Lose our newspapers and we lose our city
It appears that Congressman Bob Brady has followed up on his promise to do "everything we can" to save the 2013 Manayunk Bike Race. I'm glad Brady has come through again. The Bike Race plays an important part in the life of the Northwest where I live. Losing it would hurt businesses here — and our civic spirit.
But while a great deal of heated effort has gone into saving the bike race, the city and region may yet face a devastating blow: the loss of our two daily newspapers.
The new owners of the Inquirer and Daily News, Interstate General Media (IGM), have threatened to "liquidate" the newspapers if the Newspaper Guild, which represents reporters, and nine other unions, doesn't agree to substantial concessions. And not only are our leading politicians not raising a stink about that, outside of the City Paper and a small piece in NewsWorks, there is almost no media coverage of the possibility that the fifth biggest city in American will not have a daily paper other than the Metro, which is far from a full-flung newspaper.
A taste of the future
This lack of coverage shows us what life would be like in Philadelphia without newspapers. Major events might take place — an instance of police brutality or a debate about a major property tax hike or a major cutback in state aid to education or a middle-of-the-night pay increase for our state legislators — and very few people would know. As those and other possible examples show, without the public outcry created by newspaper reports, there would be little reason for our politicians to act.
Newspapers are so critical to self-government that Thomas Jefferson was not entirely joking when he said that "If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter."
Of course, the issue isn't entirely whether we are going to have newspapers or not. If IGM does "liquidate" the newspapers it will no doubt sell their names and their printing presses to someone who will recreate them. And the new owners will be able start without the hindrance of the unions and the work force in place today. And that points to the real aim of IGM, to free itself from those restraints.
The threat to liquidate may be real or may not be. But there is no question that IGM wants the freedom to reassign and replace many of the reporters with new, cheaper models. As it is making these threats, and trying to buy out the existing reporters, IGM is hiring young reporters and making deals with prominent citizens to become columnists on philly.com.
But what makes for a real newspaper? It's not the masthead. It's not even the printing presses, since online newspapers perform the same function as printed papers. The answer is experienced reporters and editors, who have the knowledge and insight gained over many years to challenge political and sports and cultural figures and to know where the truth is buried.
The Inquirer and Daily News are already suffering from the loss of some of their best reporters, such as Dave Davies, Tom Ferrick, and Patrick Kerkstra. Without reporters like Chris Brennan, Joe DiStefano, Dan Gehringer, Annette John-Hall, Bob Warner, Jane Von Bergen, Inga Saffron, and others like them, the newspapers will have already been, in that fine Stalinist term, liquidated.
And I say all this having criticized most of those reporters over the years and both papers as institutions. Indeed, a section of my forthcoming book on the health care campaign is about their failure to cover fairly both supporters and opponents of the Affordable Care Act.
But my criticisms presupposed that the Inquirer and Daily News were worth taking seriously, that their reporters were experienced, thoughtful people whose ideas were worth grappling with and whose words made a difference in our public life. Replace them with 20-year-olds just out of journalism school who don't know the difference between John Street and Frank Rizzo, or Mike Schmidt and the Philly Phanatic, and those of us who criticize the newspaper will stop doing so because they will no longer be worth taking seriously.
When the new owners of IGM — N.J. political figure George Norcross, parking magnate Lewis Katz, and philanthropist H.F. Gerry Lenfest — took over the paper, they said they were in it for the "long haul." They received substantial help from the city and state to move to their new building on Market Street. Now it appears that the distance between "long haul" and "liquidation" is a lot shorter than anyone could imagine and that the support they received from the city comes with no obligations.
That's not right. And it's time our politicians and the citizens of this region stand up and say so. There are lot of things this city needs for it to be what we want it to be. It needs a bike race in Manayunk. It needs the Eagles and the Phillies. It needs great restaurants. It may even need the painting, the Gross Clinic, for which the Art Museum and our philanthropists, including Gerry Lenfest, raised $68 million. But few people would know about any of these things, or be moved to support them, if not for the critical requirement of a major city: a good newspaper or, preferably, two.
Marc Stier is an activist and writer who lives in Mt. Airy.