Well, I was almost right.
A year-and-a-half ago, I took stock of the then-new ownership of Philly’s major daily newspapers and offered the following declaration: “There are no white knights left. These owners, and this band of journalists, will decide whether the Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com have a real future in this city.”
Today, that band of owners is getting divorced. And as has happened an absurd number of times over the last decade, the papers find themselves at a crossroads. Today, today really is the first day of the rest of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s life.
But I wasn’t entirely wrong. We already know that today’s auction of the papers will result, simply, in a faction of the the current ownership gaining full control. Either the “majority faction” led by George Norcross, or the minority faction composed of Lew Katz and Gerry Lenfest will end up owning the joint lock, stock, and barrel. The cast hasn’t really changed: It’s just losing a few faces.
Which means, once and again, that ahem: These owners and this band of journalists (those who survive the ownership change, anyway) will decide the future of Philadelphia’s most important journalistic institutions. Really, this time.
The owners will have made their commitment clear, by pledging $77 million (or more) of their money at auction. Which means that the journalists then have to decide if they’re buying in.
That’s not as easy a choice as you might suppose. If Norcross — the legendary South Jersey political boss — wins, a lot of reporters are going to want to hold their noses. They’ve made it clear, repeatedly, that they don’t want to be part of a propaganda machine protecting Norcross’s interests and advancing his candidates throughout the region — or even be seen as such. “Norcross is the kind of guy I got into this business to take down, not to work for,” a journalist told me not long ago.
Let’s be honest here: The kind of ownership that journos dream of having — deep pocketed, interested enough in the news to want to keep paying for it but not so interested as to have a vested interest in its outcome — is non-existent. Over at BigTrial.net, Ralph Cipriano shows why — even though Norcross is often painted as a big, bad villain — the newsroom isn’t entirely free of conflicts when Katz and Lenfest are in charge.
And just to be more clear: Even if there are no real conflicts, the audience will assume there is one. If George Norcross wins today’s auction, “George Norcross” will be baked into our reading of every single story in the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com. Same for Katz and Lenfest.
Same for any other potential owner you’d want to name, incidentally, though this latest ownership battle has been notable for its absence of outsiders clamoring to get in on the action: No Bart Blatstein or Ronald Perelman piping up about how maybe they’d like a chance to own a newspaper.
This is it, folks. The Inquirer and Daily News are much diminished from their former glories, but they’re still recognizable and essential parts of the Philadelphia media landscape. There are no more saviors coming. The next time an auction is held regarding these newspapers, it will likely to be sell off the bones of the estate. The time to make a better, sustainable future for those newspapers is now. There are no more chances.
Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.