Those who value a strong and independent media in and around Philadelphia have been walking around in a funk in recent weeks. That’s because the journalism of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News appears to be under siege.
The culprit? Moguls.
The Philadelphia Media Network (PMN), which runs those papers plus Philly.com, is on the block. Among the interested buyers is a group including former Pennsylvania governor and former Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell.
Now, if Rendell were the only one in the bid group who’d present clear and strong conflicts of interest as a newspaper owner, the journopolice might just sign off on the deal. Yet his alliance includes big-time Jersey tycoon Lewis Katz; Edward M. Snider, chairman of Comcast Spectacor, the company that owns the Philadelphia Flyers and other concerns that a regional newspaper might want to cover; William P. Hankowsky, a top executive of Liberty Property Trust, a $5.9 billion real estate investment trust; George E. Norcross III, a prominent figure in New Jersey Democratic politics as well insurance and health-care circles; and Krishna Singh, another prominent business executive.
How could the reporters at these Philadelphia papers cover anything aside from Halloween without crossing this ownership group? How could the papers avoid becoming a factory line of conflict-of-interest disclosures?
The difficulties have begun popping up, even before the sale. When news surfaced of a competing bid to buy the papers, well, it didn’t surface too prominently in PMN properties. Both the Inquirer and the Daily News messed with stories about the bid by developer Bart Blatstein, delaying their publication for shady reasons. News accounts concurred on the provenance of the meddling: It came down from above.
Stan Wischnowski, the Inquirer’s executive editor, says of the turn of events: “That was something that played out and it wasn’t something that the newsroom agreed with and we worked to change it. I think there was a realization that a mistake was made in the handling of all of this. It has been major distraction, but our newsroom has stayed focused on the journalism but it hasn’t been easy.”
Following the Blatstein disgrace, the attention of Inquirer reporters — current and former — has turned to a logical question. What else is being suppressed or meddled with? Suspicions alighted on a project of reporter James Osborne — a story about one of the business entities connected to Norcross.
The story has been in the works for months yet hasn’t seen daylight. Could it be more ownership shenanigans? Wischnowski says no way. ”That’s absolutely false, the furthest thing from the truth,” he says, noting that the piece is still getting stitched together. Karl Stark, an assistant managing editor, notes, “The thought that it’s killed is absurd.”
It’s not a comfy situation for an editor to speak about a story that’s in progress, even in the vague terms in which Wischnowski addressed the Osborne piece. That’s usually just not done.
Yet Wischnowski acknowledges that these aren’t usual circumstances. ”If a group of newsmakers, power brokers, and community leaders were showing up at a newspaper’s doorstep as potential owners, there would be anxiety. The anxiety is real,” he says. “We’ve been covering a lot of these folks for decades.” Against this anxious climate, concedes Wischnowski, stories about spiked stories take root. “It’s not surprising in this environment that something like that would bubble up,” he says.
Inquirer reporter Mark Fazlollah says, “There is concern in the newsroom about the sale.”
Despite what he concedes is a big “distraction,” Wischnowski points to the written record. “Our wave of investigative reporting has been very steady over the past five years,” he says. “We are still the largest media institution in this region and can still be very relevant. It’s a legacy and history that I will protect. I am not going to be the one to let that fade.”