Mike Dunn on the Empty Desks in City Hall’s Pressroom

Op-ed: As the Inquirer and Daily News combine newsrooms, competition wanes and so does City Hall's press corps.

An old news clipping — provenance is unknown — about City Hall's once robust and now-depleted press corps. | Clipping courtesy of Mike Dunn.

An old news clipping — provenance is unknown — about City Hall’s once robust and now-depleted press corps. | Clipping courtesy of Mike Dunn.

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from former KYW City Hall reporter Mike Dunn.)

Decades of history can be found in the press room at Philadelphia City Hall, Room 212: typewritten stories stuffed into rusty file cabinets, yellowed newspaper clips and editorial cartoons taped to the walls, a bulletin board crammed with buttons from political campaigns long past. One day I found a manual typewriter, still functional, and I set it aside in case the power goes out.

Then there was a fraying clip of a magazine article, date and source unclear — perhaps from the 1950s — about the reporters who covered City Hall in the ‘20s and ‘30s. The article included a photograph of the press corp that toiled in Room 212 in 1928.

It is no surprise that the reporters are all male and white; that was, unfortunately, the American workplace of the time. But what is most striking was the sheer number of reporters: 15 (with Administration officials mingled in), representing five newspapers. And while they’re smiling in the photo, its easy to imagine that they spent each day scurrying through the Hall, chasing elected officials, and competing among themselves to break stories about the mayor and City Council.

Competition, of course, has long been the engine of journalism. In my time covering City Hall, I was awed by the dogged, ceaseless competition between reporters posted here for the Inquirer and Daily News. Sure, they keep an eye on what those in the broadcast media were doing, as well the weeklies and, more recently, the bloggers and politically-minded websites like phillymag.com. But for decades, the fiercest competition that drove the dailies was simply between each other. It was the Inquirer versus the Daily News.

(The Inquirer reporters, in fact, have long stayed out of Room 212 — they now occupy a separate room on the first floor — in order to avoid being too close to their Daily News brethren).

So the recent announcement by the publisher of both papers that their staffs are being consolidated is doubly wrenching. First and foremost, of course, is the personal pain, with nearly 50 reporters and editors laid off. But also disturbing is the apparent end of the competition between the papers.

I don’t have particular insight into the plans for their City Hall bureaus. Three reporters are currently based there for the Inquirer, two for the Daily News. Perhaps all five will stay, but speculation among the rank-and-file is that that’s unlikely.

I’m sure whoever remains will continue to cover the city’s leaders — including the new administration — with tenacity, and I’m sure the new combined newsroom will deploy others not based at the Hall to poke around the dark corners of Philadelphia government. But the tradition of intense competition between the City Hall bureaus of the Inquirer and Daily News will be no more, victim of a sagging bottom line.

Readers should care. They should be left wondering: will this apparent consolidation of bureaus mean that some hard questions to city leaders go unasked? Will it mean complacency — the willingness to accept a politician’s non-responsive response — creeps in?

That’s why the photograph of 15 reporters crammed into City Hall Room 212 is so haunting. Nearly a century later, as a new Administration prepares to begin its work, there are too many empty desks in the press room. More may be emptied soon. And the only sign of competition between the dailies could very well be that found in the yellowing stories taped to the walls.

Mike Dunn covered City Hall for KYW Newsradio for nearly 20 years, including the past 12 as bureau chief. He left the station in August. As Citified has reported previously, Dunn is a candidate for a communications job in the forthcoming Kenney administration. Dunn told us he couldn’t comment on that possibility at this point.