THE CITY OF QUINCY has told GateHouse Media, which owns the local Patriot Ledger and hundreds of other newspapers, that its bid for a city marketing contract is dead. A spokesman for Mayor Thomas Koch said the GateHouse submission didn’t meet the specified criteria, and added that it was a nonstarter anyway because of the optics.
Christopher Walker, Koch’s director of policy and information and a former reporter for the Patriot Ledger, said the mayor was concerned about ethical conflicts if the owner of the city’s major newspaper went to work promoting the image of the municipality. “This is absolutely not something the city would have entertained,” he said.
GateHouse was one of four companies to respond to a request for proposals from the city seeking a firm to market the redeveloped downtown, present a “positive” image of the city, and cultivate beneficial media attention. In its bid, GateHouse set out a social media strategy developed and overseen by Propel Marketing, a digital solutions provider it owns in North Quincy.
In its bid proposal, which CommonWealth obtained through a public records request, GateHouse touted its ownership of the Patriot Ledger and a number of other weekly newspapers in the region as a show of strength in getting a positive message of Quincy out to readers.
“This expertise includes delivering measurable results for our partners in traditional media, digital media, and digital services as well as having considerable content generation serving The City of Quincy tourism, news, and business,” said the bid proposal. “Further, we have extensive knowledge and relationships within The City of Quincy and the surrounding communities that may be leveraged to achieve the desired results.”
An official with Propel declined comment, saying GateHouse’s employee contracts say “we’re not allowed to speak to other media organizations.” Officials at GateHouse’s New England regional office did not return a request for comment and officials at the Rochester, New York, headquarters could not be reached.
Campaign records indicate Propel has worked for Quincy politicians in the past. The company was paid $11,600 by Koch’s campaign during the 2015 mayoral race and received $7,173 from state Sen. John Keenan, a former city councilor and Koch’s brother-in-law.
Dan Kennedy, an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University, said most media outlets can successfully deal with potential conflicts by requiring that the business and news sides of the operation are kept at a distance and an effort is made to publicly reveal any possible conflicts. But he said GateHouse’s language in its Quincy proposal about its “partners in traditional media” negates any firewall GateHouse may have constructed to keep their journalists from being placed in a compromising position.
Kennedy pointed to the recent sale by GateHouse of the Las Vegas Review-Journal to the politically conservative casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. There were reports that GateHouse ordered Review-Journal reporters and editors to undertake an investigation of three judges, one of whom was overseeing a trial involving Adelson. The judge had sanctioned Adelson’s lawyers twice.
“Even if you have perceived conflicts, you can do tough coverage when it’s warranted. But you need trust with the public when you do that,” said Kennedy. “I don’t know that anybody ought to feel that GateHouse has earned that trust. Based on that [bid] language they submitted, I think they should disqualify themselves. They’re not unethical; they’re a-ethical.”