Philadelphia Inquirer Seeks Bailout

January 28th, 2009 4:15 PM

We all wondered if it would happen. NB readers said it would very soon. NB author Tom Blumer even predicted this would be the year for it. Now the largest newspaper in Philadelphia is requesting a bailout.

In a perfectly ironic fashion it took a lawsuit for the public to learn that the Philadelphia Inquirer is seeking $10 million dollars from the state of Pennsylvania. The bailout request was revealed after the school filed suit against the paper for a series of articles questioning the school’s use of government funds.

Now, according to an interview between the Philadelphia Bulletin and Pennsylvania Governor Democrat Ed Rendell's press secretary, there is little doubt that the Philadelphia Inquirer is indeed requesting a $10 million bailout. The request comes at a time of great financial trouble for the owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Media Holdings. The company has been missing its debt payments since June and is in "technical default" according to the Bulletin.

Here's what Chuck Ardo, Rendell's press secretary, had to say about the proposed bailout:

The Bulletin: It has been reported that Inquirer publisher Brian Tierney has approached Gov. Rendell for a $10 million bailout for the newspaper. 

Did that conversation take place?

Chuck Ardo: The governor and Brian Tierney have had a number of conversations over the course of the last several months.  The governor has made no commitment as a result of those conversations.

TB:  Is the bailout something that is still on the table?

CA: He would certainly be open to discussions with Brian, but we need to look at the situation that we are in economically and financially, and I think any discussions have to be seen through that prism.

Judging from that exchange it seems quite likely that this newspaper bailout will become reality. The fact that Chuck Ardo confirmed that the governor could grant the bailout without consent from the legislature leaves little chance that the Inquirer won't get the $10 million it wants, especially considering the Democrat governor was quick to bailout retail chain Boscovs:

TB: Would that require legislative approval, or would it come from the executive branch?

CA: There are ways that the executive branch can do this without need for legislative action.

Of course while this would be the largest newspaper bailout yet and the first where cash went directly from the government to the paper it isn't the first time newspapers have wanted help from the state. Tom Blumer's article that I alluded to earlier chronicles the efforts of Connecticut newspapers to procure themselves a bailout. But this potential government bailout of the very entity charged as its watchdog raises still some very obvious and very serious questions:

TB: It’s one thing when the government becomes involved in car companies and banks, but how do you think the public would react to a media company seeking and receiving government bailout money from Gov. Rendell?  Can it truly be viewed as objective and unbiased in its political reporting?

CA: The entire concept of a democracy depends on an informed public. Newspapers are a critical source of information, so there is a fundamental need for newspapers to continue to provide that information to the public.  Now whether that information rises to the level of triggering help from the commonwealth, is something we’ll have to wait for the future to unfold.

I don't know about you but it didn't seem to me that Mr. Ardo answered the Bulletin's question. I mean, sure, people need to be informed in a democracy but they also need to be fully informed. And if the government is paying your salary can you truly remain objective in your coverage of that government? How can a media company who has to worry about obtaining government money to stay afloat be nearly as critical as one who doesn't? And if the media outlet is providing subjective and biased information as a result of a bailout how much better is that than if it were providing no information at all?

Take the editorial in today's Inquirer that calls for frugal spending and keen oversight of the federal bailouts for example. The piece rails against "earmarking funds for dubious pet projects" as well as prodding the federal government to "ensure that the taxpayers get the best bang for their bailout bucks". Will the Inquirer be equally inclined to question the frugality, intelligence, and legitimacy behind Pennsylvania's bailouts now that it is next in line to receive one?