Meet The “Sinclair Broadcast Group” of Local Newspapers
Lee Enterprises is one of the largest owners of local newspapers in America. Their apparent indifference to the truth, ethics, and transparency, is terrifying.
Before I introduce you to Lee Enterprises: The Sinclair Broadcast Group of Local Newspapers, a little background on Sinclair…
Until July 2017, Sinclair Broadcast Group operated its media empire in relative obscurity.
Then, John Oliver used his platform as host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight to shine a bright light on the Sinclair media machine; the thesis of Oliver’s 19-minute segment on Sinclair (which has now been viewed over 19-million times on YouTube) was that behind the mask of being an innocent and impartial broadcaster of local news, the media giant — operating in the shadows and taking advantage of the public’s overwhelming trust in “local news”— is really a giant corporation operating a thinly veiled right-wing sleaze machine with little — if any — interest in and commitment to ethical, honest, fact-first reporting.
Put simply: local people thought they were getting local news they could trust, but they were getting the opposite.
What made Oliver’s comedic-expose of Sinclair so gripping, beyond the content Sinclair produced and pushed to local communities, was the immense scale of what Oliver was describing:
“We did some math, and we found out that when you combine the most-watched nightly newscasts on Sinclair and Tribune stations in some of their largest markets, you get an average total viewership of 2.2 million households.
And that is a lot!
It’s more than any current primetime show on Fox News!”
Indeed, an average nightly viewership of 2.2 million households is a lot!
However, “Local News” is delivered in many forms — not just television. Perhaps more influential in the local news ecosystem are “local” print publications —particularly, newspapers, which are often trusted by the average Joe and Jane even more than their local TV news stations.
Which brings us to the subject of this article, The Sinclair Broadcast Group of Local Newspapers… Lee Enterprises.
Before we examine the indifference, if not disdain, of Lee Enterprises to truthful, ethical, transparent, reporting, let’s first establish the gargantuan scale of the Lee Empire.
The Incredible Reach of Lee Enterprises
Lee Enterprises, like Sinclair Broadcast Group, is a true behemoth that, remarkably, few people have ever heard of.
Just look at these numbers from Lee Enterprises' website homepage!
1.2 Million Average Daily Circulation
44 Million Unique Visitors Per Month
77 US Markets and Communities Covered Across 26 States
It’s hard to wrap your brain around numbers like these, but we have to in order to grasp the truly immense influence juggernauts like Lee and Sinclair have over our society and the power they wield to shape how we view the world, perceive our neighbors, and what we accept as the truth about the world around us.
My name has found its way into countless news stories printed by my local Lee-owned La Crosse Tribune. Likewise, countless more civic projects I have been deeply involved with have also been the subject of reports published by Lee-owned newspapers and online publications.
For years, my experience with Lee Enterprises was overwhelmingly positive; all but one of the Lee/Tribune reporters I have interacted with and published stories about me and my civic work, left me with a great deal of confidence in the Tribune and — by extension — Lee Enterprises.
Based on my first-hand experiences, I had no reason to doubt the integrity of the Tribune/Lee reporters I crossed paths with, and never questioned their commitment to doing their best to “get the story right” by reporting the facts, and correcting their occasional errors if ever one was brought to their attention. But that all changed in 2016 when a profoundly inaccurate series of stories were published about me in 2016 by the Lee-owned Tribune, devastating me to the point of weighing the pros and cons of suicide.
How a Local Paper Destroyed My Life and My Mental Health
What happened to me could happen to anyone, is likely to happen to more people more often, and has already — silently — …
Then, a few months ago, after eventually climbing out of the pits of depression, I began seeing a therapist who suggested I start writing about my experiences as a way to get my power back. So I did.
And when I published my first story opening up about how my local paper destroyed my life and mental health, I naively assumed that the story I was writing was an isolated one; I figured it was a story about me, a crumby reporter, and the paper’s editor… but it wasn’t.
I know this because two days after I published my first story, the Tribune’s longtime editor — who I took to task in my first story — “retired” and was quickly replaced by a new editor. But it was when I began engaging the paper’s new editor that I realized that the reprehensible behavior I was witnessing at the local level, was a prime example of the old adage that, “the fish rots from the head.” All this led to the next story I published in this saga.
