Veteran Inquirer reporter Jennifer Lin had a scoop last week: SugarHouse Casino owners were suing the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to block them from issuing a license to a competing city casino. Lin filed her story around 12:30 p.m. Wednesday. But the article was nowhere to be found on Philly.com, the website originally created to house content from the city’s two daily newspapers.
“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.”
Instead of pulling Lin’s story out from behind the Inquirer.com paywall, Philly.com posted its own very similar article a few hours later. That led some in the Inquirer newsroom to speculate that Philly.com had ripped off and re-reported Lin’s scoop or, worse, lifted Lin’s tip from the morning news meeting. Though the Philly.com version now links to Lin’s story and cites it, sources say it initially did not. Interstate General Media, which owns the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com, declined to comment. Lin, two sources say, threatened to quit. “No one wanted to see her go,” says one, who requested anonymity to avoid repercussions at work. “She covered China for Knight-Ridder. This is a real goddamn reporter.”
It’s just another example of the rocky relationship between the print and online branches of the main news-gathering operations in Philly that’s exacerbating the meltdown of the struggling dailies.
In April 2012, a group led by South Jersey political boss George Norcross, philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest and parking magnate Lewis Katz took over the financially troubled media company. Norcross’ 25-year-old daughter, Lexie, was put in charge of Philly.com. It was never announced that Philly.com was becoming a competing news operation — it just sort of happened. “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,” says Howard Gensler, Daily News gossip columnist and Newspaper Guild president.
Philly.com has also sometimes tested the limits of journalistic norms — like when it gave Gov. Tom Corbett a column because, according to Norcross: “Considering that the Inquirer and Daily News slam him every day, I think it’s actually equal.” (Corbett hasn’t actually written a column for the site as of yet.) 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.”
What’s most puzzling about the two nearly identical casino stories, though, is the redundant use of resources in a company with newsrooms that have lost hundreds of employees. The concerns over Philly.com follow the April launch of the two papers’ independent — and marginalized — paywalled digital operations. There is a growing sense that they were built to fail.
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