DETROIT, MI — Last fall, Detroit’s Metro Times and Cleveland’s Scene, alt-weeklies owned by Euclid Media, each published big, ambitious stories about the billionaire businessman Dan Gilbert.
Then, earlier this year, the stories disappeared from the Web with no explanation. They went back up today, but the question stands: What’s going on here?
Gilbert is both the owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and the chairman and founder of Detroit-based Quicken Loans. He has mammoth influence in both cities, especially when it comes to urban development. Gilbert purchased some 60 major downtown buildings in Detroit over the last four years, and in Cleveland, the Cavaliers are preparing to ask taxpayers to pay for an upgrade to Quicken Loans Arena.
No wonder, then, that Gilbert comes in for scrutiny. In November 2014, Scene and Metro Times published lengthy pieces on the impact of Gilbert and his company in their respective communities. “What kind of track record does Quicken Loans have in Detroit? Does anyone really care?” asked the Metro Times story. Written by staff reporter Ryan Felton, it was in the spirit of what we’ve called for at CJR: an exploration of the mortgage company’s lending history in Detroit, a city that was among the hardest hit by foreclosures in the housing crisis.
But last week, readers noticed something strange: the links to the articles, on both sites, hit dead pages. Cached versions were gone too. All that remained was an error message; there was no explanation on the sites about why the articles had been removed. One staff member I spoke with told me the stories were deleted “a couple weeks ago.” (The Web scrubbing wasn’t quite complete: Felton’s 6,000-word story on “downtown’s demigod”remained visible here, in the digital archive of the print edition.)
I asked Chris Keating, publisher of Scene and Metro Times, late yesterday what happened to the stories. He sent this email response:
Yep - I temporarily took the article offline for an internal review. Happens periodically - granted some topics seem to garner more attention from other media than others. At any rate, should be back up here shortly.
I also asked Aaron Emerson, Quicken’s director of communications, about the removal of the stories. Did he see any problem in the reporting? “This is a question best suited for the Metro Times,” he wrote back in an email. “I’m sure they’d be able to discuss how they post and curate items on their website.”
Then, around midday today, the stories were live again. Vince Grzegorek—who is now editing both publications, and who co-authored Scene’s version of the story with Felton—told me, “Nothing has been changed except for one minor deletion.” That would be a several-hundred-word passage describing a tour of Quicken headquarters, which appeared only in the Metro Times story, and which Grzegorek called “superfluous.”
Gilbert “never asked the piece be taken down,” Grzegorek said. Euclid executives did not immediately address follow-up questions sent by email today about what prompted the internal review.
It’s welcome news that the stories are back online. Still, this is a problem. Digitally “unpublishing” a story, even temporarily, is a step that should not be taken lightly, and never without a clear explanation to readers. If this is happening “periodically” at Euclid’s publications, that’s not good. (Also worth noting: There is no indication on the Metro Times site that the story has been modified from the original.)
Some context about both Quicken and Euclid Media is important here. Quicken and Gilbert have a reputation for being sensitive about media coverage; Deadspin reported this week that when a Yahoo blog post last year sniped at Quicken, Gilbert called Marissa Mayer, and the post was deleted. (Much of it is reproduced here.)
As for Euclid, which bought both Scene and Metro Times about a year ago, this is not the company’s first stumble. In July, we criticized Metro Times for selling its cover story to an advertiser. While we hoped that that was a fluke, related to the publication’s merger with the pay-to-play entertainment rag Real Detroit Weekly, it now looks more like a pattern. This week’s cover features the AXIS Lounge at MGM Grand Casino. A “feature story” inside, authored by “MT Staff,” touts, among other things, the lounge’s “really, really cool ceiling.” (Scene ran a questionable cover ad of its own in November.)
And there have at times been tensions between management and journalists at the company. Valerie Vande Panne, who moved from Boston to Detroit to become the editor-in-chief of Metro Times, was let go from the company in January, after less than a year. (Vande Panne is a friend of mine; I’ve also contributed to Metro Times.)
These stumbles matter because, when Euclid took over the publications, the new owners touted high journalistic ambitions—and took some steps to follow through. Here in Detroit, the company hired talented journalists and brought back a beloved veteran writer who had been unceremoniously fired by the previous leadership. The quality of articles rose, with serious-minded features about, for example, unconstitutional strip searches at a county jail in Detroit.. Euclid also seemed to be building an event-driven revenue stream, a creative source of cash with fewer ethical concerns than native advertising.
I asked Keating how the company is doing. “It’s been a whirlwind over the last year, but by and large things are going well. We are profitable, which is always a plus in our business,” he replied. Andrew Zelman, another Euclid co-owner, said the same. “Things are going well at Euclid Media Group,” he wrote in an email. “The past year has been a valuable learning experience. We did have a profitable first year.”
It’s good that the company is making money—that’s the holy grail in journalism these days, after all. But if anything, that should give the company more confidence in its editorial content. Putting native ads or puffy content on the cover, and pulling stories offline without explanation, will diminish what’s valuable about your publication. As a media company, you either build faith among your readers, or you break faith. You can’t do both at the same time.