A Prayer for the Paper

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“The devil’s finest trick,” wrote Baudelaire in the 1800’s,” is to persuade you that he does not exist.”

In the post-post modern times of 2014, the more refined trick is to convince us that good men and women do not exist.

And that is a sleight of hand so deftly played by George Norcross III that many of the good folks with The Philadelphia Inquirer may well be headed over the side with hardly a tear shed in a few weeks.

This is so because the smart money says Norcross will be the last man standing when a bid among quarreling owners finishes by the end of May.  The bid for the paper — sold just a few years back for $55 million — will start in the $70 million plus range.  Norcross already has offered that — in what he hopes is a pre-emptive move against the papers’ rescue by  Lewis Katz or any others riding a white horse.

The other news media in general have sort of sighed about the ongoing struggles at The Inquirer.  The writer for Philadelphia Magazine announced he has stopped covering the event because it was the equivalent of bad television — the crew of Star Trek stumbling to one side of the screen to another.  The website Big Trial, at its salacious worst, dismissed the issues at play as “all pussy and bullshit.”

Such is the state of cynicism in the city.  At its best, such cheap ironic resignation is a disguised cowardice.  It is the same camo that covers the lazy workings of fearful journalistic minds that report objective and false “moral equivalents.” Thus it was that throughout the reporting of the events, Norcross was somehow portrayed as the moral equivalent of the senior editors at The Inquirer who will be fired if Norcross wins the bid.  And the paper’s editors and writers — heroic in most cultures — were portrayed as sluts and knaves.

Most of these folks I know.  They are good men and women who seek to report facts and truths.  They cannot be reduced to “liberal” or “conservative” thinkers because they are journalists.  They are imperfect as we all are, but they have chosen a path I still consider noble:  examining events and facts and providing a report of them upon which readers may act with affect.  Without them, without that function, we’ve lost the essential fourth estate.

The Philadelphia citizenry — its leaders and large and small — are about to hand over its metro newspaper to an effective but ruthless politician, who claims to be acting on behalf of the papers’ readers at the same time he sends out campaign contribution solicitation letters to its reporters and smears women journalists.  HIs electronic strategy is pegged to a hopelessly outdated and discredited “Boston”approach.  His chief claim to fame as a Democratic machine politician is a real talent for running ruthless political campaigns a la Republicans like Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes.  He thinks a rally good story on Philly.com is a contest among a narcoleptic squirrel, a how to story on sex in airplanes, and the opening of a South Jersey strip mall.

Life will go on if Norcross wins.  Just as it would if Donald Trump directed the Philadelphia Orchestra.  But it would be life greatly diminished.

And here at least is one prayer that the people of the city — particularly those who can speak with money — understand that the moral equivalencies are not equal here.  If Norcross wins, there aren’t just a few losers on the other side.  There are millions.

For those with the means to join this fight and the ability to change the outcome, let them please join now.




  1. Robert – a fine piece and one that touched my love of journalism. I think it is very accurate…and very sad. It also seems inevitable unless Katz and Lenfest are willing to go toe-to-toe with Norcross, et al. As for the financing, I simply don’t get it. The papers sold to Tierney for $500M plus about a decade ago. They were dumped at a fire sale for about $55 million a few years back. Now- for someone reason apparently known only to high rollers – they are going for $75M? Don ‘t the creditors look at the numbers of the entity to be purchased.
    Also, I think Katz and his editor friend, have reduced the credibility of the good guys. I remember the Cianfrani debacle where Abe Rosenthal was quoted as saying something along the lines of “I don’t care if you sleep with the elephants, as long as you don’t cover the circus.”
    Still, one can hope against hope. Or, perhaps that is a bunch of curmudgeons saying, “I remember back in ’85…”
    Very nice piece.

  2. just curious. upon what do you base your “smart money” analysis? i’ve heard other theories that sound much more likely and/or promising. also, there is no such thing as the “philadelphia symphony orchestra”
    a few seconds ago

    1. Thanks for the catch on the orchestra. I’d love to hear more optimistic cases where Katz and company break the bank and outbid Norcross, but any one seeking to beat Norcross is at a huge disadvantage for several reasons. First of all, he’s already set the value of the paper 35% higher than the $55 million — even though revenue has not increased. Anyone seeking to outbid him has to think twice before paying a $20 million plus premium unsupported by business results.

      My hope is that some good citizens do outbid him, but Norcross has a distinct advantage in that his team already owns nearly 60% of the paper. So in terms of real money, every time he increases the price, he is paying himself back, so the ultimate cost is less.

      On the other hand, Katz and Lendfest have more money. Let’s hope they buy it, and then donate it to a foundation.

      What are your scenarios?

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