The stakes extend in many directions
On a recent trip into Philadelphia, after I exited the Interstate and coasted to a stop at the first traffic light, a man walked up to my car. He wore a black apron with a change pouch and held aloft a copy of The Philadelphia Daily News, the city’s tart, irreverent tabloid. It gave me a warm feeling. Of course it did! I’m a newspaper guy. I worked as a reporter for The Daily News in the 1980s, and later for what we called “big sister,” the sober, broadsheet Philadelphia Inquirer. Even in better times, I would have been happy to see the product being hawked, but these days any small sign of life in the newspaper industry, even just the sight of someone reading a paper, feels positively uplifting. I handed over 75 cents for my Daily News, then drove on toward the center of the city — and U.S. Bankruptcy Court, where a hearing was soon to begin, part of an ongoing process that will determine the fate of the city’s newspapers.
Philadelphia is, of course, the city of Ben Franklin, a printer by trade who published The Pennsylvania Gazette, a newspaper, as well as Poor Richard’s Almanac. It is where the Founding Fathers drafted the nation’s most important documents — the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Word of the Declaration went out to the people on July 6, 1776, when it was published in the pages of The Pennsylvania Evening Post. By the early 20th century, the raucous, elbows-out era of American newspapering, there were 10 daily papers in the city. Now down to a besieged two, Philadelphia is a particularly good place to observe what appears to be big-city journalism’s last stand, when many of America’s metropolitan newspapers must quickly figure out how to become profitable again or face likely extinction.
The stakes extend in many directions. Newspapers remain the primary source of news-gathering in America. And unlike so many Internet “sites,” they are firmly grounded in a geographical place. To read a newspaper is to know what town you’re in. As a young reporter, I covered the trial of a well-known Philadelphia mobster, Harry (the Hunchback) Riccobene, who had been tried, convicted and incarcerated numerous times previously. I approached him during a break on the trial’s first day and asked if he was nervous. He wasn’t. “What’s the expression?” he said to me. “My record speaks for itself.” I was pretty proud when that made it into print. I felt as if I’d shared a joke with a whole city, one that I knew appreciated that kind of wiseguy humor.
No one would say that the history of journalism in America is one of unremitting excellence. Plenty of smaller communities, and some big cities, have never been blessed with anything better than lackluster newspapers. Certainly The Inquirer and The Daily News, when owned by Walter Annenberg, Philadelphia’s postwar press baron, were undistinguished, in no small part because they were subject to Annenberg’s political and personal pique. (He was said to have a blacklist of names that could not appear in print, an eclectic group that included Ralph Nader, Imogene Coca and Zsa Zsa Gabor, as well as the city’s N.B.A. franchise, when it went uncovered for a season because Annenberg had a beef with its owner.)
Annenberg’s sale of The Inquirer and The Daily News in 1969 to the Knight newspaper chain (which later became Knight Ridder) had the effect of elevating the journalism. The Inquirer established a formidable reputation by winning 17 Pulitzer Prizes between 1975 and 1990, a total second only to that of The New York Times in that period. It is certainly less ambitious now than in its peak years, when it sent reporters to cover every big national story and maintained a half-dozen foreign bureaus, but it remains a force in its region and capable of the kind of “watchdog” journalism essential in cities like Philadelphia, which seem to breed corrupt politicians. The Daily News, with a reduced staff that covers fewer stories, remains aggressive, and its distinctive voice is taken seriously in the city’s corridors of power.
But the journalistic worthiness of the two newspapers has not protected them. And what was seen as a possible salvation in 2006, the purchase of the newspapers by Philadelphians with deep roots in the city (the first local investors since Annenberg), has, to this point, produced only a ghastly hemorrhage of money. The new owners put up $150 million of their own. Before filing for bankruptcy, they stopped payment on $400 million in debt. They have not, however, given up, and are locked in a standoff with lenders that Brian Tierney, the leader of the ownership group, has framed as a battle to preserve quality journalism in Philadelphia.