The Philadelphia Inquirer was recently saved by a group of investors who bought the paper for "the benefit of the community." Is this a trend that can stabilize the industry?
The headline in the April 3 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer surely captured the message its new owners wanted to convey: "Once Again, in Local Hands."
The caption under a picture of three of the new proprietors: "'We do not want to run the newspapers,' said Lewis Katz, who has made a fortune in a variety of businesses, 'We want to merely own them for the benefit of the community.'"
In all, there are six men in the ownership group -- with extensive commercial, philanthropic, and political ties to the region -- who paid $55 million dollars to acquire the Inquirer, the tabloid Philadelphia Daily News, and their related websites. The price was less than half of what the enterprises attracted only two years ago, when they were brought out of bankruptcy by two hedge funds and the banks that held the company's debt.
This latest sale was the fourth for the media properties in the six years since a deal that saw another group of local investors pay $515 million to the McClatchy Co. newspaper chain, in what was also hailed as affirmation by community leaders to newsgathering in a great tradition. For all its good intentions, that earlier group, led by Brian P. Tierney, an advertising and public relations executive, was unable to stem a precipitous downward spiral in revenues. In the years since 2006, advertising income has fallen by 50 percent, and revenues are barely half of what they were when the downward tumble began. Despite major cuts in operations and overheads, these businesses will need to be turned around to make money. "We have every confidence in the world, and have invested tens of millions of dollars in our belief that we are going to make this successful and do things that people said couldn't be done," said GeorgeE. Norcross III, chairman of Conner, Strong and Buckelew, a very large insurance brokerage, who according to his new newspaper is highly prominent "in the rough and tumble culture of New Jersey politics."
The Philadelphia sale had been in the works for months, as the new ownership group settled on the terms of the deal and affirmed an abiding commitment to newsrooms without interference. The owners endorsed a pledge that read: "The editorial function of the business shall at all times remain independent of the ownership and control of the company and no owner shall attempt to influence or interfere with editorial policies or news decisions." Finally concluded, the deal represents a trend that has preserved once-flourishing metropolitan dailies that had been worth hundreds of millions of dollars but are now being handed off for whatever can be pried from investors, whose motives for these purchases often are mixed.
Perhaps the closest parallel to the Philadelphia transaction was the sale last December of the Chicago Sun- Times to a new company called Wrapports, which paid about $20 million for the newspaper and forty other smaller media properties in the area. That group was led by John Canning, a leading private equity investor and civic public figure, and Michael W. Ferro, chief executive of Merrick Ventures, a technology holding company who has emerged as the most influential of the proprietors. They appointed Timothy P. Knight, a former Newsday publisher, as CEO. Knight said the new company would be "introducing cutting-edge technologies, new content portals and other tools that will expand and drive richer and more satisfying content to readers." The Wrapports group came together from several members of the board of the Chicago News Cooperative, a nonprofit news operation launched in 2009 that provided four pages of local news to the regional edition of the New York Times and that, had it succeeded, intended to build a solid Web-based news organization (I was one of the founders of CNC, along with its leader James O'Shea, a former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, but I had no role in the evolution of the board into the investment group it became). Once it was clear that CNC would not receive sufficient support from Wrapports or other sources to underwrite the operation, CNC shut down in late February. The Chicago News Cooperative did first-rate editorial work, but did not have the time to develop the revenue model that its Chicago-based business supporters would endorse. Under its new ownership, the Sun-Times is accentuating its tabloid features with all capital headlines and a make-over of the gossip pages.
The newspapers in Philadelphia and Chicago have careened through the era of digital transformation, in and out of bankruptcy, and now, worth a fraction of their former values, are in the hands of wealthy proprietors whose goal is to stabilize them with a combination of traditional newsgathering and effective use of digital initiatives. I happened to be in Philadelphia on the day the sale dominated the news pages of the Inquirer. Reading the extensive coverage with what seemed to be candid profiles of the new owners, my every instinct is to hope that Interstate General Media, as the enterprise is called, will honor its pledge to provide independent newsgathering and will mobilize business skills of its owners to rebuild the depleted newsrooms. The announced return of William K. Marimow, a popular former editor, was considered a strong sign of the group's intentions. As for the powerful backers of the Chicago Sun-Times and its affiliates, they say their deal is a business play without an undertone of philanthropy.
Can either group make it work? At this stage, and given the record of similar attempts elsewhere, the tasks ahead are formidable. But I liked a quote in the Inquirer's news story from Gabriel Kahn, a professor at the University of Southern California. "It's a back to the future moment," he said. ""I'm talking to you from the Annenberg School of Journalism [named after the founding family of the Philadelphia Inquirer]. . . .We should not be cynical about people in the local community who want to buy this asset."
Kahn has a point. Those people in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia willing to step forward and renew floundering newspapers for a new era deserve support and respect if they make the most of that challenge.