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Columbus Newspaper Knew of Skybus Shutdown, Didn’t Report It

A reporter for the Columbus Dispatch knew that Skybus was going to shut down the carrier hours before it actually happened but chose to hold the information back until the airline made the announcement at 9:30pm that evening.  The reporter even flew on one of the last flights to Fort Lauderdale so that she could interview people when they were told after landing that they wouldn’t be able to fly home.

You can say what you want about wanting to protect sources and honoring news embargoes, but this was simply the wrong choice by the newspaper’s editors.  Telling people would have saved passenger the cost and heartache of dealing with getting home from other cities and allowed their lives not to be turned upside down.  How that reporter could sit on that plane and look at people in the eye, when she could have prevented them from wasting cash in this economic environment is beyond me.

I appreciate the need to protect sources, but the public good far outweighed the need to not upset an embargo with a company that was about to go out of business.  Poor judgment, Columbus Dispatch.

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  1. I enjoy and respect your blog, which is the reason it is the only place other than my own publication’s site that I’m making a comment on this matter. I’m the Columbus Dispatch reporter who covered Skybus for its short life here.
    I wish I could tell you all the background on what happened. But suffice it to say we did report the closure of Skybus sometime around 6:30 -7 pm, not that long after we found out about it (and after another local outlet put it on their website, effectively blowing the embargo). And I did make a call that had the effect of aiding the situation for travelers here at the airport.
    I can understand why many people disagree with the decisions made by the editors. It’s an emotional issue. But certainly no one should blame Amy Saunders, my colleague who was sent on that final flight to Fla. She did her job and, along with sevearl other reporters, was invaluable in reporting the story.
    I busted my chops to cover Skybus, telling people early that they’d be cancelling certain routes and such. We broke the news and wrote probing stories on the two top executive departures that directly preceeded the airline’s shutdown. I also personally helped many people resolve problems with Skybus over the last 11 months.
    Please know that most of the facts and context of how we reported on the closure are not known to most people. I personally wouldn’t have written about it as our top editor did, but I commend him for deciding to do so and taking the heat. He didn’t have to do that.

  2. Hi Marla,

    I appreciate your honesty and openness in commenting (I’m sending you this in an email, but I’ll also post as a response on the site).

    The Dispatch has done a really amazing job covering Skybus, and the publication was my go-to source of information about Skybus (I actually knew people who worked there and was able to uncover some info on my own as well). Given the Dispatch’s parent company’s financial interest in the airline, it was clear that you and the others there worked hard to provide objective coverage. It would’ve been very easy for your team to simply “be a home-r” and support lowfare service in Columbus, and that was never done.

    I obviously don’t have the facts of the reporting of the shutdown beyond what was (bravely) reported by your own editor, but my issue was this: I completely understand embargos, but holding a story about an impending shutdown (even if only until it was broken elsewhere) seems like a judgment call that went the wrong way. As the airline was about to shut down, nobody would have been hurt by breaking the news, and many people would have been helped. Clearly it’s not an easy call, but, assuming it played out in the way your editor wrote, I’m going to disagree with his judgment to protect a source.

    All of that said, I really appreciate you taking the time to write — this story falls at the intersection of two industries I find fascinating (media and aviation).

    Thanks for writing,
    -Jared

  3. Unsilent Minority

    I have to agree with Jared on this one. The paper sent a reporter to fly out to Florida solely to see how upset passengers would be once they found out they had no return flight.

    It sounds like a bad episode of punk’d (actually that’s an oxymoron if there ever was one).

    It actually was just mean spirited. They can veil it any way they want, it’s just that simple.

  4. The self-serving last paragraph of the piece is what really got me, and why I blogged it as well. The notion that the embargo was somehow a noble effort on Skybus’ part to get the information to its employees first before they heard it on TV was silly… they could have accomplished that easily, by telling those employees the news before calling reporters.

    And to say that “we actually reported it before the embargo time” as though that was noble is also silly, since it was only reported after another news organ broke the story… and the editor here says that even then that wouldn’t have been enough for the Dispatch to run with it, they still needed the ok from the airline. That’s just crazy, if things really are run that way at the Columbus Dispatch then any serious journalist there should be looking elsewhere.

    None of that should take away from work that was done on the airline and other subjects before this, nor does that work really bear on the decisions made regarding this coverage.

    My strong reaction here is mostly to the self-serving and sanctimonious (as well as embarassing for a serious journalist) comments made by this editor. He should be fired.

  5. As a former journalist myself, I’ll weigh in with a thumbs down for the Dispatch.

    If I were to call the newspaper at noon and said I intended to disrupt traffic on all the major freeways out of Columbus at 5 pm tonight, would they agree to “embargo” the story to gain “exclusive” coverage?

    I would hope not.

    Nobody would have been harmed by “spilling the beans” here, any many people would have been spared considerable hardship and expense. It was a dumb call. People sometimes make them. Better to admit it and move on, than to offer a bad excuse.

    BTW, their editor doesn’t reveal it, but I suspect their source was from their parent company which owned a stake in Skybus. That was probably why they felt “conflicted.”

  6. The source was aboslutely not our parent company, with whom I’ve had no contact throughout my time covering Skybus. That connection has been really blown out of proportion, though I understand there’s nothing we could have done about it other than disclosing it. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
    I know for a fact that we weren’t the only news organization put in this position, and any decisions made by the editors were not based on getting an “exclusive.” The fact is we knew something for a couple of hours before it ended up being posted on our website. We knew before the airport and the employees did. It ultimately wasn’t my call, but I don’t think given the choice I would do it any differently after thinking through all the possible scenarios.
    None of this will gain any more sympathy, but I’m just trying to give some facts.

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