PMN’s new owners pledge not to meddle in news decisions

Posted: April 02, 2012

From nuclear power to the Barnes Foundation, from a lucrative casino license to the Democratic machine in South Jersey, the new owners of The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com have long been influential players on hot-button issues.

Local ownership poses editorial challenges for the news organizations, journalism experts and other analysts say. But the owners' local roots and wealth may give the papers crucial financial breathing room, they add.

Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said coverage must not become a vehicle for the political or financial agendas of the new local owners. Top editors and the publisher must insist on that, Jurkowitz said.

"To maintain the editorial integrity," he said, "the right kind of people have to run it, both in the editing and publishing slots."

At the same time, he and other analysts said, the new owners may accept a lesser profit margin than was demanded by the hedge funds and banks who sold to them, and they may have a greater stake in the community the papers cover.

In this sale, the fourth since 2006, Philadelphia Media Network has been bought by six wealthy businessmen with deep involvement in area commerce and politics.

They also have been generous philanthropists - giving that in itself can be newsworthy or controversial.

The new owners Monday made public their joint pledge that "no owner shall attempt to influence or interfere with editorial policies or news decisions."

A leader of the group, Lewis Katz, noted that former Inquirer owner Walter H. Annenberg, who sold the paper more than 40 years ago, was notorious for meddling in news coverage.

But now, Katz said, "no one's going to interfere with the news. They would be crazy to do that. That's what Walter Annenberg did. You can't do that today."

Katz also said the buyers had invested "patient capital." Added another investor, William P. Hankowsky: "We now have a new patient ownership that plans to be around for a long time."

Katz, 70, made his millions in law, banking, billboards, and parking garages - the latter two inextricably linked to politics, and issues of taxes, fees, zoning, and right-of-way approvals.

In the last decade, Katz has made more than $200,000 in political donations, giving overwhelmingly to Democrats. He was also a backer of the Foxwoods casino in Philadelphia, which lost its license due to construction delays.

Joining Katz is George E. Norcross III, 56, an insurance broker, ardent advocate for Camden - and unelected Democratic Party leader in Camden and Gloucester Counties.

Last week, New Jersey's comptroller issued a stinging report that questioned $410,000 paid to Norcross by a Delaware River Port Authority vendor. Norcross said the payment was legal.

Another new owner is H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, 81, a cable TV billionaire now known primarily as a philanthropist.

Lenfest was board chairman of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for most of the last decade. He also helped lead the controversial campaign to bring the Barnes art collection to Philadelphia.

He, too, is an active Democrat. In the last decade, he's made more than $1.8 million in campaign contributions, mainly to Democrats.

The three other buyers aren't as well-known. K.P. "Kris" Singh, 64, is president of a South Jersey company that builds equipment for power plants.

A registered Republican, he has given about $40,000 in GOP contributions in recent years. He sits on the board of Cooper University Hospital in Camden, where Norcross is board chairman.

Another group member, Joseph Buckelew, 81, is the chairman of Norcross' insurance business. He's a former Republican Party chairman in Ocean County.

The final member, Hankowsky, 61, a former top city commerce official who runs the $6 billion Malvern-based Liberty Property Trust, is chairman of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. A registered Democrat, he has made about $30,000 in campaign donations in the last 10 years.

In interviews, the journalism analysts said the public should give the new owners "the benefit of the doubt," as professor Tom Goldstein put it.

"I'm assuming they're doing this out of civic motivation," said Goldstein, a former New York Times reporter now at the journalism graduate school of the University of California, Berkeley.

When negotiations first began for the current sale, former Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and Ed Snider, an owner of the Flyers, were part of the team, but they withdrew in recent weeks.

They did so after Republican Gov. Corbett, among others, criticized the possible conflicts their inclusion posed - and after several incidents in which the papers' publisher, Gregory J. Osberg, blocked publication of information about the sale.

In early March, 300 journalists employed at the papers and the website, as well as more than 100 former editorial staffers, signed a public statement insisting that the new owners not reshape news coverage to serve "private or political interests."

In a recent interview, Philadelphia author Buzz Bissinger - his one of the sharpest area voices to raise concerns - said the ownership makeup remained problematic.

Bissinger, a former Inquirer reporter who shared a Pulitzer Prize at the paper, cited the New Jersey report on Norcross:

"Based on that allegation alone, how that man could possibly be anywhere near a newspaper, let alone own one, is (a) beyond me, and (b) an absolute disaster for the city and the region."

Bissinger was also skeptical of Katz's involvement.

"Lewis Katz is an entrepreneur and has his fingers into a lot of things. He's always been a big campaign contributor," Bissinger said. "What is going to happen to coverage of people he is supporting?"

A Katz friend, Dennis J. Cogan, a prominent Philadelphia defense lawyer, said such critics had it all wrong.

"Lewis always loved newspapers," Cogan said. "He's doing it for a reason, and it's not money and it is certainly not to accumulate power, because it's not something he needs at this point. I think he feels he can really make a difference and save the paper."

Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University and former editor of the Chicago Tribune, said owners with many interests can pose problems for editors. When those interests involve business or politics, "the stakes are higher," she said. "Many readers will parse news stories and editorials and have a hard time believing that the bias they perceive is not in fact real."

Still, as newspapers' readership, advertising, profits - and sale prices - have all plummeted, the experts said, it's hardly surprising that the newest round of owners includes local moguls drawn to papers for their influence more than their economics.

Jurkowitz, a former ombudsman for the Boston Globe whose journalism think tank gets funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts, said, in effect, that beggars can't be choosers. Nationwide, he said there's been a reappraisal of who might be suitable as owners.

"The stark choice in many cases," he said, "has been between finding a white knight in the local community - and I use that term very broadly - or a newspaper going out of business."

Thomas J. Bray, former editorial page editor of the Detroit News, cautioned, "At the end of the day, the owner does own the property and has the legal right, if not the moral right, to do with it what he or she will."


Contact staff writer Craig R. McCoy at 215-854-4821 or cmccoy@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Joseph Tanfani contributed to this article.

|
|
|
|
|