Thursday, May 25, 2006

Local Ownership for Philadelphia Newspapers Not Necessarily Good News-- Nor Bad News

That faction of the universe that holds that big media conglomerates are bad for journalism should take no comfort in the announcement Tuesday that a group of Philadelphia investors will buy The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News from McClatchy, flipping it from the Knight-Ridder acquisition. The event is, by itself, neither positive nor negative.

In some quarters there is a nostalgia for “local ownership” of the media. The superficial rationale is easy to understand. Local ownership presumably means that decisions are not made in some far off corporate building by executives more interested in profits that Pulitzers.

But as I have been writing for decades, local ownership not only is not a free pass for better service to a community but may actually be a step backward. The case of Philadelphia is the perfect example. Indeed, I was astounded, though pleased to see, for the first time in my memory, that The New York Times’ report on Wednesday actually included a brief history of the vindictive ownership of The Inquirer before the Knight chain bought it:

Walter Annenberg, a wealthy businessman whose family owned The Inquirer from the 1940's until the late 1960's, used The Inquirer to settle personal scores, promote his own political views and crush his business and political rivals.

Annenberg treated The Inquirer as an arm of his own will," said John Morton, a newspaper industry analyst….

The other -- and dominant -- paper in Philadelphia during the 1950s and 1960s was the Evening Bulletin, owned by the McLean family. The Bulletin was a decent if bland paper. It took localism seriously. Indeed, while working for a weekly alternative newspaper in the early 1970s we did a spoof of The Bulletin, highlighting the provincial outlook of the paper with the banner headline “Six Philadelphians Die in New York Nuclear Holocaust.” The accompanying article focused on these six and their Philadelphia neighborhoods, while noting in passing the supposed elimination of the entire city of New York. It was our take on the effects of a local perspective all the time.

The Inquirer, as accurately characterized in The Times article, was also locally owned, but used as a personal organ by Annenberg. When the Knight chain—headquartered in far-off Miami—took over, The Inquirer became more professional, addressing regional issues and trends, investigating city government, bolstering its national and international coverage and especially developing investigative reporting. Meanwhile, The Bulletin only became more neighborhood oriented. It died. The Inky, and its feisty tabloid relative, the Daily News, survived, though in recent years it’s declining circulation—an erosion of 18% over 10 years —has taken its toll on the resources and therefore quality of the editorial.

The new owners, including an advertising/pr executive, the head of a publicly owned home building company, a union pension find and other investors with a local connection—have no publishing experience. That is not necessarily bad, if they recognize their limitations and adhere to their promises to keep hands off editorial decisions. But in the end that is almost impossible. They need to keep the papers reasonably profitable, to keep up both salaries and plant and equipment and, in the case of the union, preserve the pension payments for its members. While they may refrain from deciding on what political candidates to endorse or subjects to investigate, they will have final say over budgets, which means staffing and resources.

The new owners, incorporated as Philadelphia Media Holdings, might be wonderful. Or they might end up being meddlesome, voicing displeasure with an article critical about Toll Brothers (the holding of the largest single investor) or some other interest of one of the major stockholders. I have made the argument elsewhere that there is something to be said for owners who run media properties as "merchants" rather than as "missionaries."

My message is that local ownership is not, by its very nature, desirable, any more than a geographically removed corporate owner is, by its very nature, undesirable.

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