Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A fresh start

I am traveling today, so any thoughts on politics won't be posted until late this evening. However, the historic sale yesterday of my longtime employer warrants a few words.

This may mean nothing to those readers of this blog who don't live in the Philadelphia region, but the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News were sold yesterday -- by the corporate chain that purchased the paper from another corporate chain -- to a local collection of investors, businessmen, and civic leaders all gathered under a new privately-owned entity called Philadelphia Media Holdings.

This is a big deal. It means that the two papers will be freed from the dictates of Wall Street, where, under the destructive credo of capitalism run amok, publicly-traded media companies for decades have been under constant pressure to milk their products dry, diminish quality, slash costs, and generally violate the public trust, all in the interests of squeezing extra dollars for the next quarterly report. I, along with many others, have witnessed this process in action at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Two personal examples: I used to be a foreign correspondent based in London; now there is nobody in London. I used to write regularly for the Sunday magazine; now there is no Sunday magazine.

It would be foolish to think that the new PMH, helmed by marketing/advertising executive Brian Tierney, will suddenly rain down money on the Inquirer newsroom, restore foreign bureaus, bring back the Sunday magazine, and hire scores of young and hungry reporters. That's not how the world works; I couldn't help but notice, in our coverage of the sale this morning, that Tierney declined to say what level of profits the Royal Bank of Scotland expects to see. The new owners may not have to march to the tune of quarterly earnings, or tremble whenever some Wall Street bean-counter forecasts the death of newspapers, but they still need to staunch the losses that have been exacerbated by burgeoning Internet competition, and they still need to develop long-term business plans to "grow revenue."

So nirvana will not dawn tomorrow; nor will we know, in the short term, whether the various special interests that comprise PMH will adhere to their signed pledge to keep their mitts off the newsroom. Nevertheless, there is a great sense of relief that we have avoided the worst of all outcomes -- being stripped, ravaged, and abandoned by some new absentees who know or care little about these papers and the community they serve. We had enough of that from the dying Knight Ridder, whose chairman, Tony Ridder, leaves the scene with his golden parachute. Tierney has the opportunity to play a key role at ground zero of a great national experiment, and those of us with a stake in that experiment wish him well. We would like nothing more than to see it succeed, and help make it happen.