An Up-Close Look At Journalistic Rot In Action
See a series of unbelievable emails with newspaper executives and what they reveal about contemporary “journalism”
In a series of emails with senior leadership of the Tribune — all of whom have emails ending with “@lee.net” — I discovered several stunning facts, not just about the Tribune, but — I would soon find out — about the whole Lee Empire.
While pressing the new editor of the La Crosse Tribune, Bob Heisse, and the paper’s publisher, Sean Burke, to correct several serious and (easily) verifiable falsehoods in the story that shattered my reputation and existence in the small city I’ve called home for the last 20 years, they revealed so much while doing their best to keep our exchange as short as possible.
Thankfully, after spending more than a decade of my life in politics, it’s not hard for me to see when someone is clearly trying to dodge a question, change the subject, shift blame, or perform other forms of conversational/mental gymnastics to avoid the catastrophe of having the truth spill out of their mouths — or worse yet… into an email.
But who knows, maybe some good will come out of the way Heisse and Burke repeatedly tripped over the truth and one another. After all, it’s only because of their bumbling efforts to avoid drawing the ire of the Lee Enterprises mothership by answering several basic questions I posed to them and providing me with a couple of simple documents I requested, they inadvertently told me everything I needed to know about the Tribune — and, like a suspected criminal that says, “look anywhere you want, just not in that closet!” — they also told me where the problems truly originate (the corporate mothership) and what issues I should look into in greater depth.
Beginnings of An Investigation
My email exchange with Heisse and Burke from the Tribune led me to several stunning revelations, including that:
Revelation #1 — A Correction Policy does not exist at the Lee-owned Tribune, or…
… perhaps one does exist, but it’s being systematically withheld from public view — such a policy is not available on the Tribune’s website, and when I repeatedly asked the editor and the paper’s publisher for that policy they refused to provide it to me or even acknowledge my request directly.
If they have one and are keeping it from readers, that’s inexcusable.
Equally inexcusable is the idea that they would operate without one.
If a paper does not have a Correction Policy or keeps one they do have from their readers and the subjects of their reporting, it is impossible for anyone seeking a correction to know how to get inaccuracies corrected — inaccuracies which when allowed to remain published can bring serious consequences — and it erodes the invaluable trust between publication and public, which is the very lifeblood of a free press and our democracy.
Revelation #2 — A Code of Ethics does not exist at the Lee-owned Tribune, or…
… it’s possible that just like with a Correction Policy, perhaps one does exist, but just like a Correction Policy, the Tribune’s Code of Ethics (if one exists) is also being systematically withheld from public view.
Again, if a paper has a Code of Ethics and are keeping it from readers, that’s inexcusable, just as it is inexcusable to think that a paper would operate without a clear Code of Ethics.
Readers deserve to know what standards are being adhered to when the reporting they consume is created.
Every paper, including the hundreds owned by Lee Enterprises, should state their strict adherence to a robust, specific Code of Ethics, like the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.
Likewise, readers must be able to know when their local paper, or an individual reporter, has strayed from a clear set of ethical guidelines. Without these specific guidelines in place, there is no way to know when a story that’s written (or not), or an action is taken (or not) by a paper is one which demands action and accountability; without a Code of Ethics that readers can easily access, there is no way for them to hold their paper to account — which is incredibly dangerous.
Big Questions Raised
My two major revelations spawned many questions in my mind, some of which I posed to the Tribune leadership (who refused to answer them) — like, “Does the accuracy of your reporting matter to The Tribune / Lee Enterprises? If so, does that importance have an expiration date?” — but one question loomed larger and more ominously than the rest…
Are these issues isolated to my local Lee-owned paper, or do these issues pervade the entire Lee publishing empire?
This question was the principle basis for my investigation, which would reveal that, indeed…
These issues DO pervade the entire Lee publishing empire.
After reviewing hundreds of websites of papers owned by Lee Enterprise, I did not find a single one that featured a Correction Policy or a Code of Ethics.
