Tronc Newspaper Crunched by Tronc Mailer

Pennsylvania community still reeling from Tribune Direct hit.

The starting point for this unusual chain of events is a fall 2015 arrest involving a Grade 10 student at Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pa. According to a report in Tronc-owned newspaper The Morning Call, the 17-year-old boy, searched following his truancy at a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts, was found to have over $3,000 in cocaine and heroin in his backpack, neatly bundled into 328 packets. At the time, a school district superintendent cautioned, “This is not a high school kid dealing drugs in school. As a minor, he was being used to transport drugs.”

But that’s not the way the incident was presented in a direct-mail flyer sent out to area residents late last month. ‘Why worry about this type of student at school?’ the mailer blared. In short order, the rival school being promoted, the Innovative Arts Academy charter school, denied it had anything to do with the mailer, and that school’s CEO resigned.

Now comes this weekend’s article by Lehigh Valley Live education reporter by Sara K. Satullo. Under the headline “Should The Morning Call Reveal Who Bought Mystery Mailer, Ads?,” she examines the dilemma of a Tronc newspaper covering a controversial community story stoked by a Tronc mailer and earlier Aug. 7 full-page color ad in The Morning Call, also taken out anonymously.

The direct-mail piece was produced and distributed by Tronc company Tribune Direct; Tronc knows who paid for the mailer, but a spokesperson for Tronc restated to Satullo that they are not releasing any information about the advertiser’s identity, per standard corporate policy. Among the experts Satullo spoke to for her article were Jeremy Littau, an assistant professor with Lehigh University’s Department of Journalism and Communication, and Russ Eshleman, head of Penn State’s journalism department:

“To say we have a policy of anonymity doesn’t cut it and it is not serving the public interest to play it that way,” Littau said. “The content [of the mailer] itself is too incendiary. You have to have names attached to it.”

To prevent this from happening again, all three journalism professors agreed the publisher needs to revisit the kinds of ads it will accept – and from whom it will accept them.

“I think it also must come clean with the public – explain its policy, why it accepted the ad and what it intends to do in the future,” Eshleman said. “The publisher should be the primary source here, as the person in charge of both the business and editorial sides of the paper.”

Other reverberations from the mailer controversy include Innovative Arts Academy postponing its first day of classes from Sept. 6 to Sept. 12.

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