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June 2, 2006

A Prayer for the Philly Papers

The Inquirer and Daily News are now locally owned. The news left me with a strange feeling of elation. Not because I have full confidence that the new owners will be good for journalism. I was elated as a press watcher that something new and previously unidentified appeared on my screen.

The editorial function of the business shall at all times remain independent of the ownership and control of the company, and no member shall attempt to influence or interfere with the editorial policies or decisions of the publisher.

In Philadelphia it is called The Pledge. The new owners of the Inquirer and the Daily News had to sign it if they wanted to join CEO-in-waiting Brian Tierney and become part of the deal that has put the two newspapers in local hands.

What is that pledge worth? The happy fact is we don’t know the answer to questions like that. A lot depends on the people there and the choices they make. So if enough people—and the right ones—hold the owners to their pledge of non-interference, it is more likely to be a binding one.

The meaning of what was signed isn’t stable. There’s a politics to the situation that has to play itself out, and there are lots of participants. In the public arena itself lies the fate of the pledge, and of the “great national experiment” (Dick Polman) Philadelphia will be conducting with the institution of the daily press.

History exerts its pressure

Tierney, the new boss, who is self-made and a Republican, showed considerable skill in pulling the deal off. He comes out of advertising and public relations in the Philly area. He’s tangled—sometimes brutally—with reporters and editors because his clients have been big companies and institutions, like the Catholic Church in Philly.

Some think he’s been effective at press intimidation on behalf of the rich and powerful, who pay his fees. There’s a history there. Now that Tierney is the executive in charge of the Philly newspapers, that history is exerting its pressure.

A battle of interpretations has been joined, and this too is a political situation. The Inquirer’s editor, Amanda Bennett, told the New York Times that the past cannot be allowed to strangle the future. “We’re not naïve, and we’re not stupid,” she said about Tierney and the rich and powerful locals who will own the shop. “But don’t tell me it will be a miserable failure because of X, Y and Z. We’re not ready for that. We want to make it work. The Philadelphia Inquirer is worth the effort.”

I like her way of putting it: we’re not ready for that. Dan Rottenberg in the Broad Street Review was ready: “Does anyone recall the Inquirer’s disgrace under its last local civic booster owner, and its triumph under out-of-towners?”

Jonathan Neumann, a former editor at the Inquirer, went a lot further in his reactions to Tierney. “I think it’s a sad day that someone I’ve always considered an enemy of the First Amendment and an enemy of the Constitution now owns those newspapers,” Neumann said.

The determinists get dumped

Will Bunch of the Daily News, who writes the Attytood blog, knows that an experimental attitude has to be defended against its enemies: the people who already know. “Today, I’m happy,” he wrote on May 24.

I’m keeping a job that I love (and a blog that I love), and will still be working here with some of the best journalists and best people I’ve ever known. There will be many battles ahead, to be sure, but you can’t fight the good fight if you’re not there. As for the big picture “norg” type stuff, my biggest hope was for an owner with a new way of thinking, willing to do things outside-the-box, who would seek to makeover news for the 21st Century. Tierney is an outsider who will try to do exactly that.

The key word in that paragraph above is “today.” The people who are critical of Tierney’s purchase, and there are a fair number, are focused on two things: “yesterday,” and “tomorrow.”

If tomorrow Tierney and company break their pledge he’ll worry—a lot—about it then, said Bunch. “This is a great experiment, and it’s going to require a lot of zen — living in the moment.” Yes. But I would say it differently: what’s going to happen to these newspapers is undetermined. The determinists have been dumped from the ship.

“The orgy of wishful thinking”

“The experiment in Philadelphia…” is easy to say. To adopt a genuinely experimental attitude is harder than people think. You have to hold fast to not knowing yet. Some journalists, and especially ex-journalists acting as defenders of the faith, can’t tolerate not knowing what kind of CEO Brian Tierney will be.

Just look at the record, they say. And there is a record. There’s a history there, some of which is quite dramatic. Steve Volk captures a good chunk of it in Brian Tierney Makes a Pledge.

More experienced observers of Philadelphia would have to verify this. I can only report that almost any time I ask the locals a question about some Philadelphia institution, public person or current event, the answer is “there’s a history to that.” A history that is actually quite informative and colorful and hilarious when you hear it.

People say that everywhere, of course. In Philadelphia journalism circles, they say it with a bitterness that is locally grown. Here’s Dan Rottenberg almost spitting the words at us:

I realize that the human capacity for self-delusion is infinite. I also realize that, thanks to several recent rounds of buyouts, hardly anyone is left at the Inquirer and Daily News who recalls the last time such a celebration took place there. So let me remind you. The specific cause of celebration was the papers’ rescue by a national chain from the clutches of a meddlesome local owner.

Wake up, people! Last time, they celebrated when local ownership got dumped! No one remembers that! But the people who already know do. Here’s how Rottenberg’s column began: “Excuse me while I splash cold water on the orgy of wishful thinking currently engulfing the Inquirer and Daily News.”

A break from pattern

Back in March, I posted Twelve Newspapers in a State of Nature. It was about the Knight Ridder franchises in eleven markets that weren’t markets McClatchy, the new owners, wanted to be in. No one knew what was going to happen to those papers, which was itself a wonderous thing. For newspaper ownership and control were badly in need of fresh possibilities, some break from the pattern.

Local group cuts $562 million deal for Daily News, Inky (Daily News, May 24.) There’s the break. All of a sudden a live experiment is going down in Philadelphia. The fifth largest city in the U.S has become a genuine press laboratory. That’s national news.

It happened because of the strange circumstances creating the sale of the two newspapers. Corporate parent Knight-Ridder said: sorry, we had to sell you. New parent McClatchy said: sorry, we don’t want to own you. This created a limbo condition: newsrooms that were between owners, but still operating. “It’s like a sudden state of nature,” I wrote. “Where there’s just the newspaper, putting its editions out, and no social organization around it.”

When I heard the news about Philly newspapers being returned to local ownership I had a strange and momentary feeling of elation. Not because I have faith and confidence that the new owners will do the right thing. I don’t know that. So far they are hitting the right notes— especially The Pledge. But we’ll have to see.

The elation was simply over the emergence of something new, and the fact that we don’t know how the key actors will behave. Maybe they don’t know. Which means there’s time to influence and instruct—and, yes, pressure—them.

Chains, dynasties, trusts and…

Before this sale there were three models for big city newspaper proprietors, although if we go back in history we can find more. In our time we mostly see chains (Gannett, Knight Ridder, McClatchy, Hearst), dynasties (Sulzbergers, Grahams, Newhouse) and trusts, which are oddballs like the St. Petersburg Times. It’s owned by the non-profit Poynter Institute through an ingenius arrangement devised by Nelson Poynter, who was trying to bequeath a good newspaper to his community— in perpetuity. (The Day in New London, Ct. is another example of the public trust model; also the Anniston Star in Alabama.)

Even though the numbers are tiny, the mere existence of arrangements like these tells us something vital. Newspapers can be organized in different ways, including for civic benefit. The way it is normally done does not describe what’s actually doable. The people in Philadelphia are in a position to demonstate this. But first they have to believe it.

Joining the chains, dynasties and trusts is a fourth model. It debuted last week. A coalition of wealthy civic and business elites from both parties, Philadelphia-based, accepts less-than-maximum returns and invests for the medium long haul. That’s not a family dynasty because ties of blood are not what holds the group together. It isn’t at all like a chain seeking economies of scale or national reach. And it’s not a non-profit or “trust” but a business with investors.

Joe DiStefano has been the Inquirer’s lead reporter on the sale. On Thursday of sale week he reported that while the price had been properly estimated, the buyers were under-estimated.

“Many of the analysts following the deal had assumed that the group was composed of amateurs who would have a hard time making their case in competition with professional buyers and sellers of companies.” In the end, they thought, the pros—newspaper companies, media companies, or private equity firms—were the ones who would do the deal. “Investment bankers say it is unusual for a motivated group led by unrelated private investors to take over any company.”

“The norm would be a private-equity fund or an industrial company writing a big check,” perhaps with smaller investments from the acquired company’s managers, said Mark Chesen, president of SSG Capital Advisors L.P. in West Conshohocken.

