Last year, it was revealed that a number of prominent newspapers were exaggerating their circulation numbers to boost advertising revenue. Faced with a crisis, some of those newspapers assigned their own newsrooms to the story unfolding in their boardrooms. Others stayed mum. Bob speaks with media reporter James Madore of Newsday, one of the papers that chose to report on its own dirty laundry.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In these days of intense media scrutiny, newspapers are quick to offer apologies and fire reporters who breach the ethics of journalism. But when the business side screws up, newspapers are not always so forthcoming. Case in point, last year, a major circulation scandal broke when it became known that a number of prominent newspapers, a growing number, had long been misreporting and, in some cases, wildly exaggerating their circulation numbers to boost advertising revenue. Faced with a crisis, some papers reported on themselves, but others barely mentioned the scandal.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the papers that did opt to cover itself was Newsday. The Long Island newspaper appointed a five-member team - four reporters and an editor - to do an exhaustive study of the paper's business practices. Eighty articles and 55,000 words later, they continue to do that work. Newsday's media reporter James Madore is a member of that team. He described how they worked together.
JAMES MADORE: We really used a two-pronged strategy - one, try to get ahead of the daily developments, particularly the investigations of the newspaper by various federal government agencies. There also are a series of lawsuits. And then the second approach was to dig into - what happened here? Each of the reporters developed an expertise in portions of the circulation operations, so we could learn about how it was supposed to operate, and then figure out how it broke down. And, when one of us would get enough information on one particular area of the story, then we would all devote our energy to getting that piece of the story in the paper as thoroughly and as quickly as possible.
BOB GARFIELD: When you first tackled the story, did the editor give you any kind of marching orders?
JAMES MADORE: We were most concerned about getting stories in the paper as quickly as possible, because literally, the day after Newsday disclosed that it had inflated its circulation, the district attorney announced an investigation. There were already ongoing internal investigations by Tribune Company, as well as an investigation by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which is the independent monitor of newspaper and magazine circulation across the country. All of these investigators were trying to talk to the very same people we wanted to talk to. So we were, frankly, most focused on getting to these people as quickly as possible and trying to convince them that we would actually publish the ugly information they were telling us about our employer.
BOB GARFIELD: What you discovered was some pretty sleazy behavior on the part of your employer.
JAMES MADORE: We discovered that the circulation department of Newsday was delivering papers to dead people, construction sites, burned out buildings, people who had never ordered the paper and did not want the paper. The initial report on June 17th, said that Newsday had inflated its circulation by 40,000 - weekday; 60,000 - Sunday. Those numbers were revised later, upwards, to approximately a hundred thousand copies weekdays, and a hundred thousand copies on Sundays. That's about 15 percent of Newsday's paid circulation.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Now, I've worked for quite a number of news organizations that have been, in various ways, very aggressive in reporting the malfeasance of others, but the moment they've become subjected to the media glare themselves get very squeamish, and suddenly editors and lawyers and publishers come from nowhere to start peeking over your shoulder as you're preparing your stories. To what extent were people peeking over your shoulder as you covered the Newsday scandal?
JAMES MADORE: Newsday has a tradition. We have the oldest investigations team in the country. And there was a lot of pressure, both internally and externally, to pursue the story wherever it might lead. I know of no instance where someone told my editors or their bosses, "We can't publish this." Newsday, and Tribune Company, which is the parent of Newsday was limited in what it would tell us, in large part because the paper is being sued by a number of different advertisers, and now shareholders. We would request information; we would have questions, and oftentime the responses would come back as prepared statements. Now, I will say that there are people we contacted in the circulation department who didn't want to talk to us. There were people who were vendors or distributors of Newsday who were afraid to talk to us because they didn't know what it would mean for their relationship with Newsday. But frankly, I didn't see any different attitude or approach than with any other business that comes under fire.
BOB GARFIELD: Often enough, in the midst of a scandal like this, police or prosecutors or potential litigants will leak information to reporters for a variety of reasons. At any point did you think that people outside of the newspaper were perhaps being cautious about speaking to you because they thought you might be some sort of mole for the business side?
JAMES MADORE: That was something we ran into numerous times. I'd be a very rich man if I had a dime for every person who told me "I don't believe you're ever going to put any of this in the paper. They're going to shut you down." Our readers, the community, could not believe what we were publishing about the place we work. I got a number of emails, telephone calls and letters from people who told me that it reinforced their confidence in the paper to report about the community - whether it be the Catholic Church or county government. If we can't report truthfully about ourselves, why should we expect our readers to believe what we report on others?
BOB GARFIELD: So you're the media reporter. Kicking yourself for not having picked up the signs earlier that you were, literally, [LAUGHS] sitting on top of a major story?
JAMES MADORE: Yes. I've said to myself - I should have figured this out, because our circulation reports, the 6-month reports that we would submit to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, always showed an increase of about the same amount - about a thousand copies. And I think one of the things that's interesting about covering yourself is that we journalists know very little about the business side of our companies.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, James, thank you very much.
JAMES MADORE: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: James Madore is the media reporter for Newsday.