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The Pledge: Philly Newspapers Bought by Local Big Shots

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The editorial function of the business shall at all times remain independent of the ownership and control of the company, and no member shall attempt to influence or interfere with the editorial policies or decisions of the publisher.

In Philadelphia it is called The Pledge. The new owners of the Inquirer and the Daily News had to sign it if they wanted to join CEO-in-waiting Brian Tierney and become part of the deal that has put the two newspapers in local hands.

What is that pledge worth? The happy fact is we don't know the answer to questions like that. A lot depends on the people there and the choices they make. So if enough people--and the right ones--hold the owners to their pledge of non-interference, it is more likely to be a binding one.

The meaning of what was signed isn't stable. There's a politics to the situation that has to play itself out, and there are lots of participants. In the public arena itself lies the fate of the pledge, and of the "great national experiment" (Dick Polman) Philadelphia will be conducting with the institution of the daily press.

History exerts its pressure

Tierney, the new boss, who is self-made and a Republican, showed considerable skill in pulling the deal off. He comes out of advertising and public relations in the Philly area. He has tangled--sometimes brutally--with reporters and editors because his clients have been big companies and institutions, like the Catholic Church in Philly.

Some think he's been effective at press intimidation on behalf of the rich and powerful, who pay his fees. There's a history there. Now that Tierney is the executive in charge of the Philly newspapers, that history is exerting its pressure.

A battle of interpretations has been joined, and this too is a political situation. The Inquirer's editor, Amanda Bennett, told the New York Times that the past cannot be allowed to strangle the future. "We're not naïve, and we're not stupid," she said about Tierney and the rich and powerful locals who will own the shop. "But don't tell me it will be a miserable failure because of X, Y and Z. We're not ready for that. We want to make it work. The Philadelphia Inquirer is worth the effort."

I like her way of putting it: we're not ready for that. Dan Rottenberg in the Broad Street Review was ready: "Does anyone recall the Inquirer's disgrace under its last local civic booster owner, and its triumph under out-of-towners?"

Jonathan Neumann, a former editor at the Inquirer, went a lot further in his reactions to Tierney. "I think it's a sad day that someone I've always considered an enemy of the First Amendment and an enemy of the Constitution now owns those newspapers," Neumann said.

The determinists get dumped

Will Bunch of the Daily News, who writes the Attytood blog, knows that an experimental attitude has to be defended against its enemies: the people who already know. "Today, I'm happy," he wrote on May 24.

I'm keeping a job that I love (and a blog that I love), and will still be working here with some of the best journalists and best people I've ever known. There will be many battles ahead, to be sure, but you can't fight the good fight if you're not there. As for the big picture "norg" type stuff, my biggest hope was for an owner with a new way of thinking, willing to do things outside-the-box, who would seek to makeover news for the 21st Century. Tierney is an outsider who will try to do exactly that.

The key word in that paragraph above is "today." The people who are critical of Tierney's purchase, and there are a fair number, are focused on two things: "yesterday," and "tomorrow."

If tomorrow Tierney and company break their pledge he'll worry--a lot--about it then, said Bunch. "This is a great experiment, and it's going to require a lot of zen -- living in the moment." Yes. But I would say it differently: what's going to happen to these newspapers is undetermined. The determinists have been dumped from the ship.

"The orgy of wishful thinking"

"The experiment in Philadelphia..." is easy to say. To adopt a genuinely experimental attitude is harder than people think. You have to hold fast to not knowing yet. Some journalists, and especially ex-journalists acting as defenders of the faith, can't tolerate not knowing what kind of CEO Brian Tierney will be.

Just look at the record, they say. And there is a record. There's a history there, some of which is quite dramatic. Steve Volk captures a good chunk of it in Brian Tierney Makes a Pledge.

More experienced observers of Philadelphia would have to verify this. I can only report that almost any time I ask the locals a question about some Philadelphia institution, public person or current event, the answer is "there's a history to that." A history that is actually quite informative and colorful and hilarious when you hear it.

People say that everywhere, of course. In Philadelphia journalism circles, they say it with a bitterness that is locally grown. Here's Dan Rottenberg almost spitting the words at us:

I realize that the human capacity for self-delusion is infinite. I also realize that, thanks to several recent rounds of buyouts, hardly anyone is left at the Inquirer and Daily News who recalls the last time such a celebration took place there. So let me remind you. The specific cause of celebration was the papers' rescue by a national chain from the clutches of a meddlesome local owner.

Wake up, people! Last time, they celebrated when local ownership got dumped! No one remembers that! But the people who already know do. Here's how Rottenberg's column began: "Excuse me while I splash cold water on the orgy of wishful thinking currently engulfing the Inquirer and Daily News."

A break from pattern

Back in March, I posted Twelve Newspapers in a State of Nature. It was about the Knight Ridder franchises in eleven markets that weren't markets McClatchy, the new owners, wanted to be in. No one knew what was going to happen to those papers, which was itself a wonderous thing. For newspaper ownership and control were badly in need of fresh possibilities, some break from the pattern.

