The withdrawal of more than $1 million worth of advertising from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by the Allegheny County sheriff's office is just good business, says Sgt. Richard Fersch. But if this were a crime, several pieces of evidence might impute a motive to the sheriff for awarding the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review exclusive -- and lucrative -- rights to publish legal notices by the sheriff's office:
~According to a Post-Gazette advertising official, the sheriff's office never called to ask for a better price before withdrawing its ads.
~The Trib's own general manager says his paper was just handed the deal by the sheriff's office.
~While the Trib and the P-G have given similar amounts of coverage to recent indictments in the sheriff's department, the P-G's commentary has been more forceful and its investigative pieces more frequent. On Dec. 12, for instance, P-G columnist Ruth Ann Dailey wrote in a column, "Whatever the psychological motivations in the sheriff's office, there were no checks and balances at work -- nothing to make potential wrong-doers think twice." The P-G has even investigated whether the sheriff's vehicles were washed too often, and asked in a Dec. 11 story about the office's scandals, "Did the sheriff know what was going on? And if not, why not?"
~The sheriff's office took an admittedly dumb gaffe personally, and the Trib was glad to gloat about it. A Post-Gazette letter announcing changes in ad rates was addressed to the late sheriff Eugene Coon and not Sheriff Pete DeFazio, who has been in office since 1997. "Gee, is that a slap in somebody's face, too," Fersch says. The letter was featured in the Trib's Sunday Whispers column on Jan. 8.
By state law, when the sheriff's department holds a sale of tax-delinquent real estate, it must run legal ads about the sale in a paper of "general circulation," as well as in the Pittsburgh Legal Journal. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation's list of the country's top 150 newspapers, the Post-Gazette's Sunday circulation was 393,042 and the Greensburg-headquartered Tribune-Review's top daily circulation was 157,690 (issue unspecified).
"I think we've demonstrated that we have [a generally circulated paper] now and we are certainly glad to have the business," says Ralph Martin, general manager of the Trib. "It's hard to believe we have always been nice to someone on our editorial pages," he added.
The recommendation for the move was his, Fersch emphasizes, although DeFazio had the final say. Trying to help the Trib and hurt the P-G financially was not Fersch's goal, he adds.
"The Trib may pick up more readers on Monday when the ads run, but so what, it certainly wasn't my goal," Fersch says. "My goal was to get more for my money." He says that the Trib's published ad rate, $830,000 for six months, is much better than the P-G's half-year cost of $1.5 million (according to Fersch), and that the P-G's letter addressed to Coon contained a rate hike.
Such costs are passed on to those whose houses are forced into sheriff's sales, Fersch notes. So switching to the Trib is a public service, he says.
Randall Brant, vice president of advertising for the Post-Gazette, says the P-G's records show the sheriff's office spent only $1.2 million on ads for the entire 12 months of 2005. If so, that would actually make the P-G cheaper than the Trib.
Nonetheless, Brant says he was told by the sheriff's office that the decision was solely financial. He won't speculate on whether his paper's editorial content was a factor. The paper is still working with the sheriff's office to bring the ads back, he reports. Although he didn't have specific data available, he contends that the P-G's price for running sheriff's sale ads, per thousand people reached, is "lower than using the Greensburg paper [based on] their circulation in Allegheny County."
While Fersch adamantly denies that politics played any part in his decision, there's no denying newspapers try to play a part in politics. While the Trib did not offer endorsements in the sheriff's race, the P-G urged voters to vote for DeFazio's Republican opponent, writing in a Nov. 6 editorial just days before last fall's general election: "It's hard to tell whether the federal investigation of the sheriff's office will clean house. But why wait? If voters elect Herb Ohliger, a Republican, reform begins now."