Ohio Newspapers Publicly Question Each Other's Ethics

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Brown Publishing Co. published this open letter to its readers after Dayton Daily News published articles accusing the company of inflating circulation figures.

It’s unusual for news organizations to openly criticize each other. The Dayton Daily News reported a series of articles calling out another Ohio newspaper publishing group for the unethical practice of inflating circulation numbers for advertising purposes back in 2008.

In response, the publishing group – Brown Publishing Company – critiqued the Dayton Daily News for using anonymous sources and confidential information to write negatively about them.

The Dayton Daily News’ criticism stemmed from a 2008 internal document and the verification of two anonymous sources which shows that Brown Publishing Group knowingly inflated its numbers to keep advertisers.

Brown Publishing Company publishes, among other newspapers, the “I-75” newspaper group comprised of the Troy Daily News, Piqua Daily Call and the Sidney Daily NewsAll three newspapers publish print editions six days a week and have circulations of less than 13,000, according to Mondo Times.

Dayton Daily News is owned by Cox Ohio Media which also owns the daily newspapers The Springfield News-Sun, Middletown Journal and Hamilton Journal NewsDayton Daily News has a circulation of more than 100,000, according to Mondo Times.

Editor & Publisher noted Aug 9  that the Brown company was “recently bought of bankruptcy by owner Roy Brown and two other Brown Publishing executives.”

Backstory: Dayton Daily News calls out Brown

On Aug. 8, the Dayton Daily News’ staff writer Tom Beyerlein reported that the Brown Publishing Co. “inflated the circulation of its newspapers in Troy, Piqua and Sidney, overstating the numbers to advertisers by as much as 18 percent.”

Its source was “an internal document” which indicated that Frank Beeson, chief financial officer Joe Ellingham, and ten other executives talked in 2008 about the inflated numbers.  While Ellingham is quoted in the Dayton Daily News as saying the document isn’t legitimate, The Dayton Daily News confirmed with two unnamed people allegedly at the meeting that its story that the document was at the 2008 meeting was legitimate.

The document also apparently says that the company denied an independent audit of its circulation to advertisers and its advertising staff.

According to The Dayton Daily News, Troy Daily News’ circulation had the highest inflation of the three.

The Dayton Daily News also reported that Becky Smith, The Sidney Daily News’ advertising manager, admitted in a memo that “Because in past years we have chosen to fabricate our circulation numbers we acknowledge we’re between ‘a rock and a hard place.’”  The Dayton Daily News’ Matt Sanctic and Tom Beyerlein also reported Aug 9 that  Smith had admitted in a meeting document that auditing could indicate inflated circulation but that avoiding an audit could cause the newspapers to  lose advertising.

Brown Publishing Company’s response

Brown Publishing Company criticized the Dayton Daily News for its front-page report on the I-75 newspapers. In an open – yet unsigned – letter to Brown Publishing Company newspapers’ readers, the company called The Dayton Daily News out for publishing a story using “internal confidential information – from anonymous sources- allegedly from a budget meeting that occured nearly three years ago.”

According to the open letter, the two anonymous sources haven’t worked for Brown Publishing in years either as a result of resignation or termination.  Further, the publishing company wrote that the former employees who gave the documents violated corporate policy and ethics. StinkyJournalism has written to Brown Publishing asking how it can be certain it knows who the two sources are.

Brown Publishing also claimed the letter wasn’t in order to start a fight with The Dayton Daily News, but rather to defend Brown Publishing’s Frank Beeson and Becky Smith, both of whom are implicated in the Dayton Daily News’ report.  Oddly, CFO Joe Ellingham is not defended by Brown Publishing, despite being named as a participant in the meeting to discuss inflated circulation.

Ethical Issues

Outside of any business ethics, The Dayton Daily News story features anonymous sources and confidential information.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics advises that journalists “identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability;” and “always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.”

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Ohio Newspapers Publicly Question Each Other’s Ethics

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