. Once the Knight Ridder sale was in the works, he believed the papers’ futures would be forever changed. “It is the kind of event that makes a person consider if it is time to make a move,” he says. “They were talking about having to make some cuts in October, and just reporting on that, I didn’t know how much of that was real and how much of that was a function of contract talks.”

With a large family and concerns about what a new owner might do, the writer admits: “I needed to make more money and be part of an organization that is growing.” He believes the Inquirer can be successful under Tierney and new editor William Marimow.

“I am not walking out saying what a tragedy it is,” he stresses. “I am sad they did the layoffs. But they have some good people there. I think Bill Marimow is a very capable newsperson and they understand the challenges facing them.”

DiStefano points out that the cutbacks and changes by the Inquirer’s new owners are no different than those being made by other newspaper managers, including some who had been interested in the paper while it was still on the block. MediaNews “has laid people off, Black Press has laid people off,” he says. He adds that the situation in Philadelphia and elsewhere is one of transformation more than dissolution, and that newspapers have had to change their approach constantly in the past.

“The industry adapts,” he says. “You get new kinds of players. News organizations need to get paid for what they do. They know that, and they have to figure out ways of doing that. Part of it is in the product and part of it is on the legal front ? making people pay for what they are using.”

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