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New York Times...
Interference Seen in Philadelphia Papers
By Amy Chozick and David Carr
February 15, 2012

Last week, Gregory J. Osberg, chief executive and publisher of the Philadelphia Media Network, which publishes The Inquirer, The Daily News and Philly.com, summoned the news organization’s three most senior editors to his office.

Over three hours, he told them he would be overseeing all articles related to the newspapers’ impending sale. If any articles ran without his approval, the editors would be fired, according to several editors and reporters briefed on the meeting who did not want to be identified criticizing the company’s leadership.

In a telephone interview Wednesday morning, Mr. Osberg said the meeting did not happen. But Larry Platt, editor of The Daily News and one of the editors in attendance, said that it did. Late Wednesday, Mr. Osberg acknowledged that the meeting had taken place but denied interfering in the editorial decisions, saying he only wished to be notified of further coverage. Mr. Platt declined to comment on specifics, but said, “We fought for what we believed in,” referring to editorial independence, “and we didn’t get all that we wanted.”

The meeting was the latest incident pitting the management of the papers against the newsroom over the proposed sale to an investor group primarily made up of the area’s most powerful Democrats.

Edward G. Rendell, the former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor leads the group, which includes George E. Norcross III, a Democratic powerbroker in South New Jersey; the parking lot and banking magnate Lewis Katz; and Edward M. Snider, chairman of the Comcast subsidiary that owns the Philadelphia Flyers. Mr. Rendell recently told reporters he has asked the union leader John J. Dougherty Jr. (or Johnny Doc as he is known locally) to join the group.

Reporters and editors believe that coverage has been steered to favor the prospective buyers and fear what might happen once they control the papers. On Feb. 6, The Inquirer killed an article about a real estate developer who had put together a competing bid to buy the company, which went on the market earlier this month. Then, on Feb. 7, a company spokesman removed a post on The Daily News’s PhillyClout blog that mentioned other potential buyers.

The spokesman, Mark Block, said those actions were mistakes that would not be repeated. Mr. Osberg denied any editorial interference. “There is no pattern here. It doesn’t exist,” he said, adding “I have not been managing coverage of the sale and I am not doing that going forward.”

The situation in Philadelphia speaks to the vulnerability of regional newspapers. Long operated as functional monopolies with attractive margins, local papers have undergone a nosedive in earnings and advertising revenue. Having ceased to be sure-fire financial investments, these newspapers, the reporters fear, could still be attractive as a tool to advance new owners’ political and business interests.

The proposed sale could still fall through, but a completed deal with Mr. Rendell’s group would give Democrats control of the most influential newspaper in one of the most important states on the electoral map just before the 2012 elections.

“You have a former mayor and governor, the owner of a local sports team and George Norcross, who is a power player in South Jersey politics,” said Buzz Bissinger, who writes for both Philadelphia papers and wrote the book “A Prayer for the City” about the mayoralty of Mr. Rendell. Of The Inquirer, he said, “I believe it will effectively cease to be a real newspaper and become a house organ for these guys and their friends.”

The Inquirer, a 183-year-old paper with a legacy that includes 18 Pulitzer Prizes, has been battered harder than most regional papers, and its parent company ended up being bought in 2010 for $139 million, by two hedge funds, Angelo Gordon and Alden Global Capital, along with banks that held the company’s debt.

The new owners installed Mr. Osberg, who had been the president and publisher of Newsweek magazine, but the financial picture has continued to decline. According to sales documents obtained by The New York Times — marked as “highly confidential” — the company had a 13.9 percent drop in advertising revenues last year and earnings were less than $5 million. On Wednesday, the company announced a round of buyouts and potential layoffs that will eliminate 37 positions.

Read the rest of this article, and others, at the New York Times


 
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