Sharp-elbowed reporter Lee leaves MedCity News, ad controversy

Just as the Star Tribune emerged from bankruptcy, emerging-companies reporter Thomas Lee left for a fledgling online-only specialty site, MedCity News, declaring, “I firmly believe our industry’s new business models will originate with innovative start-ups like MedCity News versus big legacy newspapers that have struggled, by virtue of size and culture, to adjust to rapidly changing circumstances.”

Fourteen months later, Lee resigned as Cleveland-based MedCity’s Minnesota bureau chief. He hasn’t reconsidered his career path — he’s moving to another online-only business site, XConomy.com, as Detroit and national med-tech editor. And he hasn’t reconsidered his freedom to critique business and political leaders while reporting on their doings.

But as Lee departed MedCity (whose stories are syndicated on MinnPost), MedCity president Chris Seper told him a major advertiser had pulled ads due to the reporter’s commentary. Lee said he did not leave because of the issue — he already planned the move — and Seper says his initial information was wrong. Still, the episode is an interesting look at how a small site handles freedom and finances.

Passionate critic
At the Strib, Lee was not known for lacking confidence. At MedCity, he loudly backed a tax credit for so-called “angel investors” who finance start-ups, while loudly criticizing mega-investor Steven Burrill, whose optimistic statements about the billion-dollar-plus Elk Run biotech development near Rochester have not been borne out by actual development.

Although Lee hasn’t been Elk Run’s only press critic, he’s been the most caustic. On Dec. 14, after a local development official said Elk Run’s fate was in the hands of a “higher power,” Lee headlined his piece, “Will God save the Elk Run BioBusiness project in Minnesota?”

That provoked a lengthy, sharp retort from someone claiming to be Steve Marks, Sr., the president of Elk Run developer Tower Investments. In the story’s comments, Marks wrote, “Have you ever funded and managed such an endeavor. You have embarassed [sic] us both by your article. This is ludicrous and i feel you owe Steve Marks and Steve Brurrill an apology. This project may or may not succeed, but wih [sic] the team and support in place, it is likely to succeed, which is going to make you look like an ass.”

The next day, Lee practically did a victory dance, in an item titled, “Elk Run Developer CEO gets medieval on MedCity News.” It mocked the misspellings and noted, “So instead of calling me names from California on the Internet, perhaps Marks’ energy is better spent getting on a plane to Minnesota and making his case to the people of this state.”

(I called Marks to confirm he wrote the comment; so far, no callback.)

An ad campaign ends
On Dec. 16, Seper emailed Lee, mostly to say the reporter should have avoided the food fight and focused on other, more pressing stories. It’s not the first time in journalism history an editor let a reporter know things were getting too personal. But Seper’s last paragraph noted the reaction of a major Minnesota trade association:

“LifeScience Alley pulled their ads because they said you are increasingly unfair, manipulative and taking personal cheap shots (their frustration isn’t about the first piece, but the way you treated someone who criticized you). They said a certain part of the community won’t speak to you/provide accurate information.”

Seper and LifeScience Alley communications manager Ryan Baird now say this was not the case. Baird says the trade association ended the campaign because the ads promoted a conference that had concluded. Seper says he wrote the email before he talked to Life Science Alley, based on information from MedCity’s business development folks, who got the cancellation notice “a minute” after Lee’s story ran.

In other words, the timing was coincidental. Seper says he came at Baird with “guns blazing,” but ultimately believed the Life Sciences spokesman, based on the conference’s timing.

If you find that hard to swallow, a couple of points in Seper’s favor: In his email to Lee, he specifically supported the reporter’s Dec. 14 analysis, noting, “…[Y]our Elk Run story on Tuesday was yet another spot on approach to critique/opinion that really works for me. The debate in the comments section is evidence you are getting this right and hitting a nerve in the community.”

As for LifeScience Alley, Seper added, “My response will be to say that I respect their decision to pull their ad but that we stand by your work. And I will say we respect anyone’s decision not to speak to a reporter. That’s their choice. But you will continue to work hard to report all sides in your news stories and also create thoughtful and provocative opinion that takes all sides into account but certainly takes a stand. Their decision to pull ads should have no impact on your reporting.”

Aftermath
MedCity remains a small site; Seper counts about 100,000 monthly visitors, roughly 20,000 from Minnesota. But he adds that demographics — overwhelmingly from the medical industry — are good, and the site is expanding. MedCity is about to open its second non-Ohio bureau, in North Carolina, and an Ohio state investment group just kicked in $250,000 to fund growth.

Seper says in Minnesota, he plans to replace Lee with another full-timer; freelancers Sara Aase and Dan Haugen will fill the slot for the next month. (You can see the job description here, along with Seper’s “fond farewell” to Lee.)

For his part, Lee says MedCity has done a good job combining the “authority of a trade publication with the accessibility of a general publication.”

Seper returns the compliment, saying, “I think we kind of validated our model with Thomas. If you look at all the successful models — TechCrunch, VentureBeat, Politico — all have people with voice, who bring news, analysis and opinions to the table.”

Still, Seper says the company, which is rebranding itself MedCity Media, does need “more clarity” about what it is, and within a week will unveil a new site design making it clear it is about much more than straight reporting.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 01/11/2011 - 10:48 am.

    I don’t think the headline here is about “ad controversy.” It’s about a publisher actually supporting a sharp-elbowed reporter.

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