After 32 years as a newspaper journalist, you'd think nothing would surprise me. You'd think I'd have seen it all.
I am amazed by all that has transpired over a story about Kmart Holding Corp. and its real estate that we published in the Feb. 23 issue of Pensions & Investments.
The story said — and I thought it said so simply and clearly — that if Kmart were to fail as a retailer, one of its investors had a possible contingency plan: Convert the company into a real estate investment trust.
This wasn't a major story for us. We ran it on Page 6, not on Page 1. And it was only about 10 column inches long, whereas our most significant stories usually are two or three times longer.
So, was I ever surprised by the firestorm that followed publication of that story. Indeed, dealing with the aftermath of running this story has been one my most bizarre experiences as a journalist. (First on the list, by the way, would be the hundreds of calls I received from readers after I wrote a daily newspaper story in the 1970s on how to crochet hats from beer cans.)
In the days following publication of the Kmart story, we have been under siege by a public relations offensive launched by the investment firm with the REIT idea — Third Avenue Management LLC.
According to Third Avenue's PR, we "insinuate(d) the opposite" of what Michael Winer, portfolio manager of Third Avenue's real estate fund, was saying about Kmart. Mr. Winer expects Kmart to succeed as a retailer, the PR force said, and we should have said that.
Well, here's the deal: We never insinuated anything about Kmart's viability as a retailer.
Bluntly put, we don't care whether Kmart succeeds or fails. And we don't care whether Mr. Winer and Third Avenue expect Kmart to succeed or fail.
We cover real estate, not retailing. We only care about Mr. Winer's ideas for institutionalizing Kmart's portfolio of retail properties.
As a result, we didn't put anything into the story about Kmart's chances for success — or failure — in retail.
Third Avenue's outside PR person asked repeatedly if we planned to run a correction. We promised to clear up a factual error in the story: We said Third Avenue's real estate product was a commingled fund; it actually is a mutual fund. You will find that correction on page 4 of this issue.
Despite that, Third Avenue issued a press release on Feb. 24 in which it said we "mischaracterized comments made by" Mr. Winer. The press release also said: "Pensions & Investments is expected to include a correction in the March 9, 2004, issue."
As I said, we are running a correction, but only regarding the type of fund. The release from Third Avenue insinuates (I'm so glad they used that word first) that we erred in writing about Mr. Winer's opinion of Kmart's viability as a retailer. Again, we never said anything about Kmart's chances for success or failure.
And, by the way, we don't publish on March 9, which is a Tuesday. For 31 years, P&I has been published on Mondays. It will continue to do so indefinitely.
Corrections are vital to this newspaper and our relationship with our readers. Corrections force us to accept responsibility for our mistakes. When we goof, we come clean.
Too bad there's no similar vehicle for Third Avenue to correct its press release.