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The South Florida Business Journal sells its journalistic soul

In a lawsuit filed against the South Florida Business Journalin May, a former reporter alleges the publication, part of a national 41-newspaper chain, has drastically inflated circulation numbers to increase advertising revenues.

If true, the significance of such a revelation won't be lost on those who have watched the recent circulation scandal unfold at the Chicago-based Tribune Co. That corporation, which owns the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, is facing great public humiliation -- and a $100 million class-action lawsuit from advertisers -- after some of its newspapers were found to have claimed bogus numbers. Just last week, the circulation director for the Dallas Morning Newsresigned over allegations of inflated sales.

Stephen Van Drake, the reporter who filed suit against the Deerfield Beach-based SFBJ, concedes that he has no hard proof showing the newspaper cheated. But a quick investigation of easily accessible circulation figures from several sources turned up indisputable evidence that he's right.

According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the national authority on such matters, the paper's circulation is 7,641. Yet, on the Business Journal's website, under a link headed "Advertising Services," the newspaper lists its "minimum circulation" at 12,073 -- about 55 percent more than the actual figure.

The newspaper cites a 2003 subscriber study done by its parent company, Charlotte, N.C.-based American City Business Journals, as the source of the 12,073 figure. But that study actually lists "total circulation" at 9,401, another bloated estimate.

As if that weren't confusing enough, SFBJ advertising director Angel Cicerone told me last week that ciruculation was 12,500, the same figure publisher Gary Press supplied to the Miami Heraldin 2001.

Only one truth emerges from these varying numbers -- the Business Journalisn't being truthful to its advertisers or the public about its circulation. When I asked Business Journaleditor Kevin Gale about some of these discrepancies, he said, "I'll see if I can find a logical explanation for this."

He never called me back.

The false circulation claims are only the beginning of the SFBJ's burgeoning record of corporate-driven journalistic crimes and misdemeanors, a look at Van Drake's lawsuit and interviews with several sources close to the newspaper reveals. Filed in May by Miami attorney Mark Vieth, Van Drake's complaint claims that management -- specifically Press and Gale -- psychologically destroyed the reporter when he resisted unethical corporate directives. The 60-year-old former lawyer was fired from his $52,000-a-year SFBJ job in April after nearly three years at the newspaper, where he was given generally good evaluations and won several journalism awards from the Florida Press Club.

Arguments concerning legal merit aside, Van Drake's case reveals an out-of-control newspaper bent on driving up revenues, ethics be damned. Van Drake paints a picture of hellish practices that range from the malignant (arbitrary limits on story lengths and a new emphasis on "advertorials") to the absurd (a hokey motivational speaker hired to encourage reporters to "surrender" to management and a subscription-selling competition based on the TV show Survivor).

The chain's three other Florida newspapers -- in Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville -- have also been adversely affected by new corporate policies, though their circulation numbers appear to be relatively correct. Editors at all three of those newspapers have either left or been fired in the past year.

Gale said that he and other newspaper officials have no comment, but he did read a short statement provided by the SFBJ's lawyers. "There are many wild allegations in Mr. Van Drake's complaint," he read. "We take issue with them and we intend to fight them in court."

Van Drake, an eccentric grandfather who lives in West Palm Beach, certainly included some bizarre tidbits in his suit, including tape-recorded arguments he had with Gale over the smell of the reporter's microwaved fish. But his allegations are bolstered by former staffers and similar editorial turmoil at the other newspapers.

Not that the South Florida Business Journal, during its 24-year history, has ever been a paragon of great newspaper work. Largely a trade paper, it's always been rife with business transactions and rewritten press releases. But the SFBJ has also had its share of solid journalism, in-depth reports, and investigations.

In August of last year, Gale announced at a weekly staff meeting that group publisher Rob Fisher, who works in Charlotte and oversees several Business Journalsacross the country, was steering the newspaper in a new direction. Any stories in excess of 600 words -- a length that precludes any real depth -- had to be approved. And to make sure writers complied, each was given a three-story-a-week quota. Two weekly columns were killed, including Van Drake's on legal matters, which was titled "Bench Press."

Soon thereafter, SFBJ publisher Gary Press began to take control of editorial content, Van Drake says. What the former reporter calls the "Chinese wall" between advertising staff and reporters virtually disintegrated. "Press himself told people what to write," Van Drake says. "He would say, 'Why don't you write about this and why don't you write about that?' I knew the paper's integrity was in trouble."

A chilling example came this past September, when Van Drake uncovered a story regarding car dealer Rick Case, who owns numerous dealerships in Broward County. Here's how Van Drake began his story: "Rick Case Cars of Davie recently crippled a former sales manager's efforts to write a tell-all book about the dealer's alleged deceptive trade practices by suing him and getting a court order to seize [his] home computer."

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