Ryerson kneecaps Ketzenberger

Dateline: Thu 29 May 2008

The story of the undoing of the John E. Irish Co., reported first as biz news and then as analysis in the Indianapolis Star, took an unfortunate and dispiriting turn Sunday. That's when exec editor Dennis Ryerson used his column inches to call out biz columnist and reporter John Ketzenberger, while at the same time carrying the water -- albeit with a bent back -- for the heavy in this drama, National City Bank.

Why was Ryerson's back bent? Because he was being leaned on so heavily by bank officials, and he has no spine left. As the editor of Indiana's major metro daily has done in the past, Ryerson chose to cave in and side with a powerful community force/potential advertiser rather than stand firm for a hard-working, talented, accurate and fair reporter.

The whole thing stinks.

And yes, the chain of events has editors and reporters inside 307 N. Penn -- and no doubt outside -- talking about the miserable politics that dominate the paper under Ryerson's leadership, which led to Sunday's very odd and very public "correction."

Briefly, the facts are these: Irish Co., in business since 1916 and a contractor for major construction projects, including Lucas Oil Stadium, found itself holding the bag in mid-May. That's when its lender, National City Bank, once an Indy-based entity but now out of Cleveland, decided to call in outstanding loans to Irish. Irish's financial woes were complicated by its underestimation of bids on some projects. The bank's ills were complicated by its overextensions in a financially hyped market, including the housing crisis. The result? A catastrophic collapse of the Irish Co. and the loss of 180 local jobs. And yes, some bad PR for the bank.

Tom Spalding first reported the story on 5/20, followed by Ketzenberger's insightful post mortem on 5/22.

Then along comes Ryerson Sunday, chastising Ketzenberger for being "unfair" to the bank, after praising him faintly.

Ketzenberger indeed had gone to the bank for comment, according to both Ketzenberger and Ryerson. The bank chose not to go public with "specific details of customer accounts," Ketzenberger reported. Spalding got the same drill.

So Ketzenberger -- in Ryerson's own words -- "did a wonderful job of filling in the dots to help readers understand how such a large, old and active Indianapolis company (Irish) wound end up closing its doors."

In full truth, Ketzenberger also did an equally masterful job researching the complicated financial problems with National City and laying them out. All the more so, since Nat City was not talking.

But -- no surprise -- "National City officials .... were not happy," wrote Ryerson Sunday, in column space that itself is considered "prime real estate" because of the heftier Sunday circulation.

Said Ryerson: "Although John advised a bank spokesperson of what he had learned ...and though the bank didn't point out any errors....John didn't ask the bank specifically about any cause-effect relationship between the subprime debacle and Frank E. Irish."

Then Ryerson quoted a bank veep uttering the usual bullshit about the sacredness of a bank's relationship with a customer and calling Ketzenberger "unfair" for failing to ask the bank to comment on the subprime issue. Boo hoo.

What transparent rubbish. Ketzenberger's excellent reporting and hard numbers showed chapter and verse that Nat City has major problems, the result of the housing/subprime meltdown. The bank, Ketzenber noted, was "bleeding." BTW, commenter Tell the Truth, who often offers insightful commentary on this blog, had himself laid out a hefty portion of the backdrop with Nat City after I first wrote about Spalding's story. It is no secret that Nat City has its own tangled financial web.

But back to Ryerson. He should have stood up to the bank officials and defended his reporter, even shown them, politely, the door. Instead, since it was obviously impossible to write a correction, (the normal protocol to make good on an error) Ryerson decided to hang out his own man, using his own column space to do so.

He has a history of throwing reporters to the curb. Think Amy Webb, who was tossed out while still on probation after writing excellent investigative pieces about the terrible Marion County Jail food. When then-Sheriff Jack Cottey's people leaned on Ryerson, Amy was asked to resign. RiShawn Biddle, formerly an editorial writer, was also dismissed at the whim of the public, who were angry that Biddle had used "zip coon" in a blog post. Biddle lost his job, but the editor who supervises Biddle skated.

There are other examples, but you get the point.

A former Star editor once noted that there are two kinds of exec editors in the world: those who are (charitably put) community minded, who like to be out and dancing about and who see their role as a wheeler-dealer in the city; and those who are oriented towards the newsroom, who love journalism and love their staff and the stuff they produce.

Ryerson, the editor said, is the former. This editor wasn't blaming. He was explaining. You can count on him in a pinch -- if you don't work in the newsroom.

One final point: in his column, Ryerson incorrectly cited the amount of the cash infusion the troubled Nat City had recently received, to save its own bacon. Ryerson said it was 9 billion.

If he'd read Ketzenberger's column more carefully, he would have seen the correct figure was 7 bil.

But don't expect Ryerson to acknowledge his mistake. He's too busy ambushing his staff. And covering his own ass.

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