The Best Treatment for a Dying Newspaper -- Euthanize It. Been There, Done That.
Sad Philadelphia story in the morning papers: The company that publishes The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com is negotiating to sell all three entities to a cabal of rich, powerful politicians. In a heart-rending op-ed piece in The New York Times, veteran Philadelphia reporter Buzz Bissinger says of the two venerable newspapers:
"They are a shell of what they once were. But the papers, in spite of endless staff cuts over the past two decades, still report. They still investigate. They still provide immeasurable value."I think not. I remember the days of Barlett and Steele at the Inquirer, the investigative duo whose career still makes Woodward and Bernstein look like Dr. Seuss. That was immeasurable value. This situation? Maybe not so much.
Bissinger might wonder who the hell I am to open my mouth down here in Texas, but I have been through this in a major American city. This one. Dallas. I have a different view.
The best thing an American city can do with a weak and dying daily newspaper is take it out back on the parking lot and put a bullet in its head. There's nothing more dangerous, pernicious, corrupt or corrupting than a newspaper on its ass.
It's like any business on its ass. It will sell whatever it's got left long enough to keep the wolves away. And the last thing it has to sell is its ass. Its integrity. Five bucks a pop.
The plan unfolding in Philadelphia is the perfect case study. Gregory J. Osberg, chief executive most excellent blah-blah of the company -- the money -- wants to peddle both papers and the web thing to a gang of wired-up politicos headed by former Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell.
Many of the things in this photo of this painting no longer exist.
These guys hate newspapers. Bissinger recounts how angry and thin-skinned they are every time they get tapped by a negative story. He says, "These men want the papers because they crave power and will always crave power. They like to win and they have always liked to win. They can erect the biggest firewall they want between themselves and the papers. It won't matter. As the owners of The Inquirer and The Daily News and the Web site Philly.com, they will have successfully toppled the last enemy."
After The Dallas Times Herald died in 1991, there was a lot of crying going on about how sad it was for Dallas to have only one daily newspaper. I kept my mouth shut. But I had been too close to it. My own thought was, "Now we have only one daily newspaper, but we have one less whore."
I was on the editorial board. The paper was down to a handful of major advertisers, any one of which had the power to put plywood in our windows the next day by cutting us off. They sniffed that power immediately.
One of the biggest of our scant remaining national advertisers demanded to meet regularly with the editorial board on issues of importance to that company. But we didn't get the picture good enough. So they met with the money, and it was decided they would begin faxing us memos suggesting positions we might want to take on their issues.
But even when we took the positions they told us to, we didn't get the tone and the phrasing just right. So they started faxing us our editorials on those issues, already written up just as they were to appear in the paper. Sweet.
One day I came in, and my colleague was sitting with his head in his hands. "The assholes are pissed off at us again," he said. "We didn't use the same type face for the headline that they had on the fax."
Look, people don't give you money. They hand you money to buy something. It's the same deal with these so-called nonprofit publishing ventures online like The Texas Tribune, bankrolled by some kind of angels.
They're not angels. Maybe they are today. But they got their money in the first place by being assholes. One day the rubber meets the road, and they turn into assholes again.
The only way for the Philadelphia papers to get out of their situation is to bring in more of their own money over the transom. Get the readers, sell the ads, do what they have to do to get back into black ink. Freedom of the press happens in one place and one place alone. The bottom line.
What's different with our own assholes, when newspapers are profitable and competitive? Well, for one thing, they're our own assholes. They get the business. They know the only way to make money in the long run is by telling people the truth every little chance you get.
But even our own assholes need the hot breath of competition on their necks to keep them honest. In the very last ditch, the highest journalistic ethic is the one that says, "I have to tell the damned readers the son of a bitching truth, because if I don't those unscrupulous dirty bastards across the street will tell them truth just to get ahead of me." When that goes, watch out.
So in Philadelphia you have two weak-ass newspapers published by the same money with no competition, openly trying to sell their own ass to their own worst enemies. Let me ask you a sincere question. How much good do you think can come of that situation?
Believe me. I know exactly how heartbreaking it is. It's like looking out the front window at home and thinking, "Oh, my God! Is that Mom out there, selling herself for crack?"
In Mom's case, you can't shoot her. You wouldn't. She's Mom. And shooting her would be a violation of state and federal regulations.
Not newspapers. When you see one of them out on there the curb hiking her skirt to passing cars, or, in the masculine image, lowering his trousers, do the old whore and everybody else a favor. Shoot to kill.
Listen, Bissinger: It's not the end of the world. They're just companies. Do you know how much money some guys make with those lawn-care trailers with all the string trimmers and the illegal immigrants? Life goes on. It can even get better.