As Philly papers cut 37 positions, sale will test whether local owners can stay out of the newsroom

Five and a half years ago, when Brian Tierney fronted a local group that bought the Philadelphia papers from McClatchy (which bought them temporarily from Knight Ridder), media watchers worried that his public relations perspective would constrict coverage of the community. Wisely, Tierney and his investors signed a pledge “not to interfere ‘with the editorial policies or decisions of the publisher.’” At the time, Tierney told The New York Times, “The best way to kill this as a business … would be to tamper with the integrity of the papers.”

Today, under the soon-to-be-replaced equity ownership that followed Tierney, that tampering and its effects on the papers’ integrity have been made painfully public. Before the papers change hands for the fifth time in six years, would the next owners — another group of high-profile, local investors — consider taking Tierney’s pledge? And if they did, would anyone believe them?

History — in Philadelphia and elsewhere — teaches us that local ownership is no guarantee of business stability or editorial independence. The ideal is always different than the reality. Just as a distant corporate owner may care more about profits than about serving the local community, local owners may be too invested in the community to stay out of the newsroom.

In both cases, you need firewalls to protect the journalism. When those walls are breached, as they have been in Philadelphia recently, the public has every right to lose faith in the journalism.

Related: Philly papers to lose 37 positions through buyouts, layoffs

When business bleeds into editorial coverage

The Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com have been hampered in covering what may be a closed sale of the company that owns them. Multiple stories on the subject have been killed, and publisher Greg Osberg has, at best, misdirected the newsroom with misleading information and at worst, has pre-empted and perverted reporting on the bidding process.

So while there is cause for concern about Philadelphia Media Network being owned by former Gov. Ed Rendell and his group of local leaders, that concern is heightened by a publisher who appears all too ready to bend the journalism to serve the business, and editors who appear unable to prevent it.

About 50 members of the Teamsters union protested this interference Wednesday morning, according to the Daily News:

“They’re scrubbing stuff out of the paper,” said John Laigaie, president of the Teamsters Local 628, which represents about 400 drivers, security guards and custodians who work for PMN. “They’re scrubbing off the website. They want to kill the journalistic integrity of the papers. Without that [integrity], nobody will want to read the papers. We won’t have jobs.”

“Just because you don’t like the news, you’re not going to print it?” agreed protester Carl Hoyt, a company driver for 37 years. “We feel they should be more upfront and honest with the public.”

Rendell could ease the fears of Philadelphians and journalists everywhere by speaking out in support of aggressive, independent coverage — including coverage of the papers he could soon own and of the Flyers, the ice hockey team belonging to one of the other would-be owners. Instead, Rendell is suddenly silent, retreating behind “no comment” after outspokenly supporting Osberg and his management of the news organization.

”If a group of newsmakers, power brokers, and community leaders were showing up at a newspaper’s doorstep as potential owners, there would be anxiety. The anxiety is real,” Stan Wischnowski, the Inquirer’s executive editor, told Erik Wemple on Wednesday. “We’ve been covering a lot of these folks for decades.”

The Annenberg legacy

Philadelphia has a history of interfering ownership, though Walter Annenberg is now remembered for his generous endowments of the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication, Penn’s Annenberg Center, and the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

But during his reign in the 1950s and ‘60s, the Inquirer owner frequently directed the editorial operation, as one of our commenters reminded us.

“This is reminiscent of the era when the Inquirer was owned by Walter Annenberg and he decreed that the paper could not mention the name of … Milton Schaap [sic], who was a Democrat [running for Governor]. It was also during Annenberg’s ownership that the now notorious Harry Karafin blackmailed the rich and powerful to keep scandalous articles about them from being published.”

Annenberg was a local owner, deeply invested in the Philadelphia community served by his news organization. But those local roots are no panacea.

The limitations of local ownership

Capitol Broadcasting Company, based in Raleigh, N.C., is one of the premier locally-owned media companies in the country. But in addition to the five TV stations it owns — including the largest, WRAL, where I worked for seven years — CBC owns the Durham Bulls, a minor league baseball team, and a downtown Durham entertainment complex across from the ballpark.

The story I produced 12 years ago about plans for that entertainment complex mentions not a hint of controversy. In retrospect, I’m certain there were people who objected to the downtown redevelopment, but their voices didn’t make their way into my report. I don’t recall any conversations about this or about favorable coverage of the new arena for the Carolina Hurricanes, whose games the station broadcast. Perhaps those discussions occurred above my pay grade. More likely, they were unnecessary because of self-censorship, which is still a danger even if it’s unintentional.

That may also be the case at Bloomberg, which covers — among other things — the city governed by Mayor Mike Bloomberg, the company’s owner. If Mayor Bloomberg has found ways to protect his news organization’s independence while running a major city, I hope he’ll be Rendell’s role model — especially if Rendell re-enters politics while owning the Philadelphia papers.

“It’s hard to imagine Ed Rendell owning anything — from a car to candy bar to a newspaper — in which he wasn’t hands-on. That’s not his style,” said Art Caplan, professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania. “I know he loves Philadelphia and the region; he’s not a guy out to do harm. But you really would like to see some of the details and commitments laid out. And I like Ed Rendell. I think he did a lot of good for the city. But he is not a guy who buys it and ignores it.”

