City officials, media botch announcement of new jobs

The Fortune 500 technology firm NCR is not bringing nearly 900 new manufacturing jobs to Middle Georgia — even though for about 12 hours Monday night and Tuesday morning inaccurate reports said it would.

At least two newspapers — The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta Business Chronicle — were among the first to cite anonymous sources who said the company would build a manufacturing plant in Macon when the corporate headquarters moves from Ohio to metro Atlanta.

Word began circulating in Macon shortly after an AJC reporter called Mayor Robert Reichert about 10:30 p.m. Monday and, the mayor said, told him NCR would build a plant here. Reichert said he knew nothing of the project, but based on that phone call and similar articles circulating online that specifically mentioned Macon, he directed spokesman Andrew Blascovich to begin contacting local media outlets to spread the good news.

Reichert said he also called Macon-Bibb Industrial Authority Chairman Cliffard Whitby that night, who he said was surprised but equally excited by the notion that NCR would choose the midstate.

“I just fell for it hook, line and sinker: ‘They’re coming to Macon,’ ” Reichert said. “Mea culpa.”

Based on conversations with Blascovich, The Telegraph, WMAZ-TV and radio and television stations began reporting the story Monday night.

News radio WMAC-940 was broadcasting Macon’s supposed coup as late as 10 a.m. Tuesday.

Only, it was all incorrect.

NCR is indeed building a new manufacturing plant — but in Columbus, not Macon. That little detail apparently got lost in the confluence of rumor surrounding NCR’s move to Georgia, the demand for instantaneous information online and the desire among local leadership to see progress on the economic front. “Any time you have economic development, it’s good news and you want to talk about it,” Blascovich said.

Reichert said he even woke up Tuesday morning, donned his best suit and waited for a call from the governor’s office inviting him to a news conference to announce the new plant.

In his mind, he’d already begun picking out suitable locations for the facility, he said. But the call never came because the news was false.

“I don’t know how it originally got started, but somehow it did,” said Pat Topping, senior vice president of the Macon Economic Development Commission. “This morning, I’m driving to work, listening to NPR (National Public Radio), and I’ll be damned if they don’t announce it on NPR that they’re coming to Macon.”

Macon was among the final sites for the plant, along with Columbus and maybe one other city, Topping said. But state officials told him last week that Columbus had won out because that city already had a building that more closely fit NCR’s specific needs, he said.

Development commission officials had been working with NCR since January, Topping said, and were originally competing against nearly a dozen other sites in the state.

Reichert, who sits on the Development commission board, said he had not been told NCR was looking at Macon so closely. It is something he thought he would have been informed of, he said.

An NCR spokesman based in the Atlanta area, Alan Ulman, said he couldn’t provide any information on how seriously the company had considered Macon.

He said no NCR employee should have been publicly discussing the company’s final plans before 8 a.m. Tuesday, when the announcement was to be made in conjunction with Gov. Sonny Perdue’s office.

Prior to then, the company’s official response to reporters was that it would not respond to speculation, he said. But before the actual announcement, both the AJC and the Business Chronicle were reporting that 1,250 jobs would come to Atlanta and that 880 positions would be created by a new manufacturing operation in Macon. The Journal-Constitution attributed its information to “an NCR official who asked to remain unnamed.” The Business Chronicle cited “a source familiar with the plan.”

Ulman said reporters should “think twice” before quoting unnamed sources.

“If that happened, that individual was obviously not authorized to speak, and it was inaccurate information,” Ulman said.

Bob Steele, a journalism ethics scholar at The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., said competitive zeal, sloppiness in sourcing and the never ending deadline pressures of the Internet are not excuses for a failure of accuracy. He called the entire situation a case of “the blind leading the blind.”

“Whether it is the journalist or the government official making mistakes based on bad sourcing, there are still ethical failures for the messenger,” he said.

“It’s a classic example of over reliance upon and misuse of unnamed sources.”