Besides, who is to say that it will turn out badly, at least in terms of sustaining much-needed coverage in important American cities? The Philadelphia properties have had four owners in the last five years and the recent sale price of $55 million was just 10 percent of what they were worth in 2006. One of the ownership groups was led by Brian P. Tierney, a public relations executive who was assailed for harboring all manner of agendas when he helped buy the newspapers.
At the time, a former Inquirer reporter, Ralph Cipriano, said of Mr. Tierney: “He doesn’t understand what we do. He doesn’t respect what we do, and he doesn’t think we should be doing it.” He added: “I don’t see how a guy like that can run a newspaper and not just turn it into another extension of the spin machine.”
It didn’t turn out that way. Mr. Tierney eventually lost control of the papers for business reasons, but when he did, the staffs and many people in Philadelphia hailed him as a hero, a man who rigorously oversaw the editorial independence of a newspaper he once fought with.
One reason he got such high marks is that he hired William K. Marimow, formerly a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The Inquirer. Mr. Marimow was quickly dismissed after Mr. Tierney lost control of the newspapers to his lenders.
Mr. Katz and Mr. Norcross faced similar skepticism in the run-up to their purchase. Just before the sale was announced, The Inquirer quoted a report by the New Jersey comptroller accusing Mr. Norcross of orchestrating an insurance payback scheme. Arriving with a big credibility gap, the new owners responded by bringing back Mr. Marimow from Arizona State, where he had been teaching, and reinstalling him as editor in chief.
If you pull back a few thousand feet, you can see newspapers coming full circle. Before World War II, newspapers were mostly owned by political and business interests who used them to push an agenda. People like William Randolph Hearst and Robert McCormick wielded their newspapers as cudgels to get their way. It was only when newspapers began making all kinds of money in the postwar era that they were professionalized and infused with editorial standards.
“We are going back to a form of ownership that dominated in an earlier era,” said Alan D. Mutter, a newspaper and technology consultant. “As newspapers become less impressive businesses, people are going to buy them as trophies or bully pulpits or some other form of personal expression.”
David Nasaw, a professor of history at the CUNY Graduate Center, has written extensively about the newspaper barons of old. He is skeptical about the motives of their modern descendants. “People just have to be aware that other agendas exist, and the owners should be clear about that, but any time a big city newspaper is saved, I think we should stand up and salute.”
The Philly newspapers may end up being a cat toy for the new owners. Or the owners could catch the journalism bug and access the angels of their better natures.
Mr. Marimow, speaking before he had to run off to teach a class, said that it beats the alternative.
“I am coming back because I strongly believe that this ownership group, despite their connections, is interested in producing news in print and online that is going to be distinguished and will serve the public in the Philadelphia area,” he said. “I also believe that over the long term, they will produce a highly profitable business.”
I’m both a journalism geek and an optimist, so I’ll choose to believe most of what he believes. Except that last part about “highly profitable.”