But newspapers are different. They are “an emotional asset with a local connection, and that generates an emotional response,” said Seth Lehr, a partner at the Philadelphia investment firm LLR Partners Inc. A newspaper “isn’t like a foundry, it’s like a sports franchise,” he added. “A unique property can get a unique buyer group.”

A unique property with a unique ownership model should mean that some unique journalism is coming our way. But there’s a politics to the situation that has to play itself out.

If time horizons change

In a note they sent to their staff, Amanda Bennett and her managing editor Anne Gordon said: “nothing about this change of ownership will - or should - change even an iota the way we think of stories, report the news, write our headlines, or take and publish our photographs.”

To me that’s a strange statement. However, I know what they meant. They meant to re-assure: we’re not going to back off from tough stories because we think the new owners might disapprove, including stories they might be involved in or have strong feelings about. They shouldn’t interfere and we won’t let them! (See also Bennett’s column, We’ll help this experiment succeed.)

But suppose the time horizons really do change. Taking a longer view, the publishers might well decide that free archives with stable urls are a good way to go. (See Simon Waldman, The Importance of Being Permanent.) If that happened, would be positioned to do well in search engines. Which might affect how stories are conceived and packaged because doing well in search is a new way to create value, establish authority and draw users.

Non-interference in the newsroom does mean “no effect on…” I would hope that dynamic and forward-thinking owners—if they emerge—would over time create a dynamic and forward-thinking staff.

Besides, ownership can define who “the public” is in journalism, and that directly affects the newsroom. Look at the St. Petersburg Times. It has a circulation of 337,000 in a metro area of 2.6 million. The Miami Herald’s circulation is smaller (311,000) in a metro area far larger (5.3 million). How did that happen?

How the public gets pictured

Andy Barnes, then publisher of the Times, explained it thusly in 1999: “We have spent large sums over the last 25 years extending the paper’s range, north through Citrus County, and now including Hillsborough as well. If an owner had been demanding immediate profits, we could not have done so, and we would not have become Florida’s largest daily newspaper.”

The Des Moines Register used to circulate statewide; it had bureaus all over Iowa. News-wise, that made it a powerhouse in the state. But when Gannett bought the Register from the Cowles family, the decision was made to pull back and serve central Iowa only. The mission of the newsroom changed accordingly.

In Philadelphia, how will the public-we’re-out-to-inform get pictured? New ownership might have a large effect on assumptions the newsroom operates with. It is question of vision, and who’s included in yours. I think Tierney, his publishers and his editorial braintrust should include in their Publics We Engage list “the nation,” “the world” and “the Net,” along with “the city” and “the region.”

Needing further insight into what happened in Philadelphia, I tracked down professor Philip Meyer, who wrote The Vanishing Newspaper, a study of the economic predicament newspaper journalism has been in. (See Tim Porter’s masterful annotation of the book.) Meyer, who teaches at the University of North Carolina, is to me the great sage on the subject of the metropolitan newspaper’s fate. He used to work for Knight Ridder and he’s followed the situation in Philadelphia over several eras.

“Local is good” was the first thing he said to me. He said he felt a sense of relief that the buyer wasn’t a private equity firm that would just “harvest the company.” (See PressThink, Laying the Newspaper Gently Down to Die.) With the new owners come new “incentives to make a good newspaper,” and also a “temptation to bend it” to the owners’ parochial interests.

Meyer: Factor in pyschic rewards

“There’s good and bad local ownership. Katherine Graham turned out to be good. Walter Annenberg turned out to be bad. But you have to give the benefit of the doubt to the new owners in Philaldelphia.” By that he means an experimental attitude. Annenberg owned the Inquirer before Knight-Ridder, and he did not leave the newsroom alone but imposed his whims when he wanted.

Freedom from Wall Street pressures should make it easier to focus on the long-term health of the new company. “The bean counters are dethroned unless the new owners turn out to be bean counters in disguise.” When “structural pressures” to maintain 20 percent margins are removed, “the true character of the owners can shine through.” This is the x-factor; it’s what makes the Philadelphia story so interesting. The owners don’t know themselves how their big rolling character study will turn out.

“But I wouldn’t generalize too much from their previous businesses,” Meyer said. Here the incentives are different. It’s more fun to own a respected newspaper than one with a sunken reputation. Pride, ego, public memory enter in. That the new owners are willing to invest for the long term and accept lower margins suggests they seek “psychic rewards,” Meyer said. That’s a social scientist’s term for goods like prestige, peer recognition, reputation as a mover and shaker in town— and legacy.

These factors alone make the situation in Philadelphia different, he thought.

The most trusted provider

Journalists know about such things. By-lines, prizes, page one placement make the job exciting, meaningful, worth the effort. It’s more fun to work for a kick-ass newspaper than a crappy one. The lower salaries in journalism, as compared to say, PR, register the different psychic rewards (or status points) available in each trade. Perceived to be high in journalism. Perceived to be lower in PR.

Meyer was excited about what could emerge in Philly. “The old model was based on owning a printing press,” he said. “It was uneconomic to have more than one per market.” That was the monopoly newspaper. But the Internet is slowly putting an end to that way of thinking. “The new model is to be the most trusted provider of content. The best in both quality and quantity.”

That sounds right to me. If Philadelphia Media Holdings, the group led by Tierney, understands that it’s in the trust business, and there are lots of ways of doing business, then perhaps it will learn to do the things that generate newsy trust, which is different from avoiding the things that breed mistrust.

“It’s time to fund the Philadelphia Journalism Review,” said Meyer. He means the experiment there needs some extra oversight. (But in many ways local bloggers are the Journalism Review in Philly.) A public company like Knight-Ridder has to disclose more than a private partnership like Philadelphia Media Holdings, Meyer points out.

Local experiment, national results

If the people at Pew Charitable Trusts want to make a contribution, it would be in evaluation, public accountability and transparency, monitoring and narrating the experiment. It’s not a real experiment without continuous reporting of the results so far.

He gave me two great answers.

I asked Meyer if the newspapers in Philly ought to quit claiming they cover everything and realize their niche. “Omniscience may still be the goal,” he said, “but they’re going to need the readers’ help to approach it.” That means maximizing the powers of the Internet and taking seriously an idea like, “Readers know more than we do.” It means open source journalism. Great answer: omniscent only with your help.

Why should the nation care about what happens in Philly? The future of democracy is going to depend on how well the country is informed about its problems, Meyer said. “If we re-create journalism so that it can compete with entertainment” then maybe we have a chance. Compete with entertainment… for what? “For the limited supply of public attention.”

I don’t have any advice for the people in Philly. Too early. Like Meyer, I’m excited to see what happens. My prayer for the Philly papers is simple. I pray for glorious victory over the people who already know.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Washington Post, A Push Toward Private Control of Newspapers (June 17). Must-quote newspaper analyst John Morton: “The fact is, Wall Street is so short-nosed and is so dedicated to maximizing return on investment to the exclusion of almost everything else, you’re going to have situations where, basically, you have a lot of public shareholders who have interests that are inimical to good journalism.”

Will Bunch says Brian Tierney’s first two hires should be independent ombudsmen for the Daily News and Inquirer.

Joe DiStefano explains the financial terms of the deal (June 6).

The best round up of the first wave of coverage was from Will Bunch: The art of zen Tierney. Scroll down for the links to local press treatment of the deal.

Daniel Rubin, of the Inquirer’s Blinq, had a round-up of bloggers’ reactions.

In a radio interview on WHYY’s Radio Times (May 25, audio here) Amanda Bennett elaborated on “nothing about this change of ownership will - or should - change even an iota the way we think of stories, report the news.” And she went further. The host asked her when readers would see any differences in the editorial product. “I forsee absolutely no change in the news pages of the paper as a result of this new ownership.” About CEO Brian Tierney’s role she said, “He is here as an owner, and not as an operator of the newspapers.” The Inquirer already has a sound “news strategy,” she suggested, and it will continue to follow that strategy.

The only change readers would see is if “Tierney and his team… are able to make the business side of the operation so successful that we will be able to grow and add resources.” She made it clear that they she and her team already know what they would spend the bigger budgets on— if the money ever comes. “If you see changes in editorial direction, you will be seeing them because they are things we have been planning for years and years and years.”

Suitable for framing… Amanda Bennett in her column, We’ll help this experiment succeed.

