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An open letter to the next owners of Philadelphia Media Networks

Dear next owner of Philadelphia Media Networks...whoever you are,

I've been meaning to write you for a couple of weeks -- it's been hard what with all the confusion not only about what we're allowed or not allowed to say but also the non-stop swirl of events that seem to whipsaw back and forth on an almost hourly basis. For the last few days, the debate over the cloudy future of the Philadelphia Daily News, the Inquirer and has focused almost entirely on closely intertwined issues surrounding "editorial integrity" -- the extent to which current owners have interfered with the news side of operations and the fear that new owners, especially the widely discussed group of would-be buyers led by former Gov. Ed Rendell. will do more of the same, on behalf of their many overlapping political agendas in Philadelphia and the suburbs.

No one can ignore those issues, but I want to keep this part short. I proudly joined more than 300 journalists in signing our clarion call for editorial integrity, and I believe that while what's happened in the immediate past cannot be undone, a pledge of non-interference in news operations going forward (the editorial page always has been, and always will be, a different story) that goes even beyond a similar promise made by Brian Tierney when his local group bought the papers in 2006 is a bottom-line minimum for any new owner.

As for the specific fears about the Rendell group voiced most notably by former Inquirer reporter Buzz Bissinger in his New York Times op-ed: Sure, we all have concerns about the political ties not just of Rendell but key backers like George Norcross and Ed Snider -- but anyone who's rich enough to buy a major organization is going to bring those issues. The same worries existed with past owners, including locals Walter Annenberg and Tierney, and will be there for whoever buys Philadelphia Media Networks, including the others who've expressed a desire to bid.

My concern, and my reason for writing, is some major issues that have been almost completely overlooked. I want to bring up three, as succinctly as possible.

1. Killing the Daily News as a separate newspaper wouldn't just be bad for Philadelphia but it would be a dumb business decision. I hadn't initially planned to make this point -- sometimes just raising this issue does more harm than good -- but there's been widespread speculation since last week's announcement about merging some functions of the Daily News and Inquirer that this is the first step toward killing our scrappy urban tabloid. I hope that's not true. I'm not sure if all my colleagues agree with me, but I actually do support the idea of the papers sharing coverage of so-called "commodity news" -- routine courts or crime articles or "game stories" in sports -- if it frees up journalists for investigative reporting and exclusive articles or perspectives. But moving toward eliminating the smaller-in-circulation Daily News would be a huge mistake.

The first reason is the obvious one: It would mean fewer people in Philadelphia would be getting local news -- and there would be less of it. Once, many American cities had papers like the Daily News -- aimed at urban and blue-collar readers, and until two decades ago, published largely in the afternoon -- and most are long gone. The survival of the Daily News is a credit to a powerful bond that the paper has forged with its rowhouse readers. Too many media pundits who stare at a lighted screen for 12 hours a day, and know only folks just like them, forget there are still lots of people who DON'T work or live on their computer -- from the cop on the beat to the nurse in the intensive care unit -- and in Philly the paper they grab on their way to or from work is the Daily News. What's more, "The People's Paper" historically has a higher percentage of African-American readers than any other major metro paper in America. "Civic duty" -- the reason cited by the Rendell group in wanting to buy PMN -- demands this audience be served, and there's something else. The existence of two papers -- and the fiercely competitive newsrooms, despite the shared ownership of the Daily News and Inquirer -- has led to important stories that I believe would never have seen the light of day with just one newspaper. There's a reason that coverage of police corruption -- punctuated by the 2010 Pulitzer Prize won by my Daily News friends and colleagues Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker -- has been better in Philadelphia than in most cities, and that reason is two proud, dueling newsrooms.

But the second reason for saving the Daily News may be even more important in the bottom-line-oriented world that we live in: It will cost you money if you close it. If the DN stopped publishing tomorrow, the number of loyal Daily News readers who would switch to the stodgier, broadsheet Inquirer could probably be counted on the fingertips and toes of the new owners. The reality is that most news organizations in other cities are frantically trying to figure out how to gain the thousands of readers who'd be lost -- forever in most cases -- if the Daily News ceased to be. Indeed, the immediate loss of circulation dollars and ad revenue would be, in my opinion, even greater than the ill will that would be caused by killing the Daily News, even though that ill will would be considerable. Your two stated motives for buying PMN -- civic duty and making a profit -- would be undercut in one fell swoop.

2. In 2012, it takes more than "civic duty" to own a news organization but a plan for real and rapid change. Quite frankly, what dismayed me the most when I saw the names of interested buyers for the Daily News, Inquirer and was not so much what seemed to worry most people -- the potential for political conflicts of interest -- as the lack of true innovators for a digital age. You almost never see the folks behind Internet pioneers like a Google or a Facebook bidding to buy newspapers (even though they seem to be people with the necessary cash) because apparently traditional news orgs just aren't on their radar screen, and that's a shame. I think a truly successful news entrepreneur in 2012 is some with a sense of civic duty and a commitment to journalistic integrity -- but also a proven record of digital success. That savior has not shown up...yet.

