It figures -- on the night that the parent company of the Philadelphia Daily News and Inquirer filed for bankruptcy protection, there was pizza. I mean, we almost always have pizza for big events at the Daily News newsroom, an Eagles playoff game or a big election...so why not Chapter 11? This time, the leaning tower of white cardboard boxes arrived about 10 minutes before I was told -- I'm the night editor on Sundays at the DN -- that our reporter who was already writing a piece about bankruptcy at the Journal Register company, which owns a bunch of papers in the Philly region, was now going to be shifting gears and writing about our own Chapter 11 filing instead.
OK, OK, technically the pizza was for Oscar night -- but I still think there was some higher meaning -- the bread of life, our workaday existence as pepperoni-stained newsroom wretches, the thing that sustains us and that keeps us going even as bankers and lawyers and their inscrutable paperwork come and go.
I woke up this morning to see that we -- the Philadelphia Newspapers LLC and its bankruptcy filing -- were the No. 3 story on CNN, right after new missiles on North Korea and President Obama's stimulus plan. So I figure people must be wondering what it was like in the middle of this news tsunami -- except really it felt more like the eye of a hurricane, weirdly calm.
This is a newspaper, after all, so there was a fair amount of gallows humor (when phone rang from the front desk at midnight to sat "the papers are here," we weren't sure if it was the early edition of the Inquirer, or the local sherrif). Around 9 o'clock, the Daily News managing editor Pat McLoone huddled the smallish night staff around the sports copy desk to tell us -- yes, off the record -- what he knew, which wasn't really much more than what you can read in this morning's paper. Reporters and copy editors -- several of whom had spent the prior 15 minutes Googling and Wikipedia-ing Chapter 11 -- calmly asked what you'd expect people to ask, such as, "Will I still get paid?" (yes, we've been informed).
Frankly, I hadn't really planned to write any more about the events of last night (beyond this perfunctory post), but I was stuck over the course of the evening not with what was different but with what was the same -- the pizza, yes, but mainly I mean the remarkable focus and professionalism of this tiny band of guerilla journalists who somehow manage to cover a city of 1.4 million people, and cover it incredibly well under the circumstances, this being just the latest.
And so as reports of our bankruptcy filing echoed across our cavernous and overbuilt newsroom, Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker barely looked up from the computer monitor where the two had been hunched for much of the evening. The grim economic report wasn't their headline but a distraction from their mission, another installment in a remarkable series of articles about a case of alleged corruption in the Philadelphia police department, a case that has not only roiled the force but offers the hope of justice to some citizens who appear to have been wronged by the system. Meanwhile, Regina Medina was answering urgent emails from the Newspaper Guild even as she stayed glued to her headset with a source for a news story she hopes you'll be reading in the not-distant future. This is the Daily News, so it wasn't all so life-or-death -- our Oscars team stayed focused on the latest fashion murders, 3,000 miles away. Our own bankruptcy? That was one more story on the budget.
You know, there are some people who say that newspapers deserve everything that's happening to our industry, and others who say that American democracy will collapse the second that the last faded bundle of newsprint and ink appears on the last doorstep. The truth lies where it usually does, somewhere in between.
Since I started writing on this topic a few years back, my message has always been the same -- that while we journalists should look inward and accept some blame (and this is a large cast that includes Wall Street-minded owners, Beltway blowhards and high priests of mind-numbing phony objectivity, among others) for what has happened so far, we also need to fight to preserve some form of the news. For the community and for our democracy, yes -- but also in the good name of thousands of my amazing colleagues far outside the Beltway, from Pottsville to Wichita to 400 North Broad Street, who keep doing what they do with little regard to the 16-ton weight of bank notes and legal papers that dangles over our head, Wile E. Coyote-style. The kind of people that you don't see on your cable TV every night because they're too busy working the phones, or exposing public corruption.
Last night at 11:38 p.m., Brian Tierney, the CEO of the Daily News' parent, sent out an "Important Notice" to employees. One of the things he told us was that "[i]It is important that you provide reassurance to the advertisers, readers and business contacts with whom you interact that PNL continues to do business as usual." It's funny, because I'm so often not on the same page with management, but I guess in an odd way my message is exactly that. Some day even the pizza man may abruptly stop coming. But last night was living proof of what I've believed from Day One of this crisis.