We are framing the May 24, 2006, front page. We’ll mount copies in our three major newsrooms on Broad Street, in Conshohocken, and in Cherry Hill. We’ll also present copies to publisher Joe Natoli, and to Bruce E. Toll, chairman of PMH, and to Brian P. Tierney, our new chief executive officer.

We want these front pages to be a memento of the historic transition in the life of this institution. We also want all of us, every day, to be reminded of the pledge that our new owners made not only to us, but also to the entire community.

Mark Alan Hughes, columnist for the Daily News: “the public trust” is bullsh*t!

We can wring that albatross from our neck and get back to newspapers that compete against each rather than against some ideal of the public trust.

The notion that a newspaper is a public trust derives from desperation. When a big city has only one newspaper, it becomes necessary to protect it with the veil of the trust role.

I’ve never liked the idea that a single newspaper can be treated as a guardian of truth, justice and the American Way by simply repeating the mantra of “public trust, public trust” and blathering about civic journalism. Besides, it leads to lousy papers: No one wants to read a nonprofit newsletter.

All you need is competition, says Hughes. “Our new owners should go beyond ‘permitting’ competition between the Daily News and the Inquirer. They should engineer it.”

Here’s the index page with all the Inquirer’s coverage of the sale of Knight-Ridder to McClatchy and McClatchy’s sale of the Philly papers.

Susie Madrak, author of the excellent Suburban Guerilla, in comments here:

I only pray that Brian Tierney’s oversized ego is now fixated on the idea of being a great publisher - instead of being a political “fixer.” Time will tell.

For the sake of all the good people still working at 400 N. Broad, I truly hope so. And in the meantime, Philly bloggers will be right up Mr. Tierney’s posterior.

Chris Satullo, editor of the Inquirer’s editorial page, in comments: “This is an opportunity to invent something new. What shape it will take will take time to develop. Brian and the gang don’t really even own us yet; the overall KR-McClatchy deal still needs shareholder approval.”

Steve Lovelady, former managing editor of the Inquirer, now of CJR Daily, in comments:

It will be interesting to see if the current management, both on the business side and the news side (with the notable exception of Satullo himself) has danced so long to Knight Ridder’s tune that their better selves have been severely corroded — or, worse, entirely snuffed out.

It’s not easy for a newsroom to stop on a dime and switch from sloppy, seemingly headless fast-break basketball to cool, calm and collected mountain-climbing.

Dan Rubin profiles Philly area bloggers for the Inky’s Sunday section. “Every blog has its say, but many aren’t worth a click. Here are five local voices that are.”

Joe Nocera in his Saturday business column for the New York Times:

Local owners have sacred cows, but they are also far more likely to have real passion for the city the newspaper is charged with covering. In the case of the new owners of the Philadelphia papers, they also seem to have lots of new ideas they want to try. And because the papers will no longer be part of a publicly traded corporation — with no need to feed the Wall Street beast — the cost cutting might finally ease up.

Maybe we should start thinking about newspapers as more like professional sports franchises. Sure, the owners want to make money, but they also have other priorities, so “maximizing profits” is not the only goal. Newspapers and sports franchises are important local institutions. If more local folks start buying newspapers, I think it might be a trend worth applauding.

Hugh Hewitt comments on Katharine Seeyle’s When a Newsmaker Buys the Newspaper (New York Times, May 29.) “Seeyle is careful to warn Tierney that the gods and goddesses of Big Journalism would be watching his every step.” Hewitt asks:

How much of a dying culture do you want to absorb? The circulation fraud? The preening? The overwhelming bias to the left?…

What the Tierney profile demonstrates is that some of the old guard, still safe in their still-profitable citidals, are willing to watch their colleagues in less flush major papers and in mid- to small-size markets fade away rather than allow new media to remark on the emperor’s new clothes…

Journalists all over the country ought to be celebrating Tierney’s desire to save some old media and help blend it into a new media company. Instead he’s catching javelins from the news aristocracy threatened by its rapid decline.

Richard Wells, “a public relations professional in the Philadelphia area,” writes a letter to Romenesko:

It seems many people can’t quite get over the fact that, in his PR career, Mr. Tierney was often successful in representing his clients’ interests. Did he throw some elbows? Probably, but to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, no one can bully you without your consent. I’ve been on the receiving end of plenty of phone calls from pestering, obnoxious, and relentless media people. When reporters act that way, it’s often seen as a virtue. When PR people act that way, somehow the Constitution is under siege. In any event, I didn’t cry about it afterwards. Enough already.

Monica Yant Kinney, Inquirer Columnist, May 25: “I just hope they realize they bought a newspaper, not a tech stock.”

Brian Tierney, WHYY radio, same day: “It’s not going to be a 30 percent return. It’s not going to be Google.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at June 2, 2006 1:53 PM   Print

"It is always harder to propose something new, brilliant and unproven than it is to defend something old, failed, rotten and nasty."

--From The Xarker Manifesto, June 29, 2005

Best of luck to y'all up in Philly.

Posted by: Daniel Conover at June 2, 2006 2:58 PM | Permalink

I only pray that Brian Tierney's oversized ego is now fixated on the idea of being a great publisher - instead of being a political "fixer." Time will tell.

For the sake of all the good people still working at 400 N. Broad, I truly hope so. And in the meantime, Philly bloggers will be right up Mr. Tierney's posterior.

Posted by: Susie from Philly at June 2, 2006 3:42 PM | Permalink

Jay --

As an alum of 22 years at the Inquirer, I share your elation at the unknown.

Bryan Tierney & pals can make a lot of mistakes and still manage these properties a lot better than Knight Ridder did over the past 20 years. That's a low bar to hop. So here's hoping.

As for Rottenberg, yes he has a jaundiced eye, but I think you're actually closer to Rottenberg's view than you think when you observe that "we don’t know how the key actors will behave. Maybe they don’t know. Which means there’s time to influence and instruct—and, yes, pressure—them."

I haven't asked him, but I read Dan's column as just that -- an early stab at "influencing, instructing and pressuring" the new owners. He's been doing that for a long time -- he was doing it as the press critic of Philadelphia magazine when I arrived in town way back in 1973. And he seldom strikes a false note.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 2, 2006 4:10 PM | Permalink

Obviously, no one has a crystal ball and can tell for sure what the Inquirer and Daily News will look like under Tierney's leadership.

But it is undisputable that ciruclation of both were going down:the Inquirer has lost 50,000 readers, leaving a total of 350,000, since 1980 the Daily News has lost 115,00 readers, leaving a total of 116,000 readers,since 1980. The population of the Philadelphia metropolitan area has steadily increased over this time period.

Hope springs eternal that the problem of Knight Ridder is the same as the problem under Annenberg: staleness, complacency, and satisfaction with mediocrity and distrust of anything resembling excellence.

A new ownership has the potential to look at things in new ways, and redefine for the 21st century what relevant, responsible journalism is . The current promotion for the Sunday Inquirer, down in circulation over 300,000 from its 1980's peak, focuses on the value of discount coupons in each issue. When the main selling point in a paper is its ads, we know that its journalism just is not meeting the grade.

Editorially, the position of the Inquirer can best be described as being independent Democratic Leadership Council in orientation. Independent means they very often back the Republican candidate in competitive races and the Democratic candidate in lopsided races; the DLC reference refers to whom they support in Democratic Primaries. If Tierney made the paper a Republican mouthpiece, he would likely risk hurting its circulation more than he would hurt the surging Delaware Valley Democratic Party orientations.

What both the Inquirer and Daily News need is a clearer separation of news and editorial policies, which right now often seem closely entwined.

Both papers could further use an emphasis on stories that actually are useful to readers in the course of their daily lives.

In the glory of days of John Knight and Eugene Roberts, the Inquirer was considered one of the best newspapers in the country, and the Daily News was considered to be above average. Perhaps new ownership will once again lead to major improvements.

There is reason for optimism because the alternative is continued decline in circulation influence, and advertising revenues.

Posted by: RepMarkBCohen at June 2, 2006 4:55 PM | Permalink

Everyone out there pontificating might pause for a moment and consider this: PR man Brian Tierny just spent half a billion purchasing what guys like him call a "brand."

