Interview: Joseph DiStefano

Joe DiStefano is a veteran business reporter who has been with the Inquirer for almost ten years.

Joe DiStefano is a veteran business reporter who has been with the Inquirer for almost ten years.

He got into journalism for the steady paycheck after spending five years as an organizer for migrant farm workers. DiStefano is also the author, most recently, of "Comcasted," an inside look at Comcast.

 

PRWeek: Is there a secret to good business reporting?

Joseph DiStefano: There's no secret. In one respect it's easier [than other beats], and that is, as in government, there's a lot of information that gets reported, and a lot of the challenge is just figuring out how much time you spend on that information and decoding it, and finding people that can help you do that. And then, like anything else, you've got to work your sources, you've got to develop them, you've got to evaluate them so that you're not their prisoner. You have to make it clear that you're going to write your stories whether the companies and CEOs talk to you or not, so it's in their interest to talk to you... Mostly what I've covered is banks. They keep two sets of books: one for the investor, and one for the government. And they probably have a third set for the tax man. And you can learn a lot by going through there. It gives you the right questions to ask.

 

PRWeek: What's it been like covering the Knight Ridder sale, and your own paper's upcoming sale?

DiStefano: That's been real interesting. I, on my own, wrote a book about Comcast, and that was pretty much the media work that I'd done in the past. I really didn't know a lot about the newspaper industry per se. And come last November, they asked me to get to work on it. It is a little bit weird covering your own company when your own union is a player in trying to organize one of the several groups that's trying to buy the paper. That adds another level of weirdness onto it. But it's a lot of fun. I guess I'm the kind of person that, if I've got to go somewhere and it's a long trip, I'd rather be driving the car than [being] a passenger. You don't get there any sooner, but you have the illusion of control.

 

PRWeek: What has the mood been like inside the Inquirer since the Knight Ridder sale happened, and McClatchy announced it would sell off the paper?

DiStefano: There's been groups of people that I think are nervous, and one of them is the editors, the exempt people who aren't in the union, the managers. Because those are the people who, in all corporate takeovers--in the Philadelphia area we've seen DuPont, Campbell's, and the banks all go through wrenching transformations, sales of assets, and people go through this quite a bit--it's not an unfamiliar experience, if you've written about it and you've known people who have gone through it. But still, there's a lot of middle managers who came in and a lot of editors who came in under people who are no longer there, who are no longer going to be there to protect them, or to move up their careers. And they're concerned about what's going to happen to them, who's going to buy, what they're going to do with it. And then you've got a lot of reporters who've been here a long time, and like people at any company, you get comfortable with the folks in charge, whether you like them or whether you don't, whether you trust them or whether you don't, you at least have some feeling of predictability. So change is threatening there. And then when you read a lot of the really not well-informed speculation that gets published about what's going to happen to the newspaper industry, people start asking themselves the question, 'Am I in the right line of work? Should I have taken the last buyout?' And people go. They find other things to do.

 

PRWeek: PR agency veteran Brian Tierney is leading one group of bidders for your paper. Is there any added trepidation about that?

DiStefano: He has a lot of well-off people that he has approached, some that are working with him and some that are thinking about it. And I think that he certainly has as good a shot as anybody trying to put together a group in a fairly short period of time. He's certainly a serious person. Now, within our field, he's a pretty controversial person...His job for a long time was just really pressuring to get a version of the news that the institutions he represented wanted in the paper. And people are trying to wrap their minds around this gentleman that they've seen as very adversarial and very combative suddenly saying 'Yea, I want to own the paper, and I can separate whatever my own personal interests are, and that of my partners, from that of the newspaper.' And he says he can do that.

 

PRWeek: Do you think people believe him?

DiStefano: Obviously there's people who do, and people who don't. I have heard from people in the news industry who really relate the work that he's done to their perception of what his persona would be like as a manager. And there's people in the business community who are very vociferous on the other side in saying they've worked with him, they trust him, they admire him, he's a businessman and he's done advertising, and advertising is really what papers depend on. It's three-quarters or four-fifths of the budget, and it's surprising how many people don't keep that in mind.

 

PRWeek: Do you think the newspaper industry as a whole has a dark future, or do you think papers will adapt?

DiStefano: I love getting these notes from people who say, 'I don't read papers any more, I get all my news from the internet.' Well how does it get on the internet? It comes from newspapers. That's the source. Readers are migrating from print to the internet, but they're continuing to read the papers on the internet--sometimes directly, or sometimes through some radio talk show's website or some blog that post stories, or an aggregator like Google or Yahoo. It's the same news. The problem is the free rider problem. It's an old problem in business. The publishers that generate the news and pay for the news aren't getting the full benefit of the advertising and readership that comes from the news. They've got to figure out how to do that. It's like the TV networks for years had the cable companies riding free. And as I write in my book about Comcast, the networks eventually got their acts together and started charging, and reached an accommodation with the cable industry. It took them 20-30 years. Does the newspaper industry have 20 years to wait? Will it take them that long to get their act together, or for some other model to emerge? Will the new model employ as many reporters as the old model? That's a real open question. We don't know.

 

PRWeek: What advice would you give to PR people?

DiStefano: I've known corporate PR people and independent, contract PR people who were very good at what they did. They were familiar with the industry. For the most part, in most of the questions they would ask, they would act like their assumption was that you could see through a certain screen level of bullshit. So they'd only try to bullshit us when they really thought they needed to. And you respect that more. There's a lot of young people out of school in the field, and they really don't know anything. Their job seems to be to get in your way, to put a barrier between you and the people who really know something. And that's just really irritating, and it doesn't give a good feeling about the companies that employ those tactics. Everybody's got a story, they've got a good story, they've got an interesting story. They got big somehow; let's tell that story. And when there's a problem--it's just like when I used to cover the city of Camden. I worked the churches, sometimes I worked the bars, and when somebody got shot in a gang fight and I went into the funeral home and people knew me, they'd talk to me. If you never come around except when there's a problem, they say, 'Where were you? Where have you been? What is this, you just come in here like this is the jungle?' And I think it's the same way with companies. I don't expect them to be our friends, I don't expect to trust them all the way through, but if they establish a policy of being fairly candid about what they do, how they make their money, where they want to go, then when they have problems, which is a lot of times when the news comes in there--like the owner of the London Times once said, 'News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising.' But I think I have to know how a thing works before I can describe how it breaks down, and whether that breakdown is significant.

 

Name: Joseph DiStefano

Outlet: The Philadelphia Inquirer

Title: Financial reporter

Preferred contact method: jdistefano@phillynews.com

Website: www.phillynews.com

 

 

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