One interesting thing that I've noticed is that the people who want to own traditional newspaper companies tend to be people of a certain age, successful businessmen (all the known interested PMN buyers are male, which is unfortunate) in their 50s or 60s or even older. They came of age at a time in the 1970s and 1980s when the power of the American newspaper was at its absolute zenith, and I worry their ideas remain stuck in that bygone era. After all, as an older news consumer you go to your doorstep every morning and the newspaper doesn't look much different than it did in 1978, does it? You need to understand, would-be owner, that it looks and feels completely different when you're on the inside of a newsroom as we scramble to attract digital readers and as a new generation that will never, ever read a paper like you did comes along.

My worries come from watching the last local ownership group under Brian Tierney: It struck me that many of their ideas for saving journalism were what I would call "1978 ideas," whether it was hectoring old-fashioned print-ad salesmen to try to sell more print ads in the same old-fashioned ways, or the idea that somewhat famous Sunday columnists like Lisa Scottoline or Mark Bowden would somehow put the kibosh on readers migrating to the World Wide Web. This time, any new owner of Philadelphia Media Networks will need to figure out how to meld the old-school qualities that have resulted in 18 Pulitzer Prizes for the Inquirer and three for the Daily News with the entrepreneurial spirit and outside-the-box thinking of Silicon Valley. These bold changes will require bringing in smart new people and almost certainly making a few clever investments as opposed (gasp!) to only making cuts. The vibe I get so far from the would-be owners is they want to buy the Philadelphia papers to keep them the same. That's noble, but that's also not enough. There needs to be a zeal to make them better, to be agents of radical change.

Please start by reading a remarkable recent speech by Journal Register CEO John Paton with this blunt title: "Old Dogs, New Tricks, and Crappy Newspaper Executives."

3. You'll be throwing your dollars down the drain if you buy the papers to dictate to the community, instead of listening to everyday citizens and partnering with them.The notion that powerful local people want to buy the papers to influence political decisions is worrisome, but what worries me even more is the idea that any news organization might think it's a good idea in 2012 to dictate or talk-down to the community of readers in any way -- regardless of politics. As longtime readers know, when the newspapers were up for sale back in 2005 I called for new kind of news organization that I called (probably foolishly) a "norg" because it wouldn't be solely wedded to a printed newspaper. And, for a short time, before all the sales and Chapter 11s and job cuts and everything else, we were having a great conversation here in Philadelphiaabout closing the gap between professional journalists and their local communities. We talked about ways to create relationships between a news org like the one now called PMN and citizen journalists and bloggers, and involving readers more through techniques like crowdsourcing -- and almost nothing was done.

Next owners, it may run against your lifetime of political instincts, but if you can let go, there is a tremendous opportunity here to fix this problem going forward. One example: The digital divide of poor and working-class people lacking basic access to high-speed Internet remains a worse problem here in Philadelphia than just about anywhere else in America. But that crisis also creates opportunity. Just imagine a bold program that would not only connect lower-income Philadelphia to a world of information on the Internet -- talk about fulfilling civic duty! -- but also working with those neighborhoods in creating citizen-journalists who could cover the things that are truly important to them. That's a project that could not only save journalism in Philadelphia for years to come but could attract serious philanthropic dollars -- a mission for a master fundraiser, like...I don't know, Ed Rendell maybe?

The bottom line is that journalistic bosses trying to control the community in Philadelphia will fail. We will only succeed if the community supports and empowers us as journalists.

And I think the key to a successful sale of the Philadelphia newspapers is going to be something we've hardly seen at all so far, and that is a lot more transparency, starting right now. Not everyone may agree with this analogy, but I think what's really bothering a lot of people about this process so far is similar to the factors unraveling the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, in that we know that Romney desperately wants to get to the White House but the average voter doesn't understand why, or what he'd actually do if he gets there. So far, the same is true of the people identified as would-be buyers of Philadelphia Media Networks. We know who they are, but next to nothing of why they want to own this organization. While I think it's too late for Mitt Romney, it's not too late here. I'm no expert in newspaper sales and confidentiality rules, but I'd advise any and all would-be buyers to hold a press conference -- tomorrow, if possible. By all means, talk about your love for and the Inquirer and the Daily News -- especially the Daily News! -- but also talk about how your love is going to make us better, and keep us alive not just next month but 20 years from now, when I'll be 73 and would like to still be working here.

Don't get me wrong -- the fact that wealthy people think it's a civic duty to keep traditional journalism alive in Philadelphia is a wonderful thing.

But that can't be the end of the conversation. It has to be the beginning.