I can think of no better way of destroying his brand, and kissing good bye to his half billion investment, than by corrupting the papers' news coverage. Its not like interference would remain a secret. And comparisions with Annenburg don't wash. As I recall, he was really, really rich. He owned the bank. These guys not only have to turn a profit, they got to generate that $500 million, plus interest, for the Scots. I only know one way of doing that. Convincing lots of people to buy the newspaper. That means Republicans, Democrats, men, women, Catholic, Jews, Muslims, land developers, preservationists, etc. etc. etc.

Posted by: Nathan Gorenstein at June 2, 2006 5:03 PM | Permalink

It's good to be back in the fray. I was thrown off stride by the death of a friend and had trouble getting back to writing.

Steve: About Rottenberg's early stab at influencing, instructing and pressuring the new owners... I don't see that at all in what he wrote. Jaundiced eye? Maybe that's what you see. I see an incredibly superficial analysis that simply slots Tierney in where Annenberg was, as if Tierney were buying the newspaper.

On top of that he thinks everyone else is stupid, blind to the lessons of previous chapters in Philly history. Everyone else went over the moon for the new owners while solid, skeptical Dan retained his sanity. Ugh. He titles his piece: The power of self-delusion. And he can't be bothered to bring in an actual example of deluded thinking or quote one. Though he found time to refer to an "orgy of wishful thinking" we get zero analysis of that thinking. That's not jaundiced. It's just thin. Very thin.

His writing is so ugly and cliche-ridden, I doubt it could influence anyone.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 2, 2006 5:28 PM | Permalink

Jay - Just wanted to say thanks for the generous, hopeful and insightful essay.

To my old pal Mark Cohen's point about advertising coupons, it perhaps might be more accurate to say that this tacky choice reflects ownership that no longer believed good journalism sells, rather than an actual lack of good journalism. Being under the thumb of K-R was indeed soul-deadening, but I don't think soul was anywhere near snuffed out in either newsroom.

Also, while I'd be the last person to hold the papers blameless for lost circulation, the fact is - contrary to the good lawmaker's assertion - the Philadelphia region grew imperceptibly compared to most regions in the time period of decline.

What it did was redistribute population toward the exurban edges, with all the challenges that usually implies for a major metro trying to cover the burbs. And what's different here from many other markets is that those were long-established burbs, each served by a local paper with a publishing history just about as long as the Inquirer's. There's no comparison in the competitive position with an area such as, oh, Miami or San Jose. (Gee, Chris, any reason you picked those cities?)

That we screwed up repeatedly with the suburban strategy, failing to sustain what worked and trying much that didn't, goes without saying. But a lot of demographic and economic factors conspired in the decline, on top of self-inflicted wounds.

But back to Jay: He is right. This is an opportunity to invent something new. What shape it will take will take time to develop. Brian and the gang don't really even own us yet; the overall KR-McClatchy deal still needs shareholder approval. That's why you've just got to shake your head in bemusement at all the people who already know what's going to happen.

Posted by: Chris Satullo at June 2, 2006 6:06 PM | Permalink

As someone who was an Inquirer junkie during the Lovelady/Roberts period of the Inquirer, I have mixed feelings about this purchase.

Primarily, it has to do with Tierney and his "partners" --- the big decisions aren't made in the newsroom, they're made in the boardroom. Its all well and good for Amanda Bennett to reassure people, but Amanda Bennett's continued tenure at the Inky is up to Tierney and his group.

I stopped subscribing to the Inquirer ages ago... I'll probably start a new subscription -- but to the Daily News. Although I consider it inferior to the Inky, they pay Will Bunch's salary -- and Will Bunch is at the very top of Philly's journalistic assets.

....but the real reason I will probably subscribe is to be able to cancel my subscription in protest if Tierney starts making moves that will turn the Inky and DN into a GOP mouthpiece. :)

Posted by: plukasiak at June 2, 2006 9:50 PM | Permalink

Jay --

It will be interesting to see if the current management, both on the business side and the news side (with the notable exception of Satullo himself) has danced so long to Knight Ridder's tune that their better selves have been severely corroded -- or, worse, entirely snuffed out.

It's not easy for a newsroom to stop on a dime and switch from sloppy, seemingly headless fast-break basketball to cool, calm and collected mountain-climbing.

Different sport. Different goals. Different set of skills.

And Amanda Bennett's pugnacious statement that “nothing about this ... will ... change even an iota the way we think of stories, report the news, write our headlines, or take and publish our photographs” does not lift the heart.

To the contrary, this is the perfect petri dish for an adventurous editor to change entirely all ingrained knee-jerk habits. For now, I'll give her the benefit of the doubt, as you did, Jay, and assume she didn't think through the implications of that recalcitrant manifesto.

In any event, It will be utterly fascinating to watch it all unfold. You're right to say that, of all the other scenarios haltingly unfolding in American newspaper journalism, this is the one to watch.

And, Chris -- for Christ's sake, find some smart kid to trash that Model T website and build something new and provocative.

All best,

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 2, 2006 11:31 PM | Permalink

This is the one to watch, yes. And, yeah, I don't think Bennett and Gordon thought through their statement that with new owners "nothing will change" in the thinking of the newsroom.

I wanted to develop another, related point in this post, but it got too long. And that is that of all the people in daily journalism, the people in Philadelphia ought to be able to realize that the isolation of the newsroom from business decisions was in the end a bad policy, and it did them no good.

By focusing only on non-interference ("leave us alone," separation of church and state) they missed the other side of that coin, which is ignorance, powerlessness, truculence, a victim's mentality, and a thin grasp of value-creation among the newsrooms troops who--without realizing what they were doing--ceded control, knowledge and a seat at the grown up's table to what they called, contemptuously, the "business side."

The Pledge is important, but where are the far-sighted editors and reporters who want a seat at the new grown-ups table?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 3, 2006 12:48 PM | Permalink

It's a tricky balance. It's certainly true that if an editor is not at "the grown-ups' table," she cedes any chance to head off bad decisions or to steer good ones and next thing you know the whole enterprise is headed off in a wrong direction.

On the other hand, if that same editor lets them, the folks from circulation, advertising, production and finance will be happy to keep that editor locked away in meetings nine hours a day -- while downstairs the newsroom proceeds rudderless.

From what I hear, the past couple of years in Philadelphia have featured more of the latter than of the former.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 3, 2006 2:27 PM | Permalink

I'm sure that's true, but I was referring less to the editor than to newsroom culture as a whole and its tendency to wash its hands of everything business-related. Maybe there was nothing to be done about this infantalization in the era of corporate ownership-- and union bargainining. Maybe it was inevitable. As Chris said "being under the thumb of K-R was indeed soul-deadening."

But maybe also one of the "psychic rewards" that journalists seek and find is to feel superior--more pure--by being part of the newsroom, as against the counting room.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 3, 2006 4:56 PM | Permalink

I'll agree that unionization generates infantalization, especially when corporate ownership collides with white-collar unions.

Unfortunately, one of the first things Bryan Tierney & Co. will have to do is renegotiate a passel of union contracts that expire this summer -- but it's said that Tierney could sell snow to Eskimos so he may well sweet-talk his way through those hurdles.

An aside: A little-known part of Gene Roberts' breadth of interests was his grasp of business-side intricacies. So much so that early on he figured out a way to reconfigure the press runs that both gave us later deadlines and saved them a bundle of money. The production manager walked around for the next two years muttering, "Why didn't I think of that ?" Roberts was so interested in aligning the interests of the newsroom with those of the counting house, and vice versa, that for a couple of years in the late 1980's he served as both editor and head of the circulation department (which actually had more employees than the newsroom).

But editors like that come along about as often as deans who know how to keep faculty happy and still meet budget.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 3, 2006 6:08 PM | Permalink

Steve: After listening to her radio interview on WHYY (audio here) I take back what I said about Bennett not thinking through her "pugnacious statement" (your term) that "nothing about this change of ownership will - or should - change even an iota the way we think of stories, report the news."

She has thought it through. She believes she is defending a sound principle. In her mind, a "no interference" pledge very definitely means "no effect on." Her mind makes no distinction. The host asked her if readers would see any change in the editorial product because of the new regime. "I forsee absolutely no change in the news pages of the paper as a result of this new ownership," she said. Pretty categorical.

About Tierney's role she said, "He is here as an owner, and not as an operator of the newspapers." (I wonder if he knows that.) The Inquirer already has a sound "news strategy," and it will continue to follow that strategy, she claimed. Her tone made it sound like it would be unethical to listen to an idea any of the new owners had.

