When Ed Rendell was governor of Pennsylvania in 2008, he spent some time traveling around the country with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. At the time, Rendell pitched Bloomberg on buying Philadelphia’s daily newspapers, which were then burdened with debt and soon to declare bankruptcy. Ben McGrath recounts:
“We discussed a few things, and I tried to convince him to come down and buy the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News,” Rendell went on. “I said to him, ‘Mayor, only you can save the newspaper business in this country.’ And of course his staff, they wanted him to buy the New York Times.”
Bloomberg was one of the largest philanthropic donors in the United States last year, and Rendell is far from alone in having thought of him as the natural white knight to save journalism—an antidote to predatory moguls like Rupert Murdoch and Sam Zell, who view the news strictly as a commodity, not a public service. “Everyone asks him about it,” one social friend of the Mayor’s told me. “Better him than that Mexican person”—a reference to Carlos Slim, who recently lent the Times two hundred and fifty million dollars.
I mentioned Rendell’s suggestion to Bloomberg one afternoon at Gracie Mansion, before a reception that he was hosting for Susan Rice, the United Nations Ambassador. At first, he dismissed the idea, claiming not to know anything about newspapers, but then he began elaborating on the challenges facing the business, particularly at the Times. “Their business model is a national paper, but national papers have a particularly bad business model, because there’s no such thing as national advertising,” he said. “It doesn’t exist. Which means you have to have sales forces locally, and, since you’re going to print in different places, that’s fine, you can run different ads. The trouble is, you’ve got to print in different places—the distribution cost will kill you.”
Rendell is now leading a group of investors who will likely be the new owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com. Based on available information, Rendell’s group is the only one confirmed as an official bidder. Philanthropist Raymond Perelman expressed interest in bidding, but was shut out of the process, as was local developer Bart Blatsein. The papers are once again available because two of the equity owners who bought the company out of bankruptcy in 2010 have now decided to sell. || Related: Timeline of ownership from 2006-today