Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Cheesesteaks in Philly, razzberries in Chicago—UPDATED AND REVISED

The barbarians have left the gates in Philadelphia...--Good news, I think, about a story I care very much about, the fate of the two newspapers in Philadelphia. [It's not science but humor me.] It's hard to find a downside. The papers no longer will be controlled by the incompetents at Knight Ridder, they haven't been sold to Singleton or Gannett, and Wall Street will have no influence. Indeed, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News will become a rarity--major metropolitan dailies returned to local control after 36 years of erratic corporate control.

[For those not paying attention to this blog as much as you should--scoundrels all--I was science writer at the Inquirer for 11 years during the Roberts era, when the Inky was probably the best newspaper in America. I had the best job in American journalism. That was before Tony Ridder turned to slimy mush at the alter of high stock prices. I care a lot. See this.]

The two papers were sold to McClatchy, probably the best newspaper chain remaining in America, but McClatchy wanted no part of them. They were profitable but not as obscenely profitable as Wall Street would have it and not enough for McClatchy, who promptly announced they were for sale. (The fact they were unionized probably had something to do with that decision, which otherwise makes no sense.) About half a dozen corporations put in bids. Philly, America's most under-rated city and my personal favorite, is having some wonderful years at the moment and there is no reason why good newspapers couldn't flourish there.

Yesterday, it was announced that a group of local investors, using mostly borrowed money, will buy the two newspapers. Included in the new owners is Bruce E. Toll, a developer and another hero of mine—he's the man who saved the Metropolitan Opera radio concerts after a foul oil company halted sponsorship. Most of the money came from banks, especially the Royal Bank of Scotland, which owns a local Philly bank. The owners pledge to stay out of the newsroom and not interfere with what is still one of America's best regional newspapers. Since here are no outside investors, Wall Street cannot impose its destructive influence.

The only shadow is the presence of businessman Brian Tierney, an outspoken advocate for causes and friends. He has represented Sunoco and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He once led a group of Catholics in picketing the newspaper and his attempted interference with one reporter led to that reporter being fired and suing the newspapers—and winning. See the New York Times story here. Max King, the editor who had the unenviable task of replacing Roberts after Roberts quit rather than continue his fight with the bean counters at Knight Ridder, worries that there may be a conflict, but Tierney has pledged to stay out of editorial decisions. What would happen if one of the investors broke his non-interference pledge? "I'll beat the crap out of anyone who tries it," he said. Can't ask for more than that.

"I understand the concern, but we don't want to be involved in that," Tierney said. He said his expertise was in advertising and marketing and he would focus his energies on those. "The best way to kill this as a business," he said, would be to tamper with the integrity of the papers, "so I pledge to you that won't be the case."

Zach Stalberg, former editor of the Daily News, however, says Tierney is an honorable man who knows everyone will be watching him. If Zach's cool about it, so am I.

All in all, it seems to be the best possible outcome for a really bad situation. The new owners have rejected the notion of further cutbacks and lay-offs, and they will continue publishing the tabloid Daily News. There must be huge sighs of relief in the city room.

It is my opinion that publicly held corporations cannot run great newspapers. The pressure from investors, interested in immediate gratification rather than the long-term health of their investment, makes that impossible unless there are provisions to keep them at bay. That is the reason why the three best newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal) in America are family controlled and why a fourth newspaper (Los Angeles Times), that used to be family-owned, has declined precipitously once the family sold it. With the Inky and the Daily News in private hands, good things can be happening in Philadelphia. Nice to report good news.

...and are alive and well in Chicago—Not all the news in journalism is good. The Chicago Sun-Times went through the now-customary idiocy of offering buy-outs to its senior writers, a way of cutting costs and the newspapers' throat at the same time. One of those taking the deal was Wynne Delacoma, the classical music critic. The newspaper also announced he will not be replaced. That leaves a major newspaper in the home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera without a professional critic. It speaks volumes about both the state of newspapers in America and that of classical music. Say that, Barenboim fellow? Isn't he the second baseman for the Cubs?

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