AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

Philly News Blues   

A troubling cluster of developments at Philadelphia's embattled newspapers. Fri., February 17, 2012.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

It's truly grim.

The drumbeat of bad news about the Philadelphia newspapers has been relentless.

Of course, the recent past hasn't exactly been nirvana for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. It's not that long ago that the Inquirer was one of the nation's elite newspapers, widely acclaimed for its ambitious, far-ranging coverage and its bulging Pulitzer collection. The Daily News was the plucky younger sibling, an overachiever with an uncanny knack for understanding and reflecting the rhythms of the idiosyncratic and indelible city it covers. But, like so many newspapers in the digital age, financial reversals have sharply diminished their staffs, their newsholes and their ambitions.

Like unwanted orphans, the papers have been shuttled from foster parent to foster parent over the past six years, from Knight Ridder to McClatchy to a local ownership group to the hedge funds and banks that bought them out of bankruptcy.

And yet, amazingly, despite the carnage and endless upheaval, the papers have continued to do valuable journalism. While the Inquirer no longer covers the world, its reporters provide important enterprise reporting on the Philadelphia region. Just two years ago, the Daily News won a Pulitzer for its investigation of police corruption.

But now signs of serious trouble are everywhere.

  • Yet again, the papers are on the block.
  • The leading contender to buy them is a group put together by former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell. It includes a powerful South Jersey pol, a major local business figure and the head of the outfit that owns the Philadelphia Flyers. Author and former Inquirer reporter Buzz Bissinger and former Inquirer Deputy Editorial Page Editor Paul Davies have written forcefully about the untenable conflicts of interest such an ownership team would pose.
  • Philadelphia Media Network, which now owns the papers, has frozen out a couple of other groups interested in acquiring them.
  • The Inquirer killed a story about one of the potential buyers, and a Daily News blog item about the situation was dropped under orders from a company spokesman.
  • The New York Times on Thursday reported that Gregory J. Osberg, the chief executive and publisher of Philadelphia Media Network, told the editors of the Inquirer, the Daily News and philly.com that he would personally oversee all coverage of the prospective sale. If articles appeared without his approval, Osberg said editors would be fired, the Times reported, attributing the information to "several editors and reporters briefed on the meeting." Osberg three times denied there had been such a meeting. Then, after being informed that Daily News Editor Larry Platt had confirmed the conclave on the record, Osberg admitted there had been a meeting, but denied that he had taken over handling of the stories. He just wanted to be informed about what was coming to avoid being "blind-sided," he said.
  • Rendell has had nice things to say about Osberg, a former president and publisher of Newsweek, and has indicated Osberg would continue to run the show should the Rendell all-stars get the papers. This is not necessarily reassuring.
  • The company disclosed Wednesday that it plans to eliminate 37 newsroom positions from its already depleted roster as it combines the staffs of the two papers and the Web site.

An apparently rigged sale, management interfering in coverage it has a stake in and yet more cuts is a powerful trifecta indeed. It does nothing to inspire confidence in the way the Philadelphia region will be covered in the years ahead.

I have a lot of respect for Rendell. His intentions may be pure: to save the struggling papers for the good of the region. Rendell told Politico, "I got involved in it because I was asked to see if I could put together a team of local investors who would see this not just as a business proposition but as a civic venture to preserve a regional asset and to preserve it with local control."

But the prospect of a paper owned and operated by all of those players is dicey. The temptation to interfere would be enormous. And the shenanigans that have surrounded coverage of the sale, by the very same management likely to stay on under the new owners, amps up the anxiety enormously.

The true test of the integrity of a news organization comes under precisely these circumstances, when it has to cover itself. Philadelphia Media Network has flunked that test spectacularly.

Not surprisingly, the whipsawed journalists at the papers have been shaken by the steady cascade of woe. The Inquirer on Friday reported that staffers are asking colleagues to sign a statement supporting news "gathered and printed without fear or favor" and calling on new owners of the papers to "guarantee that the integrity of our reporting will never be sacrificed to serve their private or political interests."

Philadelphia newspaper readers with long memories know that publisher interference is hardly a theoretical problem. I started my newspaper career at the Inquirer when it was owned by Walter Annenberg, who was world-class in his ability to use his paper to punish his enemies and reward his friends. Annenberg's major contribution to journalism was to sell the Inquirer and Daily News to Knight, later Knight Ridder, under which the papers blossomed.

Back in 2006, fears similar to those expressed about the Rendell group greeted the news that a group headed by Brian Tierney, a public relations executive with a history of jousting with the papers, had acquired them. But once in charge, Tierney went native, much to the relief of the journalists and the benefit of the region.

A vibrant news report has long been a fixture in Philadelphia. It's a city that, along with its many charms, has serious problems - crime, a troubled education system, corruption - problems that desperately need close scrutiny.

That's why who owns its major news outlets and how those owners operate them are such crucial questions.