Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Christmas Story, Part 1: 'In Such Mean Estate'

Journalists tend to love the outlets that employ them - until their hearts get broken. Josh Ransom had felt deeply loyal to each broadsheet where he'd worked.

Rob Tornoe

The tradition continues! Every year from 1997 to 2007, the Inquirer published a fictional Christmas story by Chris Satullo and artist Tony Auth, at that time the Editorial Board editor and cartoonist, respectively. Satullo continued the story at WHYY from 2009 to 2014, and it returned to the Inquirer in 2015. Like last year, Satullo teamed with staff artist Rob Tornoe.

Journalists tend to love the outlets that employ them - until their hearts get broken.

Josh Ransom had felt deeply loyal to each broadsheet where he'd worked.

But Benjamin's Key . . . Well, his love for the digital news site he'd founded was consuming, parental, half-mad.

It was his baby, formed three years ago from a mold of his mind's making.

So on this crisp December Monday morning, Josh emerged from the sweeping glass hood of the SEPTA entrance at Dilworth Park, swung past the plump city Christmas tree and the white tents of the holiday market, and bounded toward his love.

As Josh reached the edge of 15th Street, the white light flashed on, beckoning him to cross without delay. A sign? Perhaps this would be a day of rare luck, just as he'd sensed from the moment his eyes had jolted open 15 minutes ahead of his Monday alarm.

In his left hand, he held a cup of Wawa holiday roast; from that shoulder dangled a green L.L. Bean Sportsman's Briefcase holding his beloved MacBook Air.

Here was a happy man, caffeinated, on time, and eager to resume doing the best job he'd ever had with the best group he'd ever led.

Josh sauntered toward the glass doors of a Class B office tower where the 11th and 12th floors had been converted into the airy, oh-so-hip environs of Corridor. At this sleek coworking space, Josh hung out every day with his guys: the tattooed, La Colombe-fueled staff of Benjamin's Key.

These days, Josh's young Turks routinely ran digital circles around his old employers, the city's musty broadsheet. They'd turned his baby into the mobile must-read for the city's growing cohort of millennials.

Well, it was Josh's baby in spirit, but no longer his, according to the drab details of law and finance. He'd sold it a year ago to Fergus McKay, a media investor who'd probably underpaid but whose promise to let Josh keep running the shop had been worth fortunes.

Just outside the doors, Josh spied Charlie Parker. That was what Josh had mentally dubbed the aging guy who often sat on the sidewalk there, clad in innumerable, dingy layers of flannel, sweater, and sweatshirt, topped by a tobacco-flecked herringbone tweed that had begun its life on a Wanamaker's hanger way back when JFK ran the show.

Sometimes, if the timing and mood were right, Josh would engage with Charlie, share a word on the weather or the morning's news, occasionally slip him a Lincoln. Other times, other moods, Josh would race by Charlie's glance, trying to signal mere preoccupation, not steeled indifference.

"Yo, how goes it?" Josh smiled with what he hoped was non-patronizing benevolence at Charlie's topographical map of a face.

"Presume not, young man. The sword swings where it will, and no armor will avail."

"Uh . . . what?" Josh shifted his Bean bag on his shoulder.

"The sword swings, and no armor will avail. That is all."

Charlie Parker pulled his bony knees up, tucked his chin into his chest, closed his eyes, and shut Josh out.

"OK, dude, be that way. Thanks for sharing."

Inside, Josh bounded to the bank of elevators. On the way up, his momentarily rattled spirits were soothed as each "ding" signaled another floor.

Corridor's neoindustrial confines were home to about 15 start-ups and nonprofits. Each was assigned one workspace, then shared conference rooms, kitchen, and the like.

Emerging from the elevator, Josh saluted the concierge with a tip of his Wawa cup and a smile. He strode past the sunlit setting of low couches and bright-red rockers where Corridor tenants often met visitors. Reaching the far end of the open space, he tossed his bag onto the table where the Key staff gathered noisily every day.

"Mornin', guys. Anyone know what's up with that Facebook kiosk that cropped up overnight at Dilworth?"

"It's some virtual-reality jawn; I assigned Kim to check it out." This from Mallory, Josh's hyperkinetic, 28-year-old No. 2, who didn't lift her eyes from her Mac screen as her fingers danced across her split, angled, anti-RSI keyboard.

"Thanks. Is Mark's story still killing it? It was touching 600 on Chartbeat when I checked on the train in."

"Still ruling the world; I put a few bucks behind it on the Facebook."

Josh peered through the glass wall toward the stones and sculptures of City Hall, which looked near enough to touch. He loved that his scrappy, snarky crew set up shop each day just steps from the tower of power.

That crew was arrayed five to a side along the table, a thicket of wires snaking from their Apple devices into power strips hidden beneath a rust-red metal strip running down the middle of the table. Josh was older than each of them by at least 15 years, but he could join fully in their nonstop banter - spoken in the code of journalism's digital revolution.

"Jeez, this splash page is a snoozefest."

"Yeah, we should update the look."

"Fine, just no raccoons."


"Yeah, right, that jawn was before your time, Taylor. As fails go . . . legendary. Sort of our Kanye moment."

"I'm so out of the loop. OK, I'm going try something here and I want a lot of feedback and input. Just don't make me cry, bitches."

"Awww, does someone want to hug it out?"

"You know there is no hugging in journalism, right?"

Around the Key, the patter flew from the first espresso of the day to the ending break for craft beers at a Midtown Village bar. But the work got done, good work. Some stories based on tough digging had gotten City Hall buzzing, and the Key's penchant for zesty fluff tickled millennials' ironic itch. The fluff scratched out enough revenue to subsidize the digging - and to help Josh and Christie handle two tuitions at Greene Street Friends.

Josh's cell rang out with "Bad to the Bone."


"Josh, hi, it's Sara." It was Fergus' assistant.

"Sara, hey, how it's going?"

"Uh, Josh . . . " Sara's voice was uncharacteristically flat. "Fergus would like to see you this afternoon. At 2."

"Ahhh, I'm afraid that's not going to work. I'm doing a post-election panel at the Union League this afternoon. Can we set something up for tomorrow? I'm pretty clear in the a.m."

"Sorry, Josh. It's got to be today, at 2. At our office."

"What's up, Sara, why the dread tone?"

"Josh, please, just be here at 2. I really can't say more."

"Sara . . . "

"Josh, please don't ask me anything. 2 p.m. here. OK?"

Josh laid his iPhone on the table and stared at the screen for a long moment.

No armor will avail . . .