This seems rather prescient given the events of the past few days. Here’s what Jeff Bezos told Washington Post staffers in 2013, shortly after it was announced he’d buy the paper. From “The Return of the Moguls”:
In his message to Washington Post staff members the day that the purchase was announced, Bezos alluded to an infamous moment during Watergate when Nixon henchman John Mitchell barked at Bernstein that “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer” if a particularly damaging story were published. Bezos wrote, “While I hope no one ever threatens to put one of my body parts through a wringer, if they do, thanks to Mrs. Graham’s example, I’ll be ready.” As we shall see, it was not long before Bezos would be put to the test.
The first quote is from Katharine Graham’s autobiography, “Personal History”; the second is from a Post account of the sale.
I’ll be back in Washington on Friday for the National Press Club’s annual book fair, which will be held from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. “The Return of the Moguls” will be among the titles featured, and sales will be handled by Politics and Prose. If you’re in the capital and would like to drop by, I’d love to see you. More information here.
I had a great time today speaking at Northeastern with Latin American journalists about “The Return of the Moguls.” Their trip to the Boston area was sponsored by WorldBoston, which collaborates with the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program. A great group with lots of smart questions.
Following a summer hiatus, I’ll be doing some book events this fall. The first will be held this Wednesday, Sept. 19, at 7 p.m. at the Parlin Memorial Library, located at 410 Broadway in Everett, where I’ll be reading from and signing “The Return of the Moguls.” I hope to see you there.
H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest didn’t want to run a newspaper. In 2014 the Philadelphia billionaire, who died last week at the age of 88, unexpectedly won an auction to buy the city’s paper of record, the Inquirer, and its sister properties, the Daily News and Philly.com, media outlets that he already owned in part and was hoping to unload. “He did not expect to have to write a check that day,” Joel Mathis, a former reporter for Philadelphia magazine, told me. “He thought he was going to be getting a check that day.”
Just a few weeks later, Lenfest’s business partner, Lewis Katz, was killed in a plane crash along with six others, leaving Lenfest as the sole, unhappy proprietor. Lenfest’s solution to his dilemma was an act of generosity that continues to reverberate, and that could serve as a possible blueprint for saving the shrinking newspaper business. In early 2016 he donated the properties to a nonprofit organization, the Philadelphia Foundation. And he endowed the institute that the foundation set up to run the properties — now known as the Lenfest Institute for Journalism — with an initial $20 million from his fortune.
“Of all the things I’ve done, this is the most important. Because of the journalism,” Lenfest said when the complicated transaction was announced.
As it happened, I had already scheduled interviews with a number of Philadelphia journalists for a book project. I arrived on the Amtrak in the aftermath of a monumental snowstorm. What I encountered was a warm sense of (to invoke a cliché) cautious optimism.
Bill Marimow, the respected editor who had been fired or demoted twice through years of musical-chairs ownership, was particularly enthusiastic about the structure Lenfest had set up. Though the three properties would be owned by a nonprofit, they would be run as a for-profit “public-benefit corporation,” which meant that they would not be legally required to serve the financial interests of shareholders or investors.
“There’s parity between the mandate to do great journalism and the mandate to have an economically viable business,” Marimow said. “But the priority is no longer maximizing profits. It’s having sufficient profits to keep producing good journalism.”
These days, of course, there’s no guarantee that newspapers will have the resources to cover the communities they serve even without the pressure to turn a profit. Newspaper advertising, both in print and online, plunged from a high of $49.4 billion in 2005 to an estimated $16.5 billion in 2017, according to the Pew Research Center. Full-time newsroom employment fell by nearly half during roughly the same period.
Here and there a few wealthy newspaper owners are trying to figure out ways to revive their struggling businesses. Jeff Bezos’s efforts at The Washington Post are the best-known, but he runs what he has repositioned as a national digital news organization. The economics of large regional papers like the Inquirer are very different — and much more difficult. For every paper like The Boston Globe, where billionaire owner John Henry has attempted to minimize newsroom cuts while figuring out a path to sustainability, there are dozens owned by hedge funds and corporate chains that have plundered their newspapers in order to squeeze out their last remaining profits.
The nonprofit/for-profit hybrid model that Lenfest set up in Philadelphia is not a panacea. Ultimately, the papers still have to break even, an enormous challenge in the current environment. Still, the Philadelphia experiment has brought stable ownership, community-minded oversight and a journalism-first mindset to the Inquirer and its sister properties after years of chaos. That is a commendable legacy — and one worth emulating elsewhere.
Many thanks to Cosmo Macero and everyone at O’Neill & Associates for a two-part interview on their podcast, “OA On Air,” about “The Return of the Moguls.” The first part is here; it starts at 11:30. The second is here.
You’ll find information on how to subscribe to “OA On Air” right here.
I recently had a chance to talk about “The Return of the Moguls,” fake news and other media issues on “SouthCoast Matters,” a local-access cable show carried by Taunton Community Access and Media. We did two half-hour programs, which you can see here and here.
Thanks to host Paul Letendre and Taunton Daily Gazette city editor Rebecca Hyman for a great conversation. The post-taping pizza was excellent as well.
Now here’s something sobering to think about. Recently I had a chance to talk about “The Return of the Moguls” with Phil Gallagher of “BNews,” part of Burlington Cable Access Television. And Phil informed me that the first time I was on his show was 38 years ago, when he was a Burlington selectman and I was a reporter for The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn. I guess we should both be grateful that we’re still upright.
The Poynter Institute, a leading journalism-education organization based in St. Petersburg, Florida, has published a doubleheader on “The Return of the Moguls”: an essay about how the book came together and an excerpt on the newspaper business’ bumpy transition to the digital age. Here are some upcoming events: