Veteran Inquirer reporter Jennifer Lin had a scoop Wednesday morning: SugarHouse Casino owners were suing the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to block them from issuing a license for a competing city casino. Lin filed the story around 12:30 p.m. But the article was nowhere to be found on Philly.com, a website originally created to feature content from the city's two daily newspapers. Philly.com reported its own version of the story instead.
Gaming, it turns out, is not the only local industry that has become awkwardly crowded.
"I got a tip that there was a filing in Harrisburg, and I had a copy of the lawsuit at 10 a.m.," Lin tells City Paper. "I filed at 12:28, and it appeared on Inquirer.com — and only Inquirer.com. As far as how Philly.com heard about it, and why they decided not to post my story, you really have to ask Philly.com."
Interstate General Media — which owns The Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com — declined to comment, and Philly.com editor Lexie Norcross did not respond to repeated requests.
Lin, two sources say, threatened to quit and had to be talked into staying.
"No one wanted to see her go," says one newsroom source who, like others, requested anonymity because they were speaking ill of their employers. "She covered China for Knight-Ridder. This is a real goddamn reporter. Very talented. Covers about half a dozen beats from what I can tell."
In April 2012, a new ownership group led by the powerful South Jersey political boss George Norcross, philanthropistH.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, and parking magnate Lewis Katz took over the financially troubled company that controls Philly.com and the two dailies. Like newspapers nationwide, The Inquirer and Daily News have struggled to get people to pay for the news they consume as readers move online and advertising revenue disappears.
Norcross' 25-year-old daughter, Lexie, was put in charge of Philly.com.
One of metro Philadelphia's highest-traffic websites, the site has long been criticized for downplaying news in favor of what one newsroom source called a "ship of entertainment and sex." But the episode has pushed a brewing conflict between Inquirer news staff and the website to a breaking point: Under the Norcross' leadership, Philly.com is increasingly competing against the dailies' newsrooms with its own writers. Philly.com never announced that they were becoming a competing news operation — it just sort of happened.
"There's no question that it raised a number of red flags," says Howard Gensler, Daily News gossip columnist and Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia president. "There's duplication of effort, and there seems to be a conscious effort from one division of the company to try to minimize the value and input of the other two divisions of the company."
Philly.com sent its own reporters to cover the Market Street building collapse, and it scooped everyone on the opening of a Justice Department review of police shootings in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania state political news often comes from Pennsylvania Independent, a conservative and libertarian news outlet whose articles are sometimes sharply critical of public employee unions. [Full disclosure: Citypaper.net and Philly.com currently have a content-sharing agreement, set to expire within a month.]
Philly.com has also sometimes tested the limits of journalistic norms.
In May, Philly.com posted a disclaimer next to an Inquirer business column — seemingly at the request of an advertiser.
That same month, Philly.com raised eyebrows around the media world when it announced that Tom Corbett, whose day job is being the Republican governor of Pennsylvania, would begin writing a column. Corbett has not yet written one, but Philly.com has published one light print interview, and one video with the governor and first lady.
At the time, Lexie Norcross told the Inquirer the column was about fairness.
"Considering that the Inquirer and Daily News slam him every day, I think it's actually equal, giving him a chance to speak."
The response angered reporters, as did Publisher Bob Hall's argument that Philly.com was, as the Inquirer phrased it, "not bound by traditional newspaper conventions such as the need for a clear distinction between those who write the news and those who make it."
Hall's point raises serious questions since Philly.com reporters are now competing against the dailies, and the Daily News uses Philly.com editorial content in their print edition — even while Philly.com remains dependent on the two papers' for much of their content.
In June, Lexie Norcross was criticized for tweeting in support of Newark mayor and New Jersey gubernatorial candidateCory Booker — linking to an an article announcing that her powerful father, George, had endorsed him. It was an Inquirer exclusive.
Newsroom sources say that a major conflict is now taking place between Katz and Norcross. Katz's partner is investigative reporter and current Inquirer City Editor Nancy Phillips.
"Philly.com is being nurtured at the expense of both newsrooms," says one newsroom source. The owners "are on a real bad path. … Is there an end game and, if there is, what the hell is it?"
What's most puzzling, many reporters say, is the redundant use of resources in a company with newsrooms that have lost hundreds of employees since the late 1990s. Under previous ownership, Inquirer and Daily News editors briefly experimented with a "newsroom" merger that shared some reporting tasks and a breaking news desk. Instead of one newsroom, there are now apparently three.
"It's crystal clear that the Philly.com faction is outrightly hostile to the newspaper," says one source. "You wonder what is the ultimate goal here. Why one part of an organization would be constantly undermining another?"
Particularly troubling, sources say, is the possibility that Philly.com learned of Lin's story from a morning news meeting, which they regularly sit in on.
"I was not at the news meeting, so you really have to talk to people who were there," says Lin.
The Philly.com article now states that the "filing was first reported by the Inquirer," but sources believe that was only added to the post after the newsroom outcry.
"They kind of just stole the story," says one source. "It is so unethical to steal someone's scoop. … Journalistically it was disgusting."
Lin and colleague Suzette Parmley, write a blog about the gaming industry called "Doubled Down." But it is not featured on Philly.com's blog directory. Philly.com, however, has created its own gaming page: "It's High Stakes: The essential guide to Philly's next casino--Who has the winning hand?" The vibe leans toward boosterism.
The concerns over Philly.com reporting comes as the two paper's have launched independent, and underwhelming, digital operations in April. Two new websites — Inquirer.com and PhillyDailyNews.com — were unveiled, promising the Internet independence the papers have long desired. But Philly.com continues to provide free access to the papers' content while the two new sites, basically unadvertised on Philly.com and generally not marketed to the public, keep the same content locked behind hard paywalls. The sites look nice, but are impervious to social media.
There is a growing consensus that they were built to fail.
"Inquirer work is not being featured on Philly.com, while the constant change in promo codes and other issues hinders use of Inquirer.com," says another newsroom source. "I would like to be read online but it is currently very hard to find our work."
In February 2012, under the former hedge-fund ownership, the company underwent another major scandal. Reporting in both papers on the company's sale was censored by management, prompting a newsroom revolt that garnered national attention — most prominently from New York Times media reporters, including David Carr.
Maybe, sources hope, Carr will start making phone calls once again. There are a lot of reporters who would love to tell him a story. And perhaps he, unlike City Paper, can pursuade George Norcross to sit down for an interview.
"We sure hope there is some kind of reckoning," says Gensler, who says that the union may take some sort of action. "That's a difficult question to answer, because it's not the job of the employees to run the company in a sensible way."
* Corrections: The articles were originally posted online Wednesday, and not Thursday. Lin's story came out in theInquirer's print edition on Thursday. And the new websites debuted in April, not March.
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