The problem of perception

Already, there is speculation about how Rendell’s political activities could affect the papers. This speculation grows, in part, from the existing relationship between Philadelphia Media Network and the city, which loaned the company nearly $3 million to move from its current location to a new one. Philadelphians with even a short memory may also recall that then-Gov. Rendell was willing to support a state bailout of the papers under Tierney’s ownership before the company declared bankruptcy.

Skepticism over the Philadelphia situation is fueled by other recent newspaper purchases — of The San Diego Union-Tribune (now U-T San Diego) and of The New York Times regional newspaper group, for example — that came pre-packaged with pro-business agendas.

“You don’t have to be a member of Occupy Wall Street to wonder if the 1 percent in this city is able to really represent the interests, concerns and preferences of the other 99 percent in the region,” said Caplan, who lives in Philadelphia, writes for msnbc.com and is paid to write for the Inquirer every few months.

One fear, he said, “is you get an ownership group that isn’t going to challenge the status quo or raise issues about how the people they see at parties and fundraisers and sports events are managing things.”

The values that protect the community

Caplan worries, he said by phone, that further “diminishing the papers starts to undermine the push that Philadelphia’s making to be a serious national presence.”

“They’re bleeding and the question is really, ‘What is the ownership gonna do?’ ” he asked. “They can bring cash but they’ve gotta bring a tourniquet … an editorial commitment is a tourniquet.”

Like Rendell, the new investors in MaineToday Media say they are motivated by a sense of civic spirit rather than bottom-line benefits. However, the new owners of the Portland Press Herald and associated papers know the success of their business depends on the credibility of their news report.

New investor Donald S. Sussman, whose wife is U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, told the Press Herald he will be uninvolved in news coverage.

“I do believe the community needs the newspaper,” he said. “Transparency is the key to democracy. Without it, we can’t have a democracy.”

Transparency — like independence — is a value upon which journalism’s credibility depends.

Tom Bell, president of The Newspaper Guild, the largest union within MaineToday Media, said people will have legitimate questions about whether the newspaper can be trusted as an unbiased source of political news.

“We have been assured by Sussman that he won’t interfere with our work,” Bell said. “The Guild is determined to protect the independence and professionalism of the newsroom. We are confident we can be successful.”

Rendell has offered no such assurances to the Philadelphia newsrooms. And if he doesn’t, in five years we may nostalgically reminisce about the good old days, when disinterested equity firms owned news organizations. Because, in the end, whoever owns the journalism we produce, the public we serve determines whether they buy it.

Correction: This story originally stated that Walter Annenberg owned the Philadelphia Inquirer when Milton Shapp was Governor; he did not. He owned it when Shapp first ran for Governor in the mid-’60s. An earlier version of this correction, which has been updated three times, mangled Milton Shapp’s name.

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  • Leslie Hoffecker

    In the second correx: It’s not Schapp. It’s SHAPP. See here (Pennsylvania state archives): http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/bah/dam/mg/mg309.htm and here (NYT obit): http://www.nytimes.com/1994/11/26/obituaries/milton-j-shapp-is-dead-at-82-ex-governor-of-pennsylvania.html

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    That’s pretty pathetic. I’ve fixed it & added a note to the correction. Thank you.

  • Leslie Hoffecker

    Julie — in your correction, the last name is Shapp (not Schaap or Scaap), and the first name is Milton, not Walter.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

     Thanks, Leslie. I’ve corrected that. –Julie

  • Anonymous

    All newspapers are news managed by their owners.  Do you think that the NY Times news is not highly constrained by the politics of its owners?  Please come down to earth.  There is no such thing as unbiased news.

  • Leslie Hoffecker

    You might want to check the accuracy of commenters’ statements before publishing them — Annenberg did not own the Philadelphia Inquirer when Milton Shapp was governor of Pennsylvania (1971-79). Annenberg did own the paper when Shapp unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1966; while he did not forbid Shapp’s name to appear in news reports, he did use his power to ensure negative coverage. There’s a well-known story in Philadelphia of Annenberg having an Inquirer reporter ask Shapp during a news conference whether he had ever been a patient in a mental hospital. No, he hadn’t, Shapp replied. The next day’s paper, the story goes, had a five-column headline: “Shapp Denies Mental Institution Stay.”

    From a 1997 column by Rem Rieder in AJR:

    “Take the question of independent vs. chain. When I started with the Inquirer in 1964 (as a summer police reporter; they hadn’t invented internships yet) it was as independent as they get, owned by the fabulously wealthy Walter S. Annenberg.It wasn’t exactly a paper like they design in the ethics courses.
    “Walter didn’t much care for the University of Pennsylvania’s president, Gaylord Harnwell. So his name didn’t appear in the Inquirer.
    “He didn’t much like the ownership of the Philadelphia 76ers. So the local professional basketball team was lucky to get three graphs in the sports section.
    “He really didn’t like Milton Shapp. When Shapp ran for governor of Pennsylvania in 1966, he was pilloried mercilessly in the paper’s news columns.”