Tag Archives: Philadelphia Inquirer

Giving Up on the Sunday Newspaper

The Curmudgeon loves newspapers.  No matter where his (limited) travels take him, he’s always interested in picking up the local newspaper to read about life elsewhere and learn about common interests from different perspectives.  One of his favorite parts of the trips he used to take frequently to the home office in Harrisburg was the opportunity to look at the Harrisburg Patriot-News while in the office and then to pick up a Washington Post for the two-hour train ride home.

Sunday newspapers are especially fun, and on those Sundays on which The Curmudgeon wakes up at a decent hour, he can usually rustle up a Sunday New York Times.  Through Calibre, the brilliant tool for people with e-readers, he enjoys (free) access to dozens of Sunday (and weekday) newspapers – everything from the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post to the conservative-and-damn-angry-about-it Orange County Register, the Waco Tribune-Herald, and the Yakima Herald-Republic.

And of course, there’s always the hometown paper.

Oh, the hometown paper.

The Curmudgeon is not a big fan of the Philadelphia Inquirer.  As a quality publication, it probably peaked in the 1980s, and it’s been sold three times in the past few years, with each sale bringing more lay-offs, less quality, and the flight of top reporters who have the skill to work pretty much anywhere they please and the desire to work for a great or even a very good newspaper, which the Inquirer arguably no longer is.

Still, there’s something very special about sitting down on a Sunday morning and digging into the Sunday paper, so even though The Curmudgeon subscribes to the Inquirer for the isn’t-this-pretty-much-stealing-it price of $5.99 a month from Amazon, he makes a point of going out on Sunday mornings in search of the Sunday Inquirer and ignoring the version that arrives (wirelessly) on his Kindle.

Over the past few years, though, that once-delicious Sunday morning experience has become no longer even moderately tasty.  The paper has grown thinner and thinner even as its price has grown fatter and fatter.  The local news is skimpy – the paper pretty much stopped covering all but the biggest stories about the city of Philadelphia itself, ceding that more “colorful” (pun intended, including all its negative connotations) turf to its sister newspaper, the Daily News; the business news is almost non-existent; the review and opinion section is downright boring; the real estate section is just plain tired (how many times must readers endure features about the best dishwasher detergent to use to keep glasses shiny and clear?); and the book reviews fewer and fewer and buried deeper and deeper.

The sports coverage is especially troubling.  Somewhere along the line, both local television and local newspapers seem to have decided that because their users have so many places to get the sports information they crave and already know the basic stories before they tune into their broadcasts or open their pages, they needed to do less hard reporting and be more supportive of the local teams.  It’s much worse on television, where most of the television sportscasters would not look out of place wielding pom-poms, but the newspapers, too, seem to see their role as being more supporters than reporters.   The sports coverage seems jaded, written increasingly by writers who seem more like fans than reporters and who come across as personally offended when local teams don’t perform well.  The Sunday Inquirer also has two very unfortunate sports features:  a column by a radio/tv type who already has numerous platforms from which to say things simply for the sake of trying to stir up controversy; and a columnist who retired years ago, or was retired by the Inquirer years ago – much to The Curmudgeon’s delight – largely because he so clearly had nothing left to say but who now seems to have been granted a weekly column in the Sunday paper, probably because he’s not on the payroll and gets paid by the piece and is therefore cheaper than hiring a columnist who might actually have some fresh insights to offer.

So last Sunday, The Curmudgeon rolled out of bed, got dressed, and was ready to head out in search of his favorite Sunday morning fix when he stopped dead in his tracks as he put his hand on his front door knob.  Why am I doing this, he asked himself?  Will I get pleasure out of it?

He turned around, went back into the house, and turned on his Kindle.  From now on, he’ll read his Sunday paper electronically.  The Sunday paper, or at least the Sunday Inquirer, is no longer special, no longer a treat, no longer something to look forward to, and no longer something worth going out to find on a Sunday morning.

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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.