The only change readers would see is if Tierney and his team, working with the publisher, "are able to make the business side of the operation so successful that we will be able to grow and add resources." She made it clear that they she and her team already know what they spend those bigger budgets on-- if the money ever arrives. "If you see changes in editorial direction, you will be seeing them because they are things we have been planning for years and years and years." Meaning: newsroom change will have only one author, and that's me.

This is church-state separation theory taken to absurd lengths. This is professionalism on steroids. It sets up a promise she cannot keep. It suggests that all wisdom resides in the newsroom. It doesn't even have enough room for a bland "good ideas can come from anywhere"-type statement.

She and her deputies already have a winning strategy? Which they've had for years and years? Wowzer. I wonder what her already-extant winning strategy for covering the suburbs is. Or for transition to the Net.

Later in the show, a woman from the Lehigh Valley called and complained that she couldn't get the Inquirer home delivered or even buy it in a store. So she subscribes to the New York Times. The host turned to Amanda Bennett. "That would be a question for our circulation director," she said. As in: I have nothing to do with that. There was note of pride in her voice.

This seems to me infantalization from the top. "Your job is to give us a bigger allowance, and don't tell us how to spend it!"

Your thoughts, Steve? Chris? Nathan?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 3, 2006 8:29 PM | Permalink

Now that is truly depressing.

"I forsee absolutely no change in the news pages of the paper as a result of this new ownership." -- Amanda Bennett.

I wonder if Tierney and Co. know that.

We're talking about a newspaper which has seen its reporting and editing talent depleted (over 100 defections to more promising places) almost as fast as its daily circulation has declined (450,000 to 300,000 and change).

And the new formula proposed for success is "absolutely no change ?"

Ummm .... I don't think so.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 3, 2006 9:13 PM | Permalink

Listen to the show (audio here) clip.)

You can't say it's a casual comment. You can say its message-sending to a constituency worried about interference. But she's on the radio: speaking to Philadelphia, the very people she serves. Which is part--one part--of what I meant when I wrote, "There’s a politics to the situation."

I don't think Bennett is grasping that part. There were several Q and A's during the radio interview were it became evident, I thought.

A newsroom to the castle strategy, in this day and age? We already know what we want to do, and have known-- for years and years? So leave us alone and give us the money.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 3, 2006 9:33 PM | Permalink

My condolences for the loss of James Carey. The obit depicts him as a quite rare and generous man. I find the formulation of news as ritual, yet at the same time open-ended quite striking. This is a very unusual position. It reminds me somewhat of Mary Douglas's anthropological critique of the counter-culture--that it is not necessarily reactionary to appreciate that ritual has social value. She would say societies in which ritual does not have social value are going to be societies in crisis, regardless of their social goals.

The articles makes it sound as if what Carey meant by ritual in the news was something close to melodramatic narrative, a Manichean struggle that readers require their news to be framed in terms of so that events can be intelligible and manageable in their world.

How would you describe Carey's ideas along these lines? How did he make the concept of ritual intelligibly compatible with a sense of personal agency and future possibility drawn from Dewey?

Posted by: Mark Anderson at June 3, 2006 9:49 PM | Permalink

Thanks very much, Mark. I am trying to write something about Carey, so I am going to hold off on your questions for now.

Carey had a ritual view of communication, which he contrasted with a "transmission" (of information) view. His was not a simple embrace of ritual. It was a supple, non-sinister, and original way of looking at things. He thought both metaphors were important and descriptive of different things. (By the way the Times obit was not very good; it didn't explain Carey adequately.)

I hope to have more on Jim Carey later. He was the most important and influential J-schooler of them all, and a remarkable guy. Would have been a star in any discipline.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 4, 2006 12:36 AM | Permalink

A Talk at Lunch That Shifted the Stance on Iran

I'm inclined to wonder if Tony Snow is behind this.

Is there precedent for the Bush II White House semi-officially admitting that a previous policy line was not working? That the logical conclusion to previously unacknowledged failure was to try something else?

I can't recall brute reality being less condescended to by the White House during the last six years. Reading it gives me the feeling that the official White House psychosis is at least cosmetically improved.

I know GOP bigshots were demanding some demonstration of newly acquired professionalism at the Big House. Perhaps this is an effort to suggest something along those lines. On this one, they are very much speaking through the press, rather than rolling it back.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at June 4, 2006 2:06 AM | Permalink

I finally listened to the WHYY audio.

The most perceptive, most articulate people on that tape are the callers, not the guests.

Every criticism they had of the current Inquirer was right on the mark. And they don't want to hear excuses. They want their newspaper fixed.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 4, 2006 4:11 PM | Permalink

The most bizarre part is where Bennett for some reason feels required to tell listeners that she and Michael Days (editor of the Daily News) will be in their jobs for a "very, very, very" long time.

I guess that's supposed to eliminate any chance that Tierney and company could have some effect on the newsroom by replacing the editor. Can't happen, won't happen.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 4, 2006 7:25 PM | Permalink

The Inquirer would make a very good study in the discipline of change management.

Good luck to all. They will need to remain flexible to survive. It is disconcerting to see someone say that there will be no changes. Those dinosaurs usually die.

It was interesting to note that the critics were focused on either the past or the future. Those focused on the past are victims, those focused on the future are fatalists. Those focused on the present are opportunists.

Posted by: Tim at June 5, 2006 8:47 AM | Permalink

I have this fantasy of Tierney hiring back Roberts and Lovelady, and Steele and Barnett, and watching what happens.....

(and BTW, has anyone else noticed that the Boston Globe is turning itself into a 'must read' daily? Walt Robinson kicks ass!)

Posted by: plukasiak at June 5, 2006 6:36 PM | Permalink

Blogger Eric at Classical Values says:

So far, I haven't seen any change in editorial policies. Despite my disagreements (especially over gun issues), the Inquirer is a fine newspaper with a devoted staff, a well-established, blog-savvy online presence, and an editor (Amanda Bennett) whose courage is second to none. The common goal of the new owners and the existing staff is success, and I see no rational reason why differences in political philosophy should stand in the way.

The idea that the new owners would actually do something like impose an ideological litmus test on editorial policies strikes me as too ridiculous for serious discussion. (For starters it would be bad for business.) Inevitably, I think that the new ownership will tend to create a public perception of heightened political diversity at the Inquirer, and I suppose that could create excitement. But since when does excitement hamper success?

In an earlier post, he wrote: "Ms. Bennett is one of the few editors in this country who bucked a very cowardly trend in her decision to publish the Muhammad cartoon. For this she faced down angry Muslim demonstrators, but refused to apologize."

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 5, 2006 8:23 PM | Permalink

Yvette Nunez babysat my blog last month and posted this commentary on the Inqy/DN purchase., invokes nostalgia with brief histories, letters of support from Charles Barkley and Jerry Blavat, and images of archived front pages. A writer for the Daily News kept emailing me articles and links to the site, encouraging all of Philadelphia to rally behind the Yucaipa/employee bid. But in the end, it was ads, not editorial, that won.

Posted by: JSB at June 5, 2006 9:55 PM | Permalink

I have this fantasy of Tierney hiring back Roberts and Lovelady, and Steele and Barnett, and watching what happens....
Posted by: plukasiak

Well, Paul, since Roberts is 74 years old, Barlett is 69 and Steele and I are 63, that is not going to happen.

Nice thought, though. ;-)

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 5, 2006 10:35 PM | Permalink

Here you go, Mark A. A better answer to your quesion about Carey. Scroll way, way down to: The convention as ritual: a professor’s note. "...if you try to understand a political ritual with a transmission view in your head, you will miss much of what’s going on."

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 5, 2006 11:03 PM | Permalink

Come on Lovelady, Mike Wallace is a spry 88, so Roberts has 14 years? And you have 25 years?

Roberts can assemble that awesome staff again with Bartlett and Steele, Richard Ben Cramer, et all, bring back the pork chop side burns.

Ben Bradlee can come back to the Post too, so can Bernstein. And Woodstein could investigate the Bush WH ...

pluke, The Globe has done several good stories on President Cheney. Too little, too late? Just think when Bush asked Cheney to find a running mate. If Cheney didn't volunteer himself, how different would our last six years be?

Back on topic, hard to imagine Tierney having a hand-offs policy on the news side.