Local group cuts $562 million deal for Daily News, Inky (Daily News, May 24.) There's the break. All of a sudden a live experiment is going down in Philadelphia. The fifth largest city in the U.S has become a genuine press laboratory. That's national news.

It happened because of the strange circumstances creating the sale of the two newspapers. Corporate parent Knight-Ridder said: sorry, we had to sell you. New parent McClatchy said: sorry, we don't want to own you. This created a limbo condition: newsrooms that were between owners, but still operating. "It's like a sudden state of nature," I wrote. "Where there's just the newspaper, putting its editions out, and no social organization around it."

When I heard the news about Philly newspapers being returned to local ownership I had a strange and momentary feeling of elation. Not because I have faith and confidence that the new owners will do the right thing. I don't know that. So far they are hitting the right notes-- especially The Pledge. But we'll have to see.

The elation was simply over the emergence of something new, and the fact that we don't know how the key actors will behave. Maybe they don't know. Which means there's time to influence and instruct--and, yes, pressure--them.

Chains, dynasties, trusts and...

Before this sale there were three models for big city newspaper proprietors, although if we go back in history we can find more. In our time we mostly see chains (Gannett, Knight Ridder, McClatchy, Hearst), dynasties (Sulzbergers, Grahams, Newhouse) and trusts, which are oddballs like the St. Petersburg Times. It's owned by the non-profit Poynter Institute through an ingenius arrangement devised by Nelson Poynter, who was trying to bequeath a good newspaper to his community-- in perpetuity. (The Day in New London, Ct. is another example of the public trust model; also the Anniston Star in Alabama.)

Even though the numbers are tiny, the mere existence of arrangements like these tells us something vital. Newspapers can be organized in different ways, including for civic benefit. The way it is normally done does not describe what's actually doable. The people in Philadelphia are in a position to demonstate this. But first they have to believe it.

Joining the chains, dynasties and trusts is a fourth model. It debuted last week. A coalition of wealthy civic and business elites from both parties, Philadelphia-based, accepts less-than-maximum returns and invests for the medium long haul. That's not a family dynasty because ties of blood are not what holds the group together. It isn't at all like a chain seeking economies of scale or national reach. And it's not a non-profit or "trust" but a business with investors.

Joe DiStefano has been the Inquirer's lead reporter on the sale. On Thursday of sale week he reported that while the price had been properly estimated, the buyers were under-estimated.

"Many of the analysts following the deal had assumed that the group was composed of amateurs who would have a hard time making their case in competition with professional buyers and sellers of companies." In the end, they thought, the pros--newspaper companies, media companies, or private equity firms--were the ones who would do the deal. "Investment bankers say it is unusual for a motivated group led by unrelated private investors to take over any company."

"The norm would be a private-equity fund or an industrial company writing a big check," perhaps with smaller investments from the acquired company's managers, said Mark Chesen, president of SSG Capital Advisors L.P. in West Conshohocken.

But newspapers are different. They are "an emotional asset with a local connection, and that generates an emotional response," said Seth Lehr, a partner at the Philadelphia investment firm LLR Partners Inc. A newspaper "isn't like a foundry, it's like a sports franchise," he added. "A unique property can get a unique buyer group."

A unique property with a unique ownership model should mean that some unique journalism is coming our way. But there's a politics to the situation that has to play itself out.

If time horizons change

In a note they sent to their staff, Amanda Bennett and her managing editor Anne Gordon said: "nothing about this change of ownership will - or should - change even an iota the way we think of stories, report the news, write our headlines, or take and publish our photographs."

To me that's a strange statement. However, I know what they meant. They meant to re-assure: we're not going to back off from tough stories because we think the new owners might disapprove, including stories they might be involved in or have strong feelings about. They shouldn't interfere and we won't let them! (See also Bennett's column, We'll help this experiment succeed.)

In a radio interview May 25 she went further: "I forsee absolutely no change in the news pages of the paper as a result of this new ownership." About CEO Brian Tierney's role she said, "He is here as an owner, and not as an operator of the newspapers." I wonder if he knows that. On the same radio show, Tierney has said his office will be at 400 N. Broad Street, where Bennett works. He's also talked about new publications that would leverage the Inquirer brand. Sounds like an operator to me. (Listen here.)

But suppose the time horizons really do change. Taking a longer view, ownership might well decide that free archives with stable urls are a good way to go. (See Simon Waldman, The Importance of Being Permanent.) If that happened,, the joint web site of the Inquirer and Daily News, would be positioned to do well in search engines. Which might affect how stories are conceived and packaged because doing well in search is a new way to create value, establish authority and draw users.

Non-interference in the newsroom does mean "no effect on..." I would hope that dynamic and forward-thinking owners--if they emerge--would over time create a dynamic and forward-thinking staff.

Besdies, ownership can define who "the public" is, and that directly affects the newsroom. Look at the St. Petersburg Times. It has a circulation of 337,000 in a metro area of 2.6 million. The Miami Herald's circulation is smaller (311,000) in a metro area far larger (5.3 million). How did that happen?

