The residents of the City of Brotherly Love should be worried:
A couple of politicians lead a group trying to buy the city’s major newspapers — The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News.
And almost as worrisome, the papers’ publisher, Gregory J. Osberg, has been censoring articles about the pending sale of the company, apparently in an effort to quash other offers.
In recent weeks, according to a Feb. 16 article in The New York Times, Osberg:
:: Told top editors in a three-hour meeting that if any articles about the sale were run without his approval, the editors would be fired.
:: Apparently has held up — or ordered top editors to hold up — publication of an investigative story about conflicts of interest among board members of a hospital in nearby Camden, NJ. The hospital’s chairman is a member of the group seeking to buy the newspapers from the Philadelphia Media Network.
:: Apparently ordered editors to kill a paragraph in an article on Philly.com that said the newspapers had a value of about $40 million. It had been reported elsewhere that the current owner, Philadelphia Media Network was seeking $100 million.
Regarding the three-hour meeting, Osberg at first told a Times reporter that no such meeting had taken place. Then, the night before The Times’ story ran, he acknowledged that the meeting had occurred but denied interfering in editorial decisions.
“I have not been managing coverage of the sale and I am not doing that going forward,” The Times quoted Osberg as saying.
The prospective owners include Edward G. Rendell, a powerful Democrat who is a former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor, and George E. Norcross III, whom The Times described as “a Democratic power-broker in South New Jersey.
In an op-ed piece that was also published Feb. 16 in The Times, Buzz Bissinger, a former Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter at the Inquirer, wrote: “If the sale goes through, Philadelphia will become the first major city in the country to actually cease to have a real daily newspaper. There will still be print and online products, sure, but those products will be owned by a group of power-hungry politicians and politically connected businessmen, who, far from respecting independent journalism, despise it.”
Paul Davies, former deputy editorial page editor at the Inquirer was quoted on The Washington Times web site as saying: “The prospect of Rendell’s group owning the newspapers is like the foxes watching the hen house and all of the sacred cows. Essentially, the Inquirer will cease to exist as a legitimate newspaper. It will become the insiders’ house organ.”
In The Times’ news story, Rendell said his only intention was to save the newspapers and keep them under local control. “Any ownership group may have some interest in controlling the content of the newspaper, but ours is no more or less than that,” he was quoted as saying.
At one time, the Inquirer and the Daily News were among a group of newspapers, along with The Kansas City Star, that were part of the Knight Ridder chain.
When Knight Ridder decided to go out of business in 2006, it sold The Star, the Philadelphia papers and 30 other papers to The McClatchy Co. for $4.5 billion.
The Inquirer and the Daily News were among a dozen less-profitable Knight Ridder newspapers that McClatchy immediately put up for sale. In June 2006, the Philadelphia papers were sold to a group of Philadelphia area business people, who filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009. Hedge fund owners, operating under the name Philadelphia Media Network, bought the papers out of bankruptcy in 2010.
The once-proud Philadelphia papers have had a tougher go of it the last 10 years or so than many of the other metropolitan dailies. That includes The Star, which is the source of constant griping from Kansas Citians about the paper’s ever-shrinking news hole.
Next time you hear someone complain about The Star, however, tell them it could be worse. Tell them we’re lucky that our paper is still owned by a reputable, if failing, chain. Tell them about Philadelphia.