Posted by: jaw at June 5, 2006 11:07 PM | Permalink

Steve Lovelady believes that Gene Roberts, 74,Bartlett and Steele, 69 and 63 respectively, and himself, also 63, are too old to be rehired by the Inquirer.

Certainly, they are too old for the current management. But a newspaper that stood for genuine substantive journalism, that wanted to make a difference in the world on major issues, that wanted readers to value the journalism more than the advertsing coupons, would try to get them and other men and women of purpose and substance back in the fold.

In the Roberts era, the Inquirer was a great newspaper. It is far from a great newspaper today. Recognition of what has been lost is a necessary first step in regaining it.

Posted by: RepMarkBCohen at June 6, 2006 1:11 AM | Permalink

Thanks, Jay.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at June 6, 2006 2:45 AM | Permalink

Come on Lovelady, Mike Wallace is a spry 88, so Roberts has 14 years? And you have 25 years?

yeah, I thought 60 was the new 40!

and steve.... 63? Wow, you don't write like an old codger! :)

Posted by: plukasiak at June 6, 2006 6:12 AM | Permalink

Has anybody done a serious, in-depth survey asking people why they dropped the paper--in any city--and why those who keep their subscriptions keep them?

Seems reasonable to presume that the concerns of the subscribers would be of interest to the folks trying to keep the money coming in.

If not, why not? Forgot? Readers' opinions aren't important? Afraid of what you'll find? Circulation not that important to journalists because they have a circulation department responsible for it?

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at June 6, 2006 10:53 AM | Permalink

"And Amanda Bennett's pugnacious statement that “nothing about this ... will ... change even an iota the way we think of stories, report the news, write our headlines, or take and publish our photographs” does not lift the heart."

This and the subsequent reports of her comments represent quite a missed opportunity. All she had to do was say "Now we have a chance to do even better" and we're off to the races. But she and, apparently, the entire newsroom, have reduced the situation to one dimension: Nobody will be able to accuse them of tailoring content in an unethical way. And to make sure, they won't change one damned thing. And isn't that just astonishing? Here is a moment where great change for the better is made possible, and they are apparently throwing it away. It's a pretty simple axiom: If you aren't making things happen, you increase the likelihood that things will happen to you.

It would be good to see a list of areas where the Philly papers need to change. They could do meaningful journalism that also produced readership that also drives income. Nobody wants to be a bitch for the accounting office, but realistically, nobody expects good journalism to be a subsidized charity.

I'd put "abandon timidity" first on my list of areas for a culture shift, the idea that they need to be bold with whatever they decide to change. And I'd put "be a leader in the community" as a guiding principle. They are now owned by the community they serve, and the people invested in the paper have exactly the same stake in the community as anyone else.

So the question in terms of leadership becomes manageable: What are some of the things that a newspaper can do that are good for the community? Might be a spotlight on corruption; might be an emphasis on unmet social needs. That's not rah-rah journalism for the chamber of commerce: it's merely journalism harnessed to the concept that we have a First Amendment because folks saw that as one way to have healthy communities. So pick a theme and start singing. And start thinking now about what the next page in the songbook might be.

They need to get their thumbs out of their butts at the Inky and smell the coffee or whatever in a long list of cliches anyone cares to throw at this. It's a wonderful opportunity to turn inertia into momentum and it is rapidly passing.

Posted by: Bill Watson at June 6, 2006 11:52 AM | Permalink

Thanks, Bill. "But she and, apparently, the entire newsroom, have reduced the situation to one dimension: Nobody will be able to accuse them of tailoring content in an unethical way."

Exactly right. It's one thing to do that in a note to employees, another in a radio program heard by the entire market.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 6, 2006 4:50 PM | Permalink

The answer to Richard Aubrey's question is that newspapers (and magazines) endlessly throw money down the drain of focus groups and reader surveys.

And what they find is always the same -- readers, and former readers, do not reliably know what they want until they see it.

Which places a premium on editors who possess what is called in the business "a golden gut" -- an intuitive sense of how to create a publication that your readership universe will crave.

And that in turn is complicated by the fact that each publication has a different readership universe. What they want in Tulsa is not what they want in Los Angeles, which in turn is not what they want in New York.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 6, 2006 8:03 PM | Permalink

just FYI... I just subscribed to the Daily News as a show of support for the new regime....

Posted by: plukasiak at June 6, 2006 10:17 PM | Permalink

I think we also have to face the fact that the Gene Roberts era crippled the Philadelphia Inquirer going forward. People who actually feel that they experienced the golden age, and it was back then, look with contempt on the very problems they have to solve to make something excellent happen again.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 7, 2006 12:34 AM | Permalink

Steve. Thanks for the insight.

I'd like to refine it a bit further: I belong--for a short while longer--to the Presbyterian Church (USA) which has been bleeding members for forty years. It turns out nobody has spent much in the way of resources asking why the leavers left. The only objective answer we got from HQ turned out to be wrong.(They said the folks were becoming unchurched...not true, as many actually are going to other, more conservative churches but you have to ask them, since HQ doesn't officially know).

I'd be interested in somebody pouring money down a drain if the drain were asking people who dropped their subscription to the paper. I can't think of a more useful datum. If people don't know what they want, the result is an attempt to institutionalize the golden gut. Waste of money. The question is what annoyed people enough to give up what they liked (coupons, sports news, wedding announcements, or whatever). The paper might find the droppers preferred the National Enquirer model which the paper would never do. But at least they'd know.
Unless, like the PCUSA, they don't really want to know, or have it known that they know or suspect.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at June 7, 2006 11:11 AM | Permalink

Will Bunch says Brian Tierney's first two hires should be independent ombudsmen for the Daily News and Inquirer.

Tierney & Co. have been bending over backwards to show the papers will be editorially independent, resulting in the now famous "pledge." But the pledge is only a beginning. The best way to ensure compliance is to hire two independent watchdogs, one for each paper.

Since this is the Department of Unsoliciited Advice, here's how I'd do it. The owners should not even hire the two through their new Philadelphia Media Holdings, but rather fund it independently. Why not set it up through the auspices of a third party, like the political watchdog Committee of Seventy, run by the fiercest advocate for good journalism in Philly that you'll ever find, former DN editor Zack Stalberg?

Give each ombudsman a blog, and then give them a dedicated space in each newspaper, at least once a week. Most importantly, don't let anyone from 400 North Broad Street touch one word. If either paper punts on a controversy over a new Toll Bros. development or the Archdiocese, let the ombudsman (or woman) go to town. It's wrong that the Daily News and Inquirer don't currently have a watchdog; why not go the other way and make it the most aggressive ethics monitoring program in the entire country.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 7, 2006 12:03 PM | Permalink

I think we also have to face the fact that the Gene Roberts era crippled the Philadelphia Inquirer going forward. People who actually feel that they experienced the golden age, and it was back then, look with contempt on the very problems they have to solve to make something excellent happen again.
Posted by: Jay Rosen

Jay, that statement reflects a fundamental misunderstanding on your part.

There are very few people left at the Inquirer who experienced the golden age. Those folks were drained away in the 1990's by buyout after buyout and by the lure of smarter employers who, recognizing a happy hunting ground when they saw it, conducted raid after raid after raid.

The diaspora occurred a long time ago.

When you refer to those "who look with contempt on the very problems they have to solve to make something excellent happen again," you're talking about the current regime, not the the tiny band of Roberts loyalists still on staff, of whom there are not enough to even fill every seat at a picnic table -- and none of whom have a voice in what happens next.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 7, 2006 1:56 PM | Permalink

I graduated in 1991 in my late 20s and began my journalism career. I didn't know about the Inquirer or Roberts until I was in J school. Then, it was already in the end of the Roberts era, though many of my colleagues were correspondents (stringers) who learned the craft in Philly.

Is there a Roberts or Inquirer today, as in a destination paper (outside of the normal majors such as NYTimes, LaTimes and Wash Post)?

