Philly Papers Show That Media Policy Matters

February has been a heartbreaker of a month for people in Philadelphia who care about quality news, journalistic integrity and the future of our city’s daily papers.

To start, the newsrooms of the two jointly owned dailies — the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News — will lose another 37 staff by the end of March to buyouts or layoffs, as announced last week. That will leave the Inquirer’s newsroom with 60 percent fewer staff members than it had in the late 1990s. And it shows. As a daily reader of the paper, I see how it's become a shell of its former self.

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Former Gov. Ed Rendell is leading a group of potential buyers for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News.

Meanwhile, a firestorm of controversy erupted this month over editorial meddling by the papers’ publisher, Greg Osberg, in stories about a potential sale. The papers are up for grabs for the fourth time in six years, and reporters who wrote benign stories about the sale had their pieces axed, and were told their jobs would get similar treatment if they uttered a word about it. Some speculate that Osberg’s lapse in journalistic integrity was an attempt to avoid generating attention from competitive bidders, since the leading buyers said they’d keep Osberg in his job.

And oh, what leading buyers they are! Here’s an unfortunate (but honest) quote from one of them: "You'd think this was the first time some political people owned a newspaper. People are shocked that we would take over a newspaper and maybe have editorial input."

That’s from former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democratic honcho who has deep relationships with the wealthiest and most powerful people in the region. Rendell’s partners in the deal include a parking magnate, a sports magnate who also wants to become a casino magnate, a developer magnate, an energy industry magnate and another Democratic power broker.

Journalist and former city reporter Buzz Bissinger summed up concerns about this group of buyers in a New York Times Op-Ed: “The group covers the waterfront of virtually everything that is important in Philadelphia — local politics, state politics, national politics, big development, casino gambling, sports. The only segment missing is the unions, and Mr. Rendell reportedly tried that, approaching a union leader who is currently suing an Inquirer writer for libel.”

Rendell reacted to the outrage by pledging to erect a firewall between the owners and the papers. It is unclear how such a “firewall” will keep the governor’s temper in check, but I’m sure he deeply regrets placing his hands around the neck of a female reporter in 1994 during a heated interview, and how he constantly “yelled” and “exploded” at reporters, as I've seen some of them recall on their personal Facebook pages. Obviously, the governor has moved past that stage in his life (right, Lesley Stahl?) and if not, hopefully this “firewall” will help.

To be fair, the potential owners are local folk, which is something that matters to us in the media reform community. They live here, invested (and made) a lot of money here, believe our great city needs world-class newspapers, see that goal in danger and wish to do something about it. I see the honor and value in that. Thanks, but no thanks.

The papers should never be in a position of covering the behinds of their owners. They must be completely empowered and downright enthusiastic to be on the behinds of those who pushed casinos neighbors don’t want, got tax breaks from the public for their development projects while our schools lost teachers and nurses, try to get out of paying their fair share of taxes, profit from dirty energy and influence public policy in ways that are often harmful to the poor, working-class and middle-class people of Philadelphia.

Through my work in Philadelphia and Harrisburg as a public interest advocate during Rendell’s time as mayor and governor, I've seen him on the right side of some of those issues just as often as he’s been on the wrong side. He and his potential partners already have enormous amounts of power and influence over our lives; they don’t need power and influence over our newspapers, too.

But if not the powerful and connected who have capital, who will buy these papers? In 2006, employees were part of a bidding war to purchase the Inquirer and the Daily News, but with a final sale price of $515 million, it got too rich for their blood. Now that the papers are valued at $100 million or less, could an employee-owned paper be a reality? Free Press writes on SaveTheNews.org of how this ownership model is in use at other papers.

Regardless of who will own the papers, this incident has made even clearer the importance of their competitors. If it wasn’t for public radio station WHYY's Dave Davies, who got reporters to talk about Osberg’s threats, we may not have known about the publisher’s actions and he might not have been forced to reverse course. So funding for public media matters.

If Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski succeeds in weakening the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership limits, as proposed in December, this group of “political people” who may want “editorial input” at the local TV station may be able to buy that station too, and strangle (figuratively, of course) their critique and coverage. So media ownership policy matters.

And if the Inquirer and Daily News continue to falter, we still have nonprofits like PhillyCAM and the Media Mobilizing Project that are giving the powerless and poor a place to tell their own stories online and on cable. So Internet policies and public interest cable-franchising policies matter.
 

Beth McConnell is the executive director of the Media and Democracy Coalition, where she works to link together local, state and national organizations around media policy initiatives and provides strategic backup support to those efforts.

Photo credit: Dwight Evans via Wikimedia Commons

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good