Is Local Ownership of Newspapers Really Such a Hot Idea?

Once upon a time, newspapers were highly partisan enterprises.  If you look back in history you’ll find that they often wore their political allegiance on their sleeve – okay, on their masthead – with names like the Jacksonville Republican, the Muncie Post-Democrat, the Denver Republican, the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, and many, many more.  Back in the days when newspapers were almost entirely local and extremely inexpensive to produce, cities and towns would have numerous papers and many would be official (or unofficial) organs of local political parties or mouthpieces for their owners.

For the most part, that’s changed now.  Many newspapers still have pretty strong political perspectives, but those perspectives – despite the paranoia of both the left and the right – are pretty much relegated to the editorial and op-ed pages.  Newspapers also are businesses, and like most businesses, they’ll do almost anything to make a buck.  Money is green, and that’s neither liberal nor conservative, Democratic nor Republican.

All this comes to mind because the two daily newspapers in Philadelphia have been sold for the fourth time in the past six years, and for the second of those four times, sold to a group of local business people.  Many people are acting as if this a great triumph, something to be heralded, as if local ownership is inherently, unquestionably a great thing.

That’s not necessarily so.  Once upon a time, both the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News were owned by Walter Annenberg, who wielded his newspapers like a cudgel to advance his own business interests.  Legend has it that during the 1966-67 National Basketball Association season in which the hometown Philadelphia 76ers won the championship, Annenberg refused to allow his newspapers to assign reporters to cover the team’s road games because he felt the team wasn’t buying enough advertising in his papers; instead, his papers used wire service accounts of road games.  In 1966, Annenberg reputedly didn’t like the Democrat running for governor of Pennsylvania,  so his papers didn’t report on that candidate’s campaign.

While he was just a boy at the time, The Curmudgeon distinctly remembers another Annenberg-inspired feature in the Philadelphia Inquirer:  every day, the front page showed program listings for local television and radio stations that Annenberg owned.  (Think this couldn’t happen in this day and age?  Think again.  In Philadelphia today, a local radio station now includes in its sports reports information about teams whose games will be broadcast later in the day on radio stations that are owned by the same company.  Sportscasters note the game time and the broadcasting station’s name and location on the radio dial (radio dial?  The Curmudgeon is really dating himself here).  This information is provided as part of the sports report, not as an advertisement.)

The challenge with local ownership is that local rich men have local business interests and you have to wonder how the newspapers they now own will respond when those businesses themselves are news.  One of the new owners, for example, owns an insurance brokerage company that relies heavily on public contracts.  What happens when one of those contracts looks suspicious (as recently happened and was reported in the Inquirer)?  That same owner also heads a major area hospital that just launched a medical school.  What happens if a patient dies of neglect in that hospital’s emergency room?  If the (non-profit) hospital spends an unusual amount of money on lobbying or lavish conferences?  If a review of quality of care shows that patients with certain medical conditions are more likely to die at that hospital?  What happens if it appears that the medical school has admitted a student whose primary qualification appears to be that his father runs a company with whom the hospital leader/newspaper owner does business – or with whom he hopes to do business?  Are readers supposed to believe that the newspapers’ editors will unleash their best reporters to pursue such stories and tell them to be as aggressive as they would be on any other assignment?  Think there will be editorials expressing outrage?

That same new owner, in fact, also happens to be one of the most powerful Democrats in New Jersey (the Inquirer is the only major newspaper that covers several New Jersey counties that are part of the greater Philadelphia area).  What happens when the newspaper editorial board is outraged over how it perceives he is directing his puppets to act or vote in the county seat or the state capital?  Do editorial writers vent their spleen on him, as they would on any other politician, or do they go home, look at their seventeen-year-old daughter filling out college applications, and reluctantly swallow their outrage and say nothing?  What happens if the editorial board wants to endorse a candidate whom the party boss/newspaper owner opposes?  What happens if the editorial board wants to endorse a candidate running against the party boss/newspaper owner’s brother, who is an elected member of the state legislature?

And what of the six million people of the greater Philadelphia area who rely on these newspapers for information about how they are being governed?  How can they trust that the vested interests of the newspapers’ owners aren’t coloring, either directly or indirectly, the information that’s being reported on a daily basis?  How do they know that important stories aren’t going unreported – not because the owners are insisting that they not be reported but because editors and reporters, who after all are only human, exercise the very human behavior of not seeking to bite the hand that feeds them?

Local ownership of newspapers sounds like a good idea in theory, and in many places it surely works well and has for many years.  When there are only two local papers, however, and both are owned by the same people and there’s no competition, this can’t possibly be good for readers.  The new local owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News say they purchased the papers more as a civic venture than as a business or a means of influencing local policy and opinion, but will their actions reflect their words?  Or when push comes to shove, will they insist that the reporting and views expressed by the newspapers they own support their own interests above all others?

Color The Curmudgeon skeptical.

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  • Scott  On April 9, 2012 at 10:35 am

    While I tend to agree with most of your misgivings on this topic…I must point out that it wasn’t that many years ago when Ed Snider owned 610-WIP, and his teams were loudly criticized by some of the hosts. Were some hosts inhibited from doing so? I’m assuming so, but that didn’t stop a few from speaking out…and the cynical side of me admits that Mr. Snider knew that these controversies were good for ratings.

    And…while I have many of the same reservations and problems that you have with local ownership of the newspaper…but when the only other option may be the death of the newspaper, I think I’d rather take my chances with the local ownership group, and deal with the negatives.

  • foureyedcurmudgeon  On April 16, 2012 at 7:32 am

    Every point you make is true enough, yet I can’t help but worry that we’re going to end up getting some of the news and not all of it. The return of Bill Marimow to run the news side is encouraging, and since I make a habit of avoiding the editorial and op-ed pages, maybe I can stomach the one-sidedness to come. Of course, I live in New Jersey, and living in New Jersey means never needing to worry about opening your newspaper and reading anything about the area in which you live.

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