My Investigatory Process:
- Start: Began at lee.net/markets which lists more than 200 of the 350+ publications owned by Lee Enterprises.
- Home Page: Visited the homepage of each of the 200+ publications (most of which are newspapers, while a few are speciality publications like “AllPoliticsNow.com”)
- General Search: Searched for “Correction Policy” and again for “Code of Ethics” in the general site search bar.
- “Help Center” Search: Searched for “Correction Policy” and again for “Code of Ethics” in the “Help Center” search bar.
- Main Menu and Site Footer: Reviewed the publication’s site menu and website footer for any dedicated pages for or references to “Correction Policy” or “Code of Ethics” or anything similar.
In every case, no matter the search terms, where I looked, or what Lee-owned publication I was reviewing, I was not able to find a single paper that had or made publicly available through their website a code of ethics or a correction policy.
Conclusion: Based On My Investigation, One of Two Things Must Be True About ALL Lee-Owned Publications
- Lee-owned publications DO NOT have correction policies to follow and which can be provided to their readers and/or subjects of their reporting to access in case the paper gets a story or facts of a story wrong.
- Lee-owned publications DO NOT have clear ethical codes to guide their work and to be held to.
- Lee-owned publications DO have correction policies to follow and which can be provided to their readers and/or subjects of their reporting to access in case the paper gets a story or facts of a story wrong BUT THEY CHOOSE NOT TO make those policies available to their readers and/or subjects of their reporting.
- Lee-owned publications DO have ethical codes to follow and to guide their work and to be held to BUT THEY CHOOSE NOT TO make those policies available to their readers and/or subjects of their reporting.
Neither scenario is good. In fact, both are horrifying.
Neither option should be viewed or treated as remotely acceptable by Lee’s millions of readers or shareholders.
The good news is, there are several simple steps Lee Enterprises could take to remedy these glaring and extraordinary problems.
Not only that, but there are many things that consumers can do to correct these issues as well.
Three Big Problems & Three Easy Solutions
Problem #1: 350+ Publications Without A Uniform Correction Policy
Solution: Adopt A Robust Uniform Correction Policy for All 350+ Lee-owned Publications
One of the best correction policy examples, repeatedly lauded by the Columbia Journalism Review and which I would suggest be adopted by Lee Enterprises, comes from BuzzFeed.
See BuzzFeed’s Correction Policy Here:
Problem #2: 350+ Publications Without A Uniform Code of Ethics
Solution: Adopt The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics for All 350+ Lee-owned Publications
“The SPJ Code of Ethics is a statement of abiding principles supported by additional explanations and position papers that address changing journalistic practices. It is not a set of rules, rather a guide that encourages all who engage in journalism to take responsibility for the information they provide, regardless of medium.” -spj.org
See The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics Here:
Problem #3: Ethical and Correction Policies Not Accessible to Public
Solution: Make Ethics and Correction Policies Easily Accessible to Public on All 350+ Lee-owned Publication’s Websites
One of the operational benefits of corporate conglomerates like Lee Enterprises is its ability to make changes swiftly and efficiently across multiple properties.
When it comes to instituting the three changes listed above, it would be incredibly easy for Lee Enterprises to see that these new policies are adopted by 350+ publications and shared with the communities they serve.
Indeed, if you visit the websites of each of the 200+ publications listed on lee.net/markets, as I did, you will quickly notice that each site you visit looks very similar to the last one you visited. That’s because they’re all running off the same content management system (CMS) called TownNews.
What all this means is that if Lee Enterprises were to recognize the seriousness of the issues I have described in this piece, all they would have to do once they adopt a uniform correction policy and code of ethics would be to adjust the website template that all of their publications are using and almost instantly solve the biggest problems I have described.
History shows that big corporations rarely respond to polite requests to make meaningful changes to the way they operate. However, what is often quite effective, is to (1) make the case for why changes are needed, (2) clearly state what changes are needed, (3) apply collective PR and monetary pressure.
With this article being the first piece of the puzzle (making the case for why changes are needed) there are two more steps to go.
Step 1: Make Clear Demands
- Demand #1: Adopt A Robust Uniform Correction Policy (Modeled after BuzzFeed’s Correction Policy) for All 350+ Lee-owned Publications
- Demand #2: Adopt The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics for All 350+ Lee-owned Publications
- Demand #3: Make Ethical and Correction Policies Easily Accessible to the Public on All 350+ Lee-owned Publication’s Websites
Step 2: Mobilize & Vocalize Until Demands Are Met
There are unlimited options to make your voice heard and hold the feet of the Lee Empire to the fire until they make the changes that are so obviously needed and so simple to make.
Here are 10 high-impact ways you can mobilize and vocalize
Send your email to the following email addresses: Mary.Junck@lee.net, Kevin.Mowbray@lee.net, Timothy.Millage@lee.net, Joseph.Battistoni@lee.net, Nathan.Bekke@lee.net, Ray.Farris@lee.net, Suzanna.Frank@lee.net, Astrid.Garcia@lee.net, James.Green@lee.net, John.Humenik@lee.net, Michele.White@lee.net, Richard.Cole@lee.net, Steven.Fletcher@lee.net, Margaret.Liberman@lee.net, Brent.Magid@lee.net, William.Mayer@lee.net, Herbert.Moloney@lee.net, Kevin.Mowbray@lee.net, David.Pearson@lee.net, Gregory.Schermer@lee.net
2 — Share this story on social media and tag family and friends.
Use the Hashtag: #FixLeePapers
3 — Get this story in front of John Oliver and ask him to give Lee Enterprises the Sinclair Media treatment!
Twitter: @iamjohnoliver @LastWeekTonight #LastWeekTonight @timcarvell #FixLeePapers
4 — Get this story in front of journalists, writers, celebrities, political figures, podcast hosts, and other relevant cultural influencers, and encourage them to share it with their audience.
Use the Hashtag: #FixLeePapers
5 — Write a “Letter to the Editor” to your local Lee-owned paper
Find a Lee-owned paper near you here: lee.net/markets
6 — Email a Lee-owned newspaper near you
To email a Lee-owned paper near you, follow these steps:1. Copy and paste the following into your web-browser:
DOMAIN-NAME.com/contact/staff/2. Replace “DOMAIN-NAME” with the domain name of the Lee-owned paper you wish to contact.
[For Example: lacrossetribune.com/contact/staff/]3. Visit that resulting website.4. Email the paper’s editor and other members of the papers management team.
7 — Speak with your wallets
There is nothing controversial about demanding that newspapers operate with clear ethical standards and policies dictating their correction process and share those guidelines with readers. readers.readreaders. Until Lee Enterprises adopts a strict code of ethics and a uniform correction policy and makes both available on each of of Lee’s 350+ publications for their readers to see, consumers should speak the universal language of corporations like Lee Enterprises… dollars and cents.Readers deserve better than what Lee is offering them right now. Until that changes, Lee does not deserve your patronage.#FixLeePapers #GrabYourWallet
I hope this is the last time I take to this platform to write something less than positive about Lee Enterprises or one of their papers.
I hope my next story will be one about a big corporation that defied my expectations, stepped up to the plate, and did the right thing.
I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but that’s certainly my hope.
What I do know, is that it is unconscionable that a reader like me, or any of the other “44 Million Unique Visitors Per Month” that come to one of the 350+ publications owned by Lee Enterprises would be served content that does not have a correction policy or code of ethics to support that content.
I also know that I am going to do what I can and use what limited resources I have at my disposal to take on this challenge and won’t ever go silent about these issues until they are corrected.
I know the very real and very devastating consequences that thrive in the current dynamics at Lee Enterprises because I have lived them. I hope that by refusing to accept silence as my only option, by sharing my story, and by continuing to refuse to allow my local Lee-owned paper to tarnish my legacy and reputation as a proud, dedicated public servant, or cement my identity as some sort of comic book villain by casting me in a knowingly false light; I hope that enough people will see the injustices and perhaps themselves or someone they love in these stories, and stand up to demand better from Lee Enterprises.