What lies in store for Philadelphia newspapers?

Article  by  Natalie HIDEG  •  Published 17.04.2012  •  Updated 17.04.2012
[NEWS] Two Philadelphia newspapers have yet again been repurchased by another group of heavyweight investors. Amid rumors of editorial influence and increased layoffs, the future for Philadelphia’s Inquirer and Daily News remains uncertain.
The best way to kill a newspaper business is for the owners to tamper with its integrity, Investor Brian P. Tierney told The New York Times in 2006. That year, his 10-man strong investment group, Philadelphia Media Network (PMN), bought The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News. Employees now hope that their papers’ integrity will be preserved under their fourth and latest group of owners in a six-year period. Given the tumultuous recent history of the two largest newspapers in the city, the financial sustainability of the purchase and the future of print news in the fifth-largest city in the United States are being put to the test once again.
The leading Philadelphia publications have changed hands a number of times in the past six years. Their 2006 sale to the Tierney-led investment group for $515 million saw advertising sales and circulation numbers plummet during the recession. Then in 2010, a group of financial funds – hedge and capital – scooped up the two papers in a $139 million bankruptcy sale. For the April 2, 2012 transaction, six local businessmen and political figures calling themselves Interstate General Media L.L.C. put together a meager $55 million for the two papers as well as Philly.com, the free online news source for the two publications.
With four Democrats and two Republicans among the buyers, the balance could be enough to prevent partisan political influence. The three most high-profile investors, however, are generous donors to the Democratic cause. George Norcross is an insurance broker and local hospital chairman whose time as the unelected Democratic leader in two New Jersey counties was “marked by cronyism and insider deals,” as reported by Philly.com. Lewis Katz originally made a name for himself – and his fortune – in law, banking, billboards and business, and runs the philanthropic Katz foundation. H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest is a cable TV billionaire and philanthropist.  All six investors insist that it would be “crazy” to influence content with their political stances or economic interests; those most closely affected by the affair, though, can’t help but question their intentions. Former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Buzz Bissinger expressed concern to Philly.com on the top two investors’ intentions in the affair: “How [George Norcross] could possibly be anywhere near a newspaper, let alone own one, is (a) beyond me, and (b) an absolute disaster for the city and the region." Speaking about political affiliations, he said, "[Lewis Katz] has always been a big campaign contributor. What is going to happen to coverage of people he is supporting?"

The management has already been accused of interference in articles. Several employees stated that Publisher and Chief Executive of PMN Greg Osberg had called a meeting saying that he would oversee reporting on the sale, as reported by The New York Times. Osberg denied the accusation. In early March, 300 journalists working for PMN signed a public statement insisting that the new owners not interfere with the editorial content or use the papers to serve their political interests. The six new investors signed a pledge in agreement.
PMN employees are also nervous about more potential layoffs amid rumors of 35 more positions to be cut within the next six months, as reported by Philly.com. Last month, the company cut 19 newsroom positions, after 21 employees had already accepted buyout offers in February. Investor Norcross claims that “[The Daily News] hasn’t made money for years,” but the Newspaper Guild purports that the Inquirer reported PMN as grossing $4 million last year.
Yet despite the editorial challenges posed by the ownership group, the dragging financial concerns and ever-increasing layoffs, the future of the two Philadelphia publications is not all bleak. While suspected of having personal interests in mind at the purchase of the company, the owners insist that they are first and foremost interested in the transaction as a business deal. This, coupled with a seemingly selfless desire to fulfill a sort of civic duty by saving the papers, might lend itself to positive changes. In light of their philanthropic and charitable backgrounds, the six businessmen could very well make good on their promise to not meddle with the reporting of news coverage. The men have also pledged $10 million to invest in company expenditures, which is a welcome and long-awaited financial boost to those who have lived through the instability of the past six years. This money, they say, will go towards revamping the paper’s digital services to bring Philly.com and the Inquirer’s paywall site into the “digital era.”

Lastly, it seems that the new owners are already trying to make amends for past wrongs: ex-Inquirer Editor William K. Marimow, abruptly fired after the last acquisition, has been asked back to take on his former role. The New York Times reports that his reinstatement “reinforces the company’s commitment to aggressive investigative reporting.” The Inquirer, a 183-year-old paper, has already won 18 Pulitzers and been widely recognized for its award-winning journalism. Hopefully this change of hands for both papers will be its last, paving the way for a more secure and independent future.

Photo Credits:
- Front of Inquirer/Daily News building, FatBusinessman / Flickr;
- Tower of Inquirer/Daily News building, It's Our City / Flickr;
- Front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer's 180th edition, Kevin Burkett / Flickr.
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