How the public gets pictured

Andy Barnes, then publisher of the Times, explained it thusly in 1999: "We have spent large sums over the last 25 years extending the paper's range, north through Citrus County, and now including Hillsborough as well. If an owner had been demanding immediate profits, we could not have done so, and we would not have become Florida's largest daily newspaper."

The Des Moines Register used to circulate statewide; it had bureaus all over Iowa. News-wise, that made it a powerhouse in the state. But when Gannett bought the Register from the Cowles family, the decision was made to pull back and serve central Iowa only. The mission of the newsroom changed accordingly.

In Philadelphia, how will the public-we're-out-to-inform get pictured? New ownership might have a large effect on assumptions the newsroom operates with. It is question of vision, and who's included in yours.

Needing further insight into what happened in Philadelphia, I tracked down professor Philip Meyer, who wrote The Vanishing Newspaper, a study of the economic predicament newspaper journalism has been in. (See Tim Porter's masterful annotation of the book.) Meyer, who teaches at the University of North Carolina, is to me the great sage on the subject of the metropolitan newspaper's fate. He used to work for Knight Ridder and he's followed the situation in Philadelphia over several eras.

"Local is good" was the first thing he said to me. He said he felt a sense of relief that the buyer wasn't a private equity firm that would just "harvest the company." (See PressThink, Laying the Newspaper Gently Down to Die.) With the new owners come new "incentives to make a good newspaper," and also a "temptation to bend it" to the owners' parochial interests.

Meyer: Factor in pyschic rewards

"There's good and bad local ownership. Katherine Graham turned out to be good. Walter Annenberg turned out to be bad. But you have to give the benefit of the doubt to the new owners in Philaldelphia." By that he means an experimental attitude. Annenberg owned the Inquirer before Knight-Ridder, and he did not leave the newsroom alone but imposed his whims when he wanted.

Freedom from Wall Street pressures should make it easier to focus on the long-term health of the new company. "The bean counters are dethroned unless the new owners turn out to be bean counters in disguise." When "structural pressures" to maintain 20 percent margins are removed, "the true character of the owners can shine through." This is the x-factor; it's what makes the Philadelphia story so interesting. The owners don't know themselves how their big rolling character study will turn out.

"But I wouldn't generalize too much from their previous businesses," Meyer said. Here the incentives are different. It's more fun to own a respected newspaper than one with a sunken reputation. Pride, ego, public memory enter in. That the new owners are willing to invest for the long term and accept lower margins suggests they seek "psychic rewards," Meyer said. That's a social scientist's term for goods like prestige, peer recognition, reputation as a mover and shaker in town-- and legacy.

These factors alone make the situation in Philadelphia different, he thought.

The most trusted provider

Journalists know about such things. By-lines, prizes, page one placement make the job exciting, meaningful, worth the effort. It's more fun to work for a kick-ass newspaper than a crappy one. The lower salaries in journalism, as compared to say, PR, register the different psychic rewards (or status points) available in each trade. Perceived to be high in journalism. Perceived to be lower in PR.

Meyer was excited about what could emerge in Philly. "The old model was based on owning a printing press," he said. "It was uneconomic to have more than one per market." That was the monopoly newspaper. But the Internet is slowly putting an end to that way of thinking. "The new model is to be the most trusted provider of content. The best in both quality and quantity."

That sounds right to me. If Philadelphia Media Holdings, the group led by Tierney, understands that it's in the trust business, and there are lots of ways of doing business, then perhaps it will learn to do the things that generate newsy trust, which is different from avoiding the things that breed mistrust.

"It's time to fund the Philadelphia Journalism Review," said Meyer. He means the experiment there needs some extra oversight. (But in many ways local bloggers are the Journalism Review in Philly.) A public company like Knight-Ridder has to disclose more than a private partnership like Philadelphia Media Holdings, Meyer points out.

Local experiment, national results

If the people at Pew Charitable Trusts want to make a contribution, it would be in evaluation, public accountability and transparency, monitoring and narrating the experiment. It's not a real experiment without continuous reporting of the results so far.

He gave me two great answers.

I asked Meyer if the newspapers in Philly ought to quit claiming they cover everything and realize their niche. "Omniscience may still be the goal," he said, "but they're going to need the readers' help to approach it." That means maximizing the powers of the Internet and taking seriously an idea like, "Readers know more than we do." It means open source journalism. Great answer: omniscent only with your help.

Why should the nation care about what happens in Philly? The future of democracy is going to depend on how well the country is informed about its problems, Meyer said. "If we re-create journalism so that it can compete with entertainment" then maybe we have a chance. Compete with entertainment... for what? "For the limited supply of public attention."

I don't have any advice for the people in Philly. Too early. Like Meyer, I'm excited to see what happens. My prayer for the Philly papers is simple. I pray for glorious victory over the people who already know.
Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University and writes the blog PressThink.