A new day for Philadelphia papers - and a new way?
April 2, 2012By Dave Davies
Its been clear for a while that the new owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com. would be the merry band of buccaneers that includes South Jersey powerhouse George Norcross, former New Jersey Nets owner Lew Katz, and others.
But after the widely-exposed embarrassment of publisher Greg Osberg's muzzling of his own reporters last month, I never thought the group would keep Osberg on.
Given all the suspicions that would accompany a bunch of politically-connected rich guys owning the largest media company in the region, they'd have to get somebody with impeccable journalistic credentials, right?
They couldn't credibly hire a publisher who'd so vividly demonstrated that he just doesn't get it. Could they?
They can, and did. What gives?
Maybe it's that they don't get it – this journalism thing.
Or that they're rich, powerful men who are used to doing what they want, and letting everyone around them adjust to their moves.
Maybe Osberg is there for the short term, on a trial basis.
But I don't think so.
The new owners announced their plans yesterday at a news conference with dozens of reporters and editors from both papers looking on.
When I asked the question – given what was reported in a lot of places, including the New York Times, how can you hire Osberg and maintain credibility with the reporters in the room? – it was Katz who answered.
He said he'd read the reports and "and as I understand it, Mr. Osberg had a different version of what transpired."
He added that decades ago, he loved an expression of former German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer: "I respectfully reserve the right to be smarter today than I was yesterday."
"And I think," Katz said, "Mr. Osberg has acknowledged that he wasn't that smart yesterday when that event transpired."
I spoke to Osberg later, and he explained he'd "delayed" stories being written in both papers about a rival group of bidders, because he felt the bidders were misleading reporters, and he – Osberg – was the only one with the facts about what was happening in the sale process.
When I asked whether it wasn't the reporters job to judge the facts and their relevance to the story, Osberg acknowledged he'd shouldn't have handled it as he did.
I think it's possible for guys like Katz and Norcross to invest in a media company because they sincerely believe it's the right thing for the community, and at the same time have a hard time constraining their impulses to influence coverage.
The new owners are pledging in writing not to interfere in news decisions and editorial policy, and you could imagine that given the events of the past couple of months, everyone will be careful to honor that, including Osberg.
And as hard as I've been on Osberg in this space, I have to acknowledge he's been focused on desperately challenging business tasks.
His recent experience may serve as a refresher course in the importance of journalistic values to his enterprise, and a reminder that they apply to all topics, including the sale if his company.
It was clear the new owners think Osberg is a guy with real ideas who's been unable to implement them because the papers were owned by Wall Street firms that got them in a bankruptcy and were never really committed to the business.
Osberg was enthusiastic about the $7-10 million the new owners say they'll put up as operating capital.
Reporters and columnists I spoke to after the news conference were a little stunned by it all, and hoping for the best, as we all should be.
It will be interesting to see if Osberg makes changes that signal his commitment to sound journalistic practices, like finding someone with the credibility of former Inquirer editor Bill Marimow – maybe Marimow himself.
One other piece of the sale puzzle that fell into place yesterday was the departure of former Gov. Ed Rendell, who a few weeks ago was saying he'd be chairman of the new board and was the only one speaking publicly about the effort.
I spoke to Rendell briefly, and he told me he'd gotten involved originally because Osberg came to him and "said that he thought the hedge fund guys were going to put the papers up for sale. He wanted to keep it in local ownership, people who were committed to trying to save papers, could I put a group together? And I said, `sure, I'll try to do that.'"
Rendell said he never planned on getting into the newspaper business, but the group suggested he become the chairman, and he agreed.
So why did he get out?
"There was enough push back from the working reporters and I guess editorial board people about having someone who's active in politics – although I don't intend to be a candidate again," he said.
"So I acceded to their wishes, but it wasn't much of a concession because I never really had much of an interest in doing anything other than putting together a group to keep the papers local and make sure they survive."
The new chairman of the board will be H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest.