GateHouse officials: Quincy bid was not a conflict of interest

Two of GateHouse Media’s top executives have sent a memo to the company’s publishers and editors—marked “CONFIDENTIAL”—arguing that a bid to provide services to the city of Quincy through its Propel Marketing subsidiary would not have represented a conflict of interest for GateHouse’s Quincy-based daily newspaper, the Patriot Ledger. I obtained a copy of the memo last night.

“There was never a plan to ask the newsroom for favorable coverage, reflecting a clear separation of church and state,” says the memo from GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis and senior vice president David Arkin. “Just as a politician can buy an ad and have no expectation for favorable coverage, Propel sells marketing services with absolutely no expectation for involvement by our newsrooms.”

The memo follows a report from Jack Sullivan of CommonWealth Magazine that the city rejected the bid in part because Mayor Thomas Koch “was concerned about ethical conflicts if the owner of the city’s major newspaper went to work promoting the image of the municipality.” The GateHouse bid proposal cited the company’s “expertise” at “delivering measurable results for our partners in traditional media, digital media, and digital services as well as having considerable content generation serving The City of Quincy tourism, news, and business.” (Note: I’m quoted in Sullivan’s article.)

If Davis and Arkin are sincere, then they should make sure bid language such as that used in the Quincy bid proposal is not repeated. It would also help if the Patriot Ledger would follow up on its earlier story about the bid by noting that it has since been rejected.

The full text of Davis and Arkin’s memo follows:

DATE: 04/15/16

FROM: Kirk Davis, CEO of GateHouse and David Arkin, Senior Vice President of Content & Product Development

TO: Publishers and Editors

RE: Propel Marketing Campaign

Coming off the heels of this week’s Editors Conference and the release of our News Transparency guidelines, we wanted to be very clear about an issue in New England this week. The city of Quincy, MA, issued a request for proposal to market the redevelopment of the Quincy Center, a retail area. The RFP specified three primary services in its scope:

  1. Amplify Quincy’s story: Develop and implement a marketing campaign that projects Quincy’s image in print, broadcast, digital and social media
  2. Cultivate Positive Media: Leverage and develop relationships that result in positive media about Quincy development opportunities and current hospitality opportunities
  3. Hospitality Business Development: Cultivate chefs and restauranteurs to locate and invest in Quincy’s downtown.

Propel Marketing (owned by GateHouse Media) and the GateHouse Media New England group responded to only the first of the three services in the RFP scope, amplifying Quincy’s story with a marketing campaign. Propel had no intent of cultivating positive media, nor did they intend to cultivate chefs and restauranteurs, as the former is inappropriate and the latter not their expertise.

Propel Marketing created and submitted a proposal for an advertising and marketing campaign. The proposal included digital marketing services, print ads in local GateHouse newspapers and online display ads on WickedLocal.com.  The proposal did not include any form of native advertising, sponsored content or branded content.  Nor did it include any mention of blogs, blog posts or articles.

The proposal was submitted from GateHouse Media, rather than from Propel Marketing, because it included both Propel services and GateHouse newspaper ads, in print and online.

Neither the Propel sales rep, nor the GateHouse sales rep, had conversations with editorial staff about Quincy Center coverage. There was never a plan to ask the newsroom for favorable coverage, reflecting a clear separation of church and state. Just as a politician can buy an ad and have no expectation for favorable coverage, Propel sells marketing services with absolutely no expectation for involvement by our newsrooms.

We take the independence of our news coverage incredibly seriously and are committed to ensuring that our standards are upheld in every area of our business.

GateHouse creates a dilemma for its Quincy journalists

Quincy City Hall. Photo via Wikipedia.
Quincy City Hall. Photo via Wikipedia.

At CommonWealth Magazine, Jack Sullivan offers a good overview of a massive conflict of interest in Quincy, where GateHouse Media’s marketing subsidiary is bidding for a city contract in the shadow of GateHouse’s Patriot Ledger, headquartered in Quincy.

The GateHouse subsidiary, Propel Marketing, has already done work for Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch.

We’ve already been talking about this at Facebook, so feel free to chime in.

My insta-analysis is that newspaper owners always create conflicts of interest. Washington Post reporters have to cover Amazon, whose founder and chief executive is the Post‘s owner, Jeff Bezos. To extend that a little further, Amazon does business with the CIA, a major beat for the Post. The Boston Globe, owned by John Henry, covers the Red Sox, and Henry is the principal owner. And newspaper publishers have always held roles in the community that journalists shouldn’t, such as chairing the local chamber of commerce.

What matters is whether those conflicts are handled in a way that’s transparent, ethical, and arm’s-length. Given GateHouse’s recent misadventures involving casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, I’d say the Quincy situation needs to be watched very closely.

Jay Rosen has been indispensable in understanding the Las Vegas mess. Here’s what I wrote for WGBHNews.org about how one independent Connecticut journalist exposed part of the story. And here’s how the Patriot Ledger itself covered the Quincy story recently. It’s thorough in just the way you’d want it to be, so kudos.

Correction: In the first version of this post I wrote that the Patriot Ledger‘s headquarters are in Braintree. In fact, the Ledger is located in an office park on the Quincy side of the Quincy-Braintree line.

Globe columnist Scott Kirsner’s entangling alliances

Craig Douglas of the Boston Business Journal weighs in with an excellent article today on Boston Globe business columnist Scott Kirsner, a freelancer whose interest in a company that organizes events poses some dicey questions about conflicts of interest.

Whether you think Kirsner’s online disclosure is adequate or not, it should be noted that there’s no disclosure at all in the Globe’s print-edition version of his column.

The era of the personal brand in media means that we can’t expect journalists to have the sort of pristine noninvolvement that we demanded in the past. What we should insist on is transparency. As Douglas shows, the Globe is falling short of that standard. I’m a little surprised that Kirsner himself doesn’t insist on it.

Thursday update: Lots of reaction to Douglas’ piece in the online comments — including one from Kirsner himself. Among other things, commenters argue that the BBJ, like Kirsner, straddles the journalism and business worlds. To which I say: Fine. That’s the way things work in 2014. Just disclose it.