Local Flavor

Philadelphia newspapers launch "keep it local" campaign

The owners of The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News hope that local newspapers won’t be going out of season any time soon.

In a bid to bolster their position in bankruptcy proceedings, the owners of Philadelphia’s two daily newspapers have launched a “Keep It Local” campaign, taking a page from the small farmer playbook. The campaign, featuring a red-white-and-blue logo reading “Keep It Local,” was launched on August 21st, the day after owners presented their reorganization proposal in bankruptcy court. The slogan has now been emblazoned on the broadsheet Inquirer and tabloid Daily News and their shared Web site; last Wednesday, subscribers received a “Keep It Local” poster.

“It was sort of a collective brainstorm of lots of people involved,” says Jay Devine, a public relations executive and spokesperson for Philadelphia Media Holdings. “With Philadelphia being such a hometown sports city, this would sort of inspire people locally to better understand it [the bankruptcy proceedings], to lean in a little bit and listen more closely.” But Philly fans are known for booing their team when it underperforms. And it remains to be seen whether “buy local,” a term popularized by advocates of local food and business, will connect with Philadelphia subscribers—or, for that matter, area localvores.

Philadelphia Media Holdings, a local group led by PR colossus Brian Tierney and Bruce Toll of homebuilding giant Toll Brothers, bought the papers and philly.com from McClatchy in 2006. Tierney is now the Inquirer’s publisher. The papers filed for bankruptcy this February, and are currently locked into a fierce dispute with creditors over $400 million in debt. Creditors, including banks and hedge funds, oppose PMH’s proposal to buy back the papers through a bankruptcy auction for twenty-one cents on the dollar, and want to take over the papers themselves.

In a recent New York Times Magazine cover story on the situation, Michael Sokolove wrote: “Philadelphia is a particularly good place to observe what appears to be big-city journalism’s last stand, when many of America’s metropolitan newspapers must quickly figure out how to become profitable again or face likely extinction.”

Tierney, as the Times put it, “has taken his public relations mind-set to newspapering.” And given the papers’ predicament, a little bit of creative messaging and showmanship couldn’t hurt. But what’s truly novel here is that a Republican-run major newspaper is taking its cues from the “buy local” movement. From farmer’s markets to Ithaca Hours, people on the political left have advocated these projects over the past few decades as an alternative to the laissez-faire model of corporate globalization, where the bottom line is, well, just that.

The Philly newspapers’ campaign riffs on the buy local movement’s anti-big business message. On their Web site, the papers—no worker cooperatives themselves—campaign on their Web site against the specter of “corporate owners”:

Primarily because it benefits you — our readers, advertisers, employees and communities. As America’s largest locally owned and operated media company, there are things we’re able to do that corporate owners won’t. Like investigative reports that recently led to improvements in child health care, property tax assessment, local post office operation and more. Or support for over 200 local non-profit organizations. Not to mention paying $49 million in local, state, and federal taxes, and employing 13,600 full-time, part-time employees and independent contractors.

We believe passionately in local ownership, and we need YOUR support. Show that you support local and independent journalism too by signing our petition below.

According to Ennis Carter, founder and director of a local group that came up with the “buy fresh, buy local” campaign now ubiquitous at farmers’ markets nationwide, the papers’ campaign is proof that “buy local” has made it big. (Full disclosure: I am currently collaborating on a project with the group.) But Carter is skeptical about the slogan being co-opted by big business. And she finds its adoption by the Inquirer to be particularly ironic: in 2005, columnist Andrew Cassel fiercely criticized localvores, calling the trend no different from “urging people to patronize businesses owned by Christians, or heterosexuals, or white people.”

Some on the left are wary of Tierney’s appropriation of the term, saying that geography is meaningless when it comes to corporate ownership. Professor and media critic Edward Herman challenged the papers’ use of the feel-good local label, writing in his InkyWatch blog that Tierney “represents a local special interest, and certainly not local majority interest.” Herman is an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and, with Noam Chomsky, co-author of Manufacturing Dissent.

“I think it’s kind of droll,” he told CJR. “Why is staying local important? It depends on who it is local. Who it is here is Brian Tierney, who is an executive and an aggressive Republican activist…I think the paper has gone downhill with Tierney in charge. I think the idea that we should support him just because the ownership is local is baloney.”

Herman notes that the Inquirer was generally regarded to be at a low point under long-time local publisher Walter Annenberg, who shamelessly used the paper to further his personal and political interests. It was under outsider John C. Knight (owner of the Knight, and then Knight Ridder, newspaper chain) that the Inquirer became a paper of record, winning a bevy of Pulitzers.

Bruce Schimmel, a local writer and founder of the Philadelphia City Paper, agreed, saying, “It seems kind of clever—basically PR folks who decided to insert their own astonishingly conservative agenda into this blue collar town. I guess that’s local—the money’s local.”

A letter responding to the recent New York Times Magazine story also echoed this concern:

“Brian Tierney’s conservative ideology destroyed the heart of our much beloved Inky,” wrote Suzanne Cloud of Collingswood, New Jersey. “Tierney never learned that a paper must know its audience. Philadelphia is a Democratic city and has been for a very long time. When my personal tipping point arrived, I just started subscribing to The New York Times.”

But some observers of Philadelphia media scene say the campaign is savvy—and pure Tierney.

“I really like it, “says Ben Yagoda, a writer and professor of journalism at the University of Delaware who reported for the Daily News in the 1980s. “I was kind of waiting for Brian Tierney to work his public relations magic that he was supposed to be so great at, and I hadn’t seen any of it until now.”

Yagoda thinks that it’s a campaign well-suited to today’s Inquirer, noting that cuts to national and overseas desks mean that local is going to be the paper’s specialty, adding “it’s simple, ‘Keep It Local’ is just four syllables. If I were a marketing professor, I’d give it an A-plus.”

Philadelphia Magazine editor Larry Platt agrees that the move is creative genius, but is unsure whether the message will resonate locally. “I don’t think that it’s going to be this grassroots thing that energizes people, most people are just trying to get through their day—if you ask a man on the street what the details of the Inquirer and Daily News bankruptcy case, they’d say they don’t know,” he says.

Platt acknowledges that while some of the paper’s content has weakened, the Inquirer remains a trenchant local watchdog. He points to recent groundbreaking investigations that uncovered corruption at the city’s Board of Revision of Taxes and in the office of former State Senator Vince Fumo. But, like Herman, he’s not sure that the papers’ current owners deserve the local cred. Platt says that he lost sympathy for Tierney after he gave himself a raise and a $350,000 bonus—just before the bankruptcy filing, and right after union employees forwent their own raise.

Perhaps both debtors and creditors will begin showing up in court sporting Phillies caps. In the end, however, the Inquirer and Daily News’s future depends on the bankruptcy judge’s taste for Philly’s local flavor.

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Daniel Denvir is a reporter at Philadelphia City Paper.