Journalism never really drew its share of the best and brightest college students, and it's worse now. A few weeks ago, Willy Stern wrote a stinging attack of Gannett and (I hate this phrase) the corporate media:

You, Mr. Dubow, know better, but let me share with you what passes for analysis in most newsrooms and journalism schools today: in the traditional media world, we tell ourselves, Lindsey Volckmann would represent the future of journalism. A very recent graduate of Vanderbilt University, Lindsey was a stellar student in a media ethics course I taught last fall. The writing assignments Lindsey churned out in class were nothing short of extraordinary. It takes little imagination to project her into a role as dashing foreign correspondent or award-winning investigative reporter.
I ran into her early one morning at Starbucks on West End, and we chatted about her budding writing career. Perhaps, I wondered, she might like to become a journalist, or even start out as a cub reporter at The Tennessean? “Why?” she responded, acting in every way as if I had just suggested a career humping it over the French-fry machine at Burger King. Lindsey was on her way later that week to interview for consulting jobs in New York City. “Journalism used to have this aura around it, that you could bust someone’s balls and get stories out in the open,” the engaging 22-year-old from Woodside, Calif., said. “For my generation, that’s gone.”
Lindsey explained gently that she wasn’t sure that the culture at 1100 Broadway would be a good fit for her. The subtext of Lindsey’s remarks: a dumbed-down organization like The Tennessean wasn’t a place for ambitious go-getters.

The Tennessean is a place, then and now, that rarely hire someone fresh out of college.

Posted by: jaw at June 7, 2006 2:48 PM | Permalink

When you refer to those "who look with contempt on the very problems they have to solve to make something excellent happen again," you're talking about the current regime, not the the tiny band of Roberts loyalists still on staff.

Steve: That's probably true. You know the situation there far better than I do. But... You're not suggesting that the only people affected by the golden age mythology and psychological pull of the Roberts era are the people who were there working for Roberts during that era... are you?

I didn't think so.

You write as if you don't believe in ghosts (or newsroom memory, culture, mindset) but I doubt that's so.

I say the most backward pointing arrow in all of journalism was the invisible one in the Inquirer during the 1990s. A newsroom culture of grumpiness and entitlement unequalled in the U.S. is part of the Roberts legacy too. (Maybe a small part but a part.) If you joined the paper after the great leader left you were still affected by the diminished stature of all the would-be leaders after him.

The situation is way more complicated than how many holdouts are there from the Roberts regime and what is their influence. It's more complicated than the "soul-deadening" effects of Knight-Ridder too (Chris Satullo.) The Roberts regime did not and could not produce conditions that would have allowed flush times to continue.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 7, 2006 4:33 PM | Permalink

jaw, your link to Willy Stern tells the true tale of how journalism has changed from the '70s to now:

Old Style Journalism: Change The World

Modern Journalism: Tell the Story.

Posted by: kilgore trout at June 7, 2006 5:10 PM | Permalink

"A newsroom culture of grumpiness and entitlement unequalled in the U.S. is part of the Roberts legacy too." -- JR

Oh, please. I worked there for 22 years, and I seldom felt grumpy and I certainly never felt entitled. What I did feel was that nothing was handed to you. You had to fight against myriad forces inside and out for every small improvement in the newspaper, every day. The transformation took place inch by bloody inch, not mile by mile.

"The Roberts regime did not and could not produce conditions that would have allowed flush times to continue." --JR

When Roberts arrived, the Philadelphia Bulletin was the dominant newspaper in town, and the Inquirer was teetering on the edge of solvency. By the time he left, the Bulletin was dead and buried, and the Inquirer's earnings had topped $100 million per year.

Today, they are half that. And an enterprising entrepreneur has started a new Philadelphia Bulletin.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 7, 2006 7:10 PM | Permalink

I'd stick with grumpy entitlement as a strong factor in the mix at the Inquirer, Steve. Lots of others alongside it, of course. And that arrow. I am not trying to simplify but simply identify a tendency I saw, and others tell me about. You were managing editor, so your experience may not hold for the rank and file.

I think that in some ways Roberts was more like a sun king than an editor. The master of his domain, he provided for his population of journalists. The kingdom prospered, and the people were reknown for their achievements. Then the world changed. The king left. His legend grew. Now the world is run by clerks, and under them it keeps shrinking. Grumpy entitlement originates from these facts.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 7, 2006 9:40 PM | Permalink

You mean:

Modern Journalism: Tell the GOP story and specially reward demonstrably false, GOP-friendly disinformation

Posted by: Mark Anderson at June 7, 2006 9:59 PM | Permalink

In reflecting on this thread I have a question for the experts at large. How is a newspaper any different than any other manufacturing concern? Many companies, included the one I work for, have a shining star in its past that has set the culture of the company.

What I mean is that a product is being produced and those in the product design departments (newsroom, engineering, insurance underwriting) don't want to change when the ownership of the company changes. This is not unusual in any organization.

Why should newspapers be different?

Posted by: Tim at June 8, 2006 8:19 AM | Permalink

I'd have to agree with "grumpy entitlement." That grumpy entitlement was not only directed at King, Rosenthal and K-R, but too often at readers and the community-at-large.

Roberts left in 1990.

Roberts says he is leaving to travel and teach, but several staff members contend that he is exiting primarily because he was worn down by his ongoing tug-of-war with Knight-Ridder officials. Worried about flat circulation (522,000) and flagging advertising revenue (despite respectable pretax profits), the corporate managers tightened Roberts' purse strings.
By 1995, the slow circulation suicide combined with grumpy entitlement, and the newsroom vocalized it:
But of the 21 largest selling Sunday papers, only Newsday, the Detroit News and Free Press, the LA Times and the Chicago Sun-Times have lost a larger percentage of readers than the Inquirer. And the combined circulation loss of the top 21 Sunday papers is 2.6 percent— far less than the 6.9 percent Sunday circulation fall-off at the Inky

And while the Inky Sunday circ figures are going south, five out the Inquirer's six largest competitors in the all-important Philadelphia suburbs have seen increases in Sunday circulation since 1991.

So, what went wrong at the Inquirer? ...

Like all newspapers, the Inquirer is suffering, says Lopez, because of "the stunning ignorance of the American public. People are idiots. They don't want to take five minutes to read something, a newspaper or a magazine or a book. People just turn on the TV and they have the remote control. In case they don't like Jim Gardner, they can switch to Larry Kane."

Lopez begrudgingly admits that the PhiladelphiaInquirer is not as sharp as it was during the Gene Roberts Regime, when the Inky masthead was pre-engraved on the Pulitzer plaques.
Lovelady left at the end of 1995 for Time, so it's difficult to believe the grumpy entitlement went unnoticed by him. Two years later, Lovelady brought Barlett and Steele over to Time. Not that there's anything wrong with that, or they were grumpy at the Inky. Right?

By 1999, almost 10 years of alienating their "Publics We Engage", the Inky's circulation suicide watch was reporting:

A report released last spring by the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), the largest independent verifier of newspapers’ circulation figures, showed that the Inquirer’s daily circulation had dipped to just under 402,000 — a 7.2 percent decrease from the same six-month period the previous year. Sunday circulation dropped 7.9 percent, to about 802,000. (In March 1990, Sunday circulation stood at 996,000, and daily was more than 511,000.) ...

And yet here we are, just nine years later, with more people deciding every day that the Inquirer is not vital to their lives; with longtime staffers so angry and disillusioned that they practically spit as they recount their myriad gripes. (Not one of the 10 current Inquirer staffers interviewed for this story would speak on the record.)
But I'm sure grumpy entitlement wasn't a problem.

Posted by: PA Expat at June 8, 2006 2:09 PM | Permalink

From Media Daily News:

"Headlines From The Next Ten Years In Media And Technology"

The predicted headline for 2012:

"Defying Critics, Shocking Themselves, Newspaper Companies Post Profit, Circ Gains After Restoring Newsroom Cuts, Improving Customer Service"

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 8, 2006 5:20 PM | Permalink


Did a media guy actually say this in public: "the stunning ignorance of the American people. People are idiots."

Our charming host denounces "press hate", but it appears the feeling is mutual.

A while back, Dean Singleton said: "We have a generation of newspaper people who want to write and impress our peers and sources rather than impress our readers...". And Tom Rosenstiel said: "Too many newspapers are edited for journalists, sources and prizes." The Medill j-school dean said: "The days of journalists telling readers what matters is over."

Ya think?

Posted by: kilgore trout at June 8, 2006 5:44 PM | Permalink

Jay, I like the "sun king" analogy.

I also like "Now the world is run by clerks, and under them it keeps shrinking."

