When Joe Natoli, the publisher of both the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, announced last month that 100 combined newsroom jobs would be cut from the papers – 75 at the Inquirer and 25 at the Daily News – an outpouring of support came from an unlikely place.
State Sen. Vincent Fumo (D., Phila.), who has been the target of more than a few negative investigative reports by both newspapers, pledged his support almost immediately after the workforce reduction was announced, asking Gov. Ed Rendell and Mayor John Street to meet with Natoli and other Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. leaders to discuss ways the cutbacks might be avoided, including possible tax breaks.
“Any time a major employer in the city attempts to eliminate a large number of jobs, I think elected officials have an obligation to examine possible solutions,” Fumo said in a Sept. 23 press release. “For a number of reasons, that is especially true in this case. As a lifelong Philadelphian, I consider the Inquirer and Daily News to be institutions, part of what makes this city great. Although I’m often upset by some of the things they write, including occasionally what they write about me, I consider an aggressive free press to be a fundamental part of a free society.”
Much to the chagrin of Fumo, Natoli announced Thursday neither he nor execs from PNI’s parent company, Knight Ridder, would meet with the lawmakers.
Citing a possible conflict of interest, Natoli declined by saying, “We cover government, and we can’t have the perception we are looking for help from government.”
Though Fumo replied by saying the talks could have proceeded “without violating the editorial impartiality of the two newspapers,” Natoli made the right call.
Sure, Fumo’s repeated efforts to support the newspapers are admirable, especially considering his image hasn’t always been helped by the newspapers. In a time when government increasingly stymies reporters’ requests for access to officials and documents, Fumo’s public recognition of the importance of a free press for the health of this city and for democracy is especially refreshing.
But it is that same free press that needs as much autonomy as possible to operate efficiently and to maintain the trust of readers who are increasingly disenchanted with newspapers as a medium for news.
Cutting jobs and opting to bypass talks with helpful officials doesn’t seem to be the formula for creating a product consumers will latch on to. Fewer hands on deck at both staffs will likely equate to an inferior product that people aren’t as interested in buying, meaning fewer dollar signs.
Though Natoli’s decision on its face might seem counterintuitive, he has something more important in mind than immediate financial relief. Natoli, like The Temple News staff, surely knows the only way to guarantee a newspaper won’t succeed isn’t layoffs, it’s betraying readers’ trust.
Wounds from downsizing heal, but compromising journalistic integrity leaves lasting scars.