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Sold Out

Former investigative reporter Stephen Van Drake wants to expose a newspaper's cheating ways.
Colby Katz

In a lawsuit filed against the South Florida Business Journal in 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 News resigned 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 Herald in 2001.

Only one truth emerges from these varying numbers -- the Business Journal isn't being truthful to its advertisers or the public about its circulation. When I asked Business Journal editor 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 Journals across 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."

Unbenownst to Van Drake, editor Gale rewrote the entire story in favor of the powerful car dealer, excising most of the allegations of the whistleblower, Seth Eisenberg.

"Rick Case Cars is suing a former sales manager, alleging he misused information on the dealer's computer networks," began the story that was published on September 26, 2003.

Van Drake was livid -- and he was convinced that Case, who didn't return calls for comment, and his lawyers had pressured Gale and Press to kill the story.

Soon, full-page ads for Rick Case dealerships began appearing in the Business Journal as part of a new $100,000 advertising campaign, Van Drake alleges in the lawsuit. Among the ads were bright yellow Case stickers adhered to the front page of each copy that obliterated the newsprint underneath.

Perfect symbolism, really, for a newspaper selling out its editorial integrity to a car dealer.

"All Van Drake wanted to do was an investigative story on Rick Case, and the next thing you know, Case is taking double-truck ads out in the newspaper," observes J.P. Bender, a long-time South Florida journalist who left the SFBJ in 2001 and still keeps a close eye on the newspaper. "So all the sudden he couldn't write about it. Because all the sudden Case is a sacred cow."

Bender, who has stayed in regular contact with several staffers, says the paper is in disarray over such unethical practices, and he pinpoints the publisher, Press, as the chief culprit. "Press is a legend in his own mind," says Bender, who supports Van Drake. "He's very involved in the chamber of commerce. He's very money-motivated. An anything-for-a-buck kind of guy. He loves advertisers, loves salespeople, loves to play golf, loves his graphic arts department but has no respect at all for reporters."

Press' ethics have been questioned before. In 2000, the Palm Beach Post exposed the fact that he'd used his connections to obtain ten Bruce Springsteen tickets, then tried to scalp them over the Internet at $200 apiece. But Press appears to be only a part of a larger pattern at the four Business Journal-owned newspapers in Florida. All underwent similar agony after the new corporate directives came down, says Pat Beall, a well respected former editor at the Orlando publication. Though Beall has never met Van Drake, her testimony on the events in Orlando lends significant credence to his allegations. Beall says the unseemly "sea change" at the Business Journals in Florida came at the behest of Fisher, the group publisher.

"Rob came in, sat on top of the chair, threw three recent papers across the table, and announced they were all crap," she recalls. "We chopped and hewed at editorial content until we could squeeze the paper's size. Sections shrank. Readers complained. It didn't matter.

"Maybe it wouldn't have been so noxious, but [American City Business Journal newspapers] have made their chops by showing an understanding of what they are writing about, and a gift for writing about it in-depth. Why else would you buy a weekly?"

Orlando publisher Ann Sonntag -- who refused to comment when contacted at her office -- began taking a more hands-on role in the newspaper, pulling stories, making editorial changes, and suggesting stories to reporters, Beall says. "Publishers do not make editorial decisions at good newspapers," she declares. "But under Rob's direction they were encouraged to do so."

All of these changes turned the newsroom upside down, she says. And the quota was even stricter in Orlando -- four stories per week for each writer, plus significantly more reporting for the paper's website. Staffers became so overworked that five had to be rushed to emergency rooms during a five-month period, Beall says, four for stress-related illnesses and one for cardiac problems.

Beall complained about the conditions to Fisher, who she says basically ignored her. Fisher, when contacted at his Charlotte office, refused to comment.

Earlier this year, Beall quit to take a job at the Palm Beach Post.

Back at the South Florida Business Journal, in Deerfield Beach, Gale dutifully carried out Fisher's agenda, according to sources close to SFBJ. In addition to Van Drake, at least two other reporters left the Journal from a staff of about a half-dozen. The turmoil was interspersed with moments of ludicrous comedy. Press, for instance, hired a motivational speaker named Stephen Garber in an attempt to get his staff behind the new corporate movement. Garber held half-day group sessions with reporters in local hotels. Reporters laughed off Garber's hiring as an attempt at corporate brainwashing, Van Drake says.

Then there was the ongoing subscription contest based on the Survivor television show. Reporters were outfitted with large business cards that essentially served as an advertisement for the newspaper and told to use them to sell subscriptions to sources and potential advertisers. "Outwit, Outplay, Outsell," read the flyer that management distributed to staff for the "2004 Circulation Contest and Extravaganza!!!

"Each month, the Business Journal will hold a Tribal Council where the highest-selling Tribe will be announced as the... inhabitants of the island."

The winner will be announced at the end of the year and given a grand prize of $1,000.

The reporters haven't suffered such cheap corporate ploys gladly -- and none suffered more than Van Drake, who has a history of depression. He says he had panic attacks and began seeing a psychiatrist as a result of the SFBJ upheaval. One of the strangest allegations he makes is that Gale placed a framed picture of Van Drake in his office, directly under a framed article titled "Profile of A Madman." Included among the exhibits filed with the lawsuit is a photograph of the offending office wall.

Madman or not, the former reporter is striking at the heart of the newspaper's credibility. He says that, in terms of journalism, he has nothing left to lose. "My career is dead," says Van Drake, who is now working for a company writing novels based on true crimes. "Nobody wants to frickin' touch me now. But the state of journalism across the country is in trouble. It's badly impaired by large chains, oligarchy ownership, and the bottom line. This is a cancer at the core of journalism."


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