Or, as Marlin Brando more pointedly put it in Apocolypse Now, "You're an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks."

Gene Roberts had more in common than you perhaps realize with your friend Jim Carey. Each was a genius at bringing out the best performance in others with gentle prodding -- "you can do better."

And each had that elusive quality of creating in their acolytes a determination to never disappoint.

That's not management so much as it is leadership.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 8, 2006 6:53 PM | Permalink

The 1990 Time magazine article that "PA Expat" cited about Roberts's departure is particularly relevant:

"Worried about flat circulation (522,000) and flagging advertising revenue (despite respectable pretax profits), the corporate managers tightened Roberts' purse strings."

They were "worried" about a circulation of 522,000?

And how did that "worry" work out ? The current circulation engineered by the "worrried" is 325,000 and diving.

Let us hope that the suddenly unemployed members of Knight Ridder's current and final management ponder those numbers in their abrupt and unexpected retirement.

There is a reason that McClatchy Co., the acquiring corporation of the Knight Ridder chain, does not want these clowns on their payroll.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 8, 2006 7:39 PM | Permalink

Hey stupid! Read our paper.

Posted by: kilgore trout at June 8, 2006 7:41 PM | Permalink

Could it be that the declining circulation is beyond anyone's control, a greater dynamic than any editors or newspaper execs can handle?

In Paul Graham's recent essay about How to Be Silicon Valley, he made an apt observation about why start-ups don't occurs in some areas:

What you can't have, if you want to create a silicon valley, is a large, existing population of stodgy (read: grumpy entitled ;-0) people. It would be a waste of time to try reverse the fortunes of a declining industrial town like Detroit or Philadelphia by trying to encourage startups. Those places have too much momentum in the wrong direction. You're better off starting with a blank slate in the form of a small town. Or better still, if there's a town young people already flock to, that one.

It's a stretch, but those factors apply to newspaper circulation (fewer new subscribers) as much as the news content or the Sun King. But then McClatchy didn't want the Merc either. We have places to start fresh in America. Are circulation declining at older, industrial newspaper towns in Europe at the same rate?

Posted by: jaw at June 8, 2006 8:09 PM | Permalink

"What you can't have, if you want to create a silicon valley, is a large, existing population of stodgy (read: grumpy entitled ;-0) people. It would be a waste of time to try reverse the fortunes of a declining industrial town like Detroit or Philadelphia by trying to encourage startups. Those places have too much momentum in the wrong direction. You're better off starting with a blank slate in the form of a small town. Or better still, if there's a town young people already flock to, that one."

It would appear that a theme the "new" Inky could pursue might take the form of a realistic inventory of Philly's assets, drawbacks, potential and pitfalls, drawing civic leaders into a dialogue about the future. The sweetest revenge of all would be to actively mitigate the perception that the market itself is shrinking.

My observation, based on covering similar areas where things were shrinking, was that public discussion focused on interest groups hanging on their their slice of an ever-dwindling pie. The strident discussion changes to useful dialogue when people can make the pie grow; interest groups are less defensive and fortress-like, more willing to believe in a better future, etc.

That includes the newspaper itself, as an interest group in addition to its newsgathering role.

It would appear that nothing could be more compelling reading right now than ongoing coverage on the issue of whether greater Philadelphia is going to dwindle and become a rust bucket or grow and become the kind of city people want to live in. That is happening elsewhere. McClatchy thinks it isn't happening in Philly. Heck, they may even be wrong about that.

But it's sure a good issue for some reporting, and it's a malleable moment: "Our new owners have no faith in this town. Do any of the people who live here still have faith? Or is the cynical assessment that this place is going down the tubes right? Join us across the next six months while we explore the issue." There's a good spot for a defiant, snarling Joan Jett-style "Yow!" right there ...

Posted by: Bill Watson at June 9, 2006 12:10 PM | Permalink

Good idea, Bill, because Mr. Graham is a little out-of-touch.

I'm going to sound like the Chamber of Commerce here (now there's a first) but Philadelphia has actually become a hotbed for start-ups over the past 10 years, and the area has a ton of venture capital just burning holes in people's pockets.

Plus the downtown is thriving and whole sectors of the city are undergoing a reverse migration, a sort of re-middleclassification. (Hmmm, I think I just invented a word...)

That's what McClatchy missed, looking at the situation through its Calfornia blinkers.

Here's from a June 1 story in the Inquirer:

More lab space for start-ups

By Linda Loyd
Inquirer Staff Writer

The University City Science Center has nearly doubled its business-incubator lab space, adding 16,500 square feet of laboratories and offices for 19 life-science and biotechnology start-ups.
The labs, on the fifth floor of the Science Center building at 3624 Market St., expanded the center's bioscience incubator space from 20,000 square feet. Including an additional 10,000 square feet for technology companies, the center now serves 33 early-stage companies.
The new incubator space will be named at a ribbon cutting today in honor of Hubert J.P. Schoemaker, cofounder of Centocor Inc., the Philadelphia-area's first successful biotech company, which Johnson & Johnson bought in 1999 for $4.9 billion.

For a variety of reasons, the Inquirer has not much taken part in that extraordinary story of core city vitality happening right under its nose. Instead, it has hitched its star to the fickle exurbs, which are scattered across three states and half a dozen counties.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 9, 2006 12:52 PM | Permalink

Steve, Graham is generalizing, but look at what he wrote in the essay about why Pittsburg didn't become a hot bed for technology startups despite Carnegie-Mellon. Compared to places like Silicon Valley, Boston, Seattle and Austin with similiar great universities and computer science departments. (Just food for thought.)

My point in linking to Graham was that the debate seemed to focus on the declining circulation mainly as a result of news content, ownership and newspaper leadership.

I'm sure Tierney and the savvy investors assessed Philly's dwindling pie, and believe they can make it work.

Posted by: jaw at June 9, 2006 1:54 PM | Permalink

Enormous potential, both in the city and the newspaper. It would be a lot of noisy joy to just sort out what's a roadblock, what's a path to an opportunity, and write about it. An entire community asking itself "Who are we and where do we want to go next?" in the wake of being written off by a giant corporation that treats one of the community's assets as something it had to buy in order to get to the blood-rich parts of a deal.
Good times and bad, Philly has always had "attytude." And, from the outside perspective of a native of South Jersey who grew up in the city's shadow, Philly always seemed to have a sense of itself, even in the bad times when the city was deeply fractured socially and racially. I'm too far away now to comment on what it's like and whether the current appraisal by outsiders like McClatchy is held by the people who live there. But it does seem like this would be a perfect time for the newspaper to grow its own attitude and maybe let the community assess it's current self-image. Ongoing coverage that essentially tells McClatchy and the world "kiss my Philly ass" would be a fun read.

We're still allowed to have fun, right? Hasn't been outlawed yet?

Posted by: Bill Watson at June 9, 2006 3:18 PM | Permalink

OT. TheYoungTurks are at the Yearly Kos. The guest line up tonight (Pacific Time):

3:15pm PT -- Former Ambassador Joe Wilson

3:30pm PT -- Larry Johnson, Former CIA Analyst

3:50pm PT -- Adam Green,

4:00pm PT -- Judd Legum,

4:15pm PT -- Joe Trippi, Former Campaign Manager for Howard Dean

4:30pm PT -- Dan Froomkin, Washington Post

5:00pm PT -- Melanie Sloan, Executive Director of CREW

5:30pm PT -- Paul Reickoff, Executive Director and founder of IAVA

Posted by: jaw at June 9, 2006 5:17 PM | Permalink

As a resident, my sense of the city is that it is treading water, waiting for the Street administration to end and hoping that we get another Ed Rendell in the mayor's office.

But as much as Street sucks, the real problem with progress in Philly is City Council, which is basically a lifetime sinecure at this point. Council traditions mandate that the councilperson whose district a proposed project is in has a virtual veto -- so despite the fact that everyone has agreed to replace the old Youth Study Center with one in West Philly (the Barnes Foundation will get the prime location on "Museum Row" that is wasted on the YSC now), Janie Blackwell has put a hold on approving the new YSC --- I suspect its because the 52nd Street merchants are both constant contributors and sources of jobs that Janie can parcel out, and they are very anxious about the proposed Walmart in West Philly....

Posted by: plukasiak at June 10, 2006 7:58 AM | Permalink

From the Intro