Norcross May Fire Pulitzer Winner As He Continues Free Koch Brothers “News” Service

Posted: May 15, 2014 in Contemporary Commentary

As George Norcross III tightens his grip on the newsroom of The Philadelphia Inquirer, he has signaled to staffers his intent to demote or fire recent Putlizer Prize winner Inga Saffron at the same time he continues to use a for-free ultraconserviative,  Koch Brothers backed “news service” to cover state politics in Harrisburg on Philly.com. 

 

“He’s made no secret about his thoughts on Inga,” said one staffer. “He’s mentioned it to several reporters.  

 

“He says, ‘She’s too negative and goes around just writing negative things about our beautiful buildings in this city.’  He thinks she should be replaced by a reporter in South Jersey or start covering South Jersey.”

 

The Pulitzer committee wrote that Saffron, the newspaper’s architecture critic, deserved the ultimate award for journalism because her writing “blends expertise, civic passion, and sheer readability into arguments that consistently stimulate and surprise.”  

 

Her award was the most recent for a newspaper famous for good criticism and tough investigative reporting.  But the prospect of that continuing under a Norcross ownership is not bright.  By the end of this month, the warring owners of The Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com must settle who runs things through a high bidder takes all auction.  

 

Norcross, a multi-millionaire insurance executive and a self-acknowledged ruthless political boss of the South Jersey Democratic machine, has bumped the opening bid from $55 million to $77 million.  It is unclear whether  any “white knight” bidders will top that. 

 

The use of the Koch Brothers backed news service seems an extreme example of loosening news standards at the operation, but others say it is increasingly typical of how Philly.com gathers “news.” 

 

The controversy surfaced as several staff members noticed that Philly.com, the Norcross controlled website associated with the newspaper company, had begun using the free, ultra-conservative service rather than Philadelphia Inquirer correspondent stories.  Worse, the background of the service was not noted. 

 

The stories appeared as being written by “Pennsylvania Independent” news service without stating that the group is part of a nationwide effort to place articles in local papers funded by the controversial and conservative Koch brothers. They are the key funders of the right-wing Tea Party movement.   

 Pennsylvania Independent t is a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a nonprofit organization based in Alexandria., Va.,According to the Center for Public Integrity, 95 percent of  Franklin Center’s money  in 2011 came from Donor’s Trust, a foundation that has distributed hundreds of millions of dollars to right-wing causes. Charles Koch is one of the financiers to Donor’s Trust.

For the Pennsylvanian Independent, it has been a coup to have stories published on the web site associated with the biggest newspaper in the state.   

 In late October, the true colors of the site and its “news” broke out when the Pennsylvania Independent advertised for a new Harrisburg reporter.  The ad, on JournalismJobs.com, said essentially that the reporter candidates should “support free-market thinking and small government.”  

News standards at Philly.com have not been considered high to begin with but the use of what is essentially conservative propaganda is startling on a number of fronts. 

 Yet Norcross and his chief web architects, daughter Lexie Norcross and Robert Cauthorn, believe Philly.com can be the savior of the properties, and the villains here are old-form journalists who refuse to play ball with this “new news.”

Cauthorn faults a newsroom attitude that would “rather win a Pulitzer than win 20,000 new readers. And that’s a disease.”

But it’s also difficult to find Cauthorn successes when his CV is examined closely.  He started an early online edition of an Arizona newspaper, was canned as digital exec at a San Francisco paper in 2006, and holds out the Las Vegas Sun as a successful venture. 

But the Sun is in effect a failed newspaper, published only as a slim insert in the other Las Vegas paper.  Its success as an online journalism venture is dubious.  Before Christmas in 2009, the paper fired half its staff and changed its focus from daily news to feature stories and analysis. Then, in September 2011, the paper laid off a dozen additional employees.  The Sun is little more than an online ghost of its former self now and hardly dominates online news in Las Vegas.  Web analysis software shows it six down from the top on Google for those looking for news about Las Vegas. 

The strategy Crauford is using in Philadlphia also seems out of whack and discredited.  The thought here is that the down-market Philly.com can attract huge numbers of viewers through Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tricks and stunts to replicate a Buzzfeed type of local web.  The Inquirer.com site can then follow a paid strategy and the company gets the best of both worlds. 

Only it does not work well. Boston and the Globe pretty much have proved that after investing millions.  What works seems to be the NY Times and Wall Street Journal model where strong, Pulitzer-prize winning quality papers offer some material for free, but then charge after, say, the fifth story.  It’s not a secret money minter, but it has made some significant dough for the Times and the Journal. 

But at those two papers, the popular online out reach has been classy, with Freakonomics bloggers and David Pogue type reviews.  Clever graphics bring in millions of viewers.

Even then, all papers have been hurt and hurt badly by the “flight to quantity” led by media buyers and automatic algorithm “buys” that seek out the lowest possible rates.  Cauthorn claims Philly.com is the most read site in Philadelphia but web analytics software places it at number four.   But even if it were number one, its electronic ad revenues have to be down.  All are and by up to one-third to one-half of previous years.  

In the meantime, the “old guard” journalists say they are not anti-online, but want to do it in a classier way than Philly.com — in other words, follow the successful leads of the Times and the Journal.  But the Inquirer.com site is locked up, literally.  Unless you already subscribe to the Inkie, you can’t get into its site without a password.  There is no “first five” free offer such as at The Journal and the Times. 

By contrast, if you search on Google for news, Philly.com comes up quickly (about six down these days) but with the cheap linkbait stories such as Tipsy the Narcoleptic Squirrel — funny if you had not already seen it on five other sites. 

But at least Tipsy was not funded by the tea party and came by her dizziness honestly. 

 

 

Comments
  1. Robert Frump says:

    Editors Note: Staffers note that Philly.com also picks up stories from Bob Rosenthal’s Center for Investigative Reporting, Eugene Kiely’s Factcheck.org and Matt Golas’s PlanPhilly.
    There is a “shirttail” that runs on each story disclosing its provenance and a link to funders.

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  2. I can’t imagine you would support closing the auction to the media. I find it unbelievable that Katz and Lenfest would even propose it. I also find the Inky’s attempts to whitewash the situation to be disturbing but part of an overall pattern extending back to Brian Tierney’s “Keep It Local” campaign.

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  3. Well now we know the end is near. Ralph and Bob agree on something.

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