Record-Eagle controversy, petition go to the top

TRAVERSE CITY – The chairman of Dow Jones & Co. has weighed in on a former county administrator's report that claims the Traverse City Record-Eagle reporting is "one-sided" and "sensationalized."

Peter Kann, chairman of Dow Jones & Co., which owns Ottaway Newspapers, owner of the Record-Eagle, responded to K. Ross Childs' 385-page report in mid-July, and referred the issue to the top brass at Ottaway. Childs expects to find out in September if Ottaway will force changes at the daily newspaper.

"What happens next depends on their response," Childs said. "We laid out four scenarios. The first would be a change in their reporting method-and a change in the attitude of the existing people or change of the people. Then there are alternatives 'b, c, and d,' which we really don't want to talk about."

The report sent to Dow contained a petition with 875 signatures, collected over a two-week period in June, urging Ottaway to "restore Record-Eagle credibility." It also contained 30 testimonials from business leaders upset about "slanted" and "sensationalized" reports in the Record-Eagle. Childs said another 30 or so business leaders wanted to write complaint letters, but "feared retribution from the Record-Eagle."

"The goal is to bring to their attention that there is a dissatisfaction with the way the Record Eagle is going, and we'd like to bring the Record-Eagle back to credibility," Childs said. "We don't want to muzzle any reporting. We want fair reporting and to keep the editorials on the editorial page. It's not fair the way it is now. It's very one-sided."

Ann Reed, who was promoted to publisher in May when Zeke Fleet was promoted to Ottaway's corporate headquarters in New York, had little to say about the petition and testimonials.

"We really can't comment one way or another because we have not been made aware of his specific complaints," Reed said. "We have not seen the signed petition or the testimonials."

Last year, the Michigan Press Association named the Record-Eagle "Newspaper of the Year" in its classification for the first time in the paper's history. According to their most recent (2005) readership study, 92,245 people read the Record-Eagle on Sundays, said Reed. Their Sunday average paid circulation (as reported in the December 2005 Audit Bureau of Circulations) is 36,898.

"Our Web site is gaining in popularity, receiving more than 1.7 million page views per month generated by an estimated 23,700 online users," she added.

If changes aren't made, Childs says he'll try to "bring in another newspaper."

His primary target is the Grand Rapids Press, the largest of Michigan's eight Booth newspapers, all owned by Advance Newspapers. The Press serves all of Kent and Ottawa counties, and is distributed in 28 additional counties.

Childs plans to talk to the publisher soon.

Reed had no comment about Childs' plans to meet with the Grand Rapids Press.

Many of the testimonials cited problems with Editor Bill Thomas, who took over as editor in 2002, replacing Ken Hall.

In a June 1 Northern Express article about the petition and the newspaper's hard-hitting approach, Thomas defended their methods, saying they are "reporting the abuses of public office."

The daily has its share of supporters, many of whom have had letters to the editor printed in the Record Eagle. One Williamsburg resident wrote: "I find your articles on the various activities of public and private officials to be informative, well-written and might I also say the word 'balanced.'"

But local buzz has also brought out more people who wanted to sign the petition.

"I had a lot of people ask for petitions," Childs said. "We're at over 900 signatures now, and they're continuing to come in."

The petition acknowledged the history and importance of the Record-Eagle in the community, but asks Ottaway Newspapers to "take action to restore the credibility of the Record Eagle by examining management, keeping editorial points of view on the editorial page where they belong, and open a productive, positive and beneficial dialogue with the community."

Childs first contacted Kann in March about his concerns with the newspaper's reporting.

"We had a conversation and he said 'I would need some documentation' and I said I would be willing to do this. That's when I sent out 25 letters to people. Now I have well over 250 contacts. It really has taken on a life of its own." BN