Philadelphia's financially troubled newspapers — the jointly owned Inquirer and Daily News — may be sold for the fourth time in six years. Circulation and advertising are down. A new set of layoffs has been announced, and the papers' newsrooms are about to be combined with the news site Philly.com.
But reporters and editors there are outraged by something else: the actions of their own publisher to influence their coverage of the company's sale.
Publisher Greg Osberg, who is also the CEO of parent company Philadelphia Media Network, has this month killed two stories about the sale and cut elements of a third story. Meanwhile, the leading bid appears to come from a group of powerful figures who are frequent subjects of their reporting.
"There's a whole trust issue now," says Wendy Ruderman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. "We're terrified, just terrified, that we're going to step on more land mines and not be able to do our jobs. And then we're not journalists anymore. We're not."
'A Constant Battle'
The Philadelphia Inquirer is a storied paper with a rich legacy of investigative reporting and elegant writing, while the Daily News is its scrappy sister tabloid. They are found in separate newsrooms in the landmark building they've inhabited for decades.
But the appearance of permanence can deceive. The building was sold last year by the hedge funds that won Philadelphia Media, to earn back some of their investment. Both papers have been forced to narrow their ambitions sharply.
"We've faced a constant battle here of cutbacks and reductions in staff, even as our obligations have grown," says Inquirer reporter Craig McCoy. "With all that said, I mean, the paper remains a great newspaper, and it's full of hard-hitting stories and beautifully written pieces every day."
Now, the owners of the parent Philadelphia Media Network are putting it up for sale, reportedly seeking $100 million. (Six years ago, the papers, the website, the building and smaller associated publications fetched $562 million.)
Pulling Stories After Publishing
Earlier this month, local developer Bart Blatstein put out a press release saying he wanted to bid for the papers. Daily News political reporter Dave Gambacorta wrote a brief blog item on Feb. 7, and was astonished to see what happened next.
"The blog post was pulled down," Gambacorta says. "We reposted it, and it was pulled down a second time and later replaced with a statement from the Philadelphia Media Network, which indicated that they were not negotiating with Mr. Blatstein."
That move failed to reflect a full understanding of how the Web works.
"By that point, the blog post had made the rounds on the Internet. A number of journalism websites had looked at it. A number of local readers had seen it," Gambacorta says. "So when they were trying to click some links that I had put on Twitter and other places, they were finding a dead end."
Mark Block, a spokesman for the company, took responsibility and later apologized. But journalists at the papers with direct knowledge of the matter point to publisher Osberg, who, it transpired, had killed a similar Inquirer story the day before.
How To Shine A Light?
Two days earlier, these journalists say, Osberg also had removed a paragraph from the Web version of a story that estimated the value of the company at just $40 million. (The version containing the estimate was in the print edition and can still be found in the LexisNexis news database.)
Subsequently, Osberg appears to have lied to The New York Times about having an argument with editors over the incidents. He later acknowledged it occurred.
Osberg and Block declined several requests for comment, as did the editors of the Inquirer, Stan Wischnowski, and the Daily News, Larry Platt.
"It's our job to ask tough questions, to shine a light on things that need to be examined," Gambacorta says. "So to think that we were now actually going to be stopping ourselves from doing basic reporting on something as simple as the sale of our company — it raised a lot of troubling questions."
Hundreds of staffers signed a petition demanding a guarantee of editorial integrity, and executives promised no more interference. But Osberg's acts take on even greater weight because of who might own the papers next.
Questioning The Bidders' Motives
The group seeking to buy them includes two of the region's most connected Democrats: former mayor, governor and Democratic National Committee Chairman Ed Rendell and New Jersey political boss George Norcross III. Both men and their associates have been subjects of intense reporting by the papers. Other investors include a major developer and a leading owner of Philadelphia's National Hockey League team, the Flyers.
Daily News reporter Ruderman says she believes the motivation of the investment group is to affect coverage of their political and financial activities in the area.
"I do think it's about buying access. I can't imagine that someone like George Norcoss is being philanthropic," she says. "He absolutely despises the media."
Rendell told NPR he had promised his prospective partners that he would not talk to the media anymore, while Norcross did not return a call seeking comment. In an interview with former Inquirer columnist Buzz Bissinger on local radio station WPHT earlier this week, however, Rendell promised that a firewall would separate his investment group from the newsroom's activities.
But he also compared himself to other media leaders.
"You're acting as if ... this would be the first time that a group of people similarly situated own a newspaper," Rendell said. "I mean, Walter Annenberg owned the Inquirer and Daily News, and he certainly was a power player that had tremendous business interests and tremendous ideas of what he wanted to do and what he didn't want to do."
That's true enough, but no reporters in Philadelphia want a return to the days of the late Annenberg. Though his name graces several of the nation's finest communications schools, Annenberg was considered one of the nation's most morally corrupt newspaper publishers of his day. He promoted his business interests and reviled or simply ignored his enemies in his news pages, not just in the editorials.
Credibility And Trust
Inquirer investigative reporter Joe Tanfani was among those who organized the petition drive among newsroom employees. Some editors also signed it.
"We hope the readers get that message too. We wanted to send a message to them that we still stand by our reporting," Tanfani says. "I think fundamentally it's an issue of trust with the readers. I think frankly our whole franchise — the whole business — depends on that."
After the sale of the building, Ruderman says the newspapers' only remaining asset is their credibility.
"If you're addicted to journalism like I am, you love it. If you don't know what else you'd want to do than what's happening right now, it's heartbreaking," she says. "There's been so much stress here. This place is imploding with stress."
It's not yet clear who will ultimately own the papers. The wealthy Philadelphia philanthropist Raymond Perelman has expressed an interest in buying too. If the hedge funds can't get a desired price, they may keep them — and start cutting the newsroom in earnest.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.