There was a threat against Pope Francis.
At least, Gar Joseph was convinced there was. The assistant managing editor at the Daily News, his journalism home for the past 34 years, was about a third of a way through editing a column on the historic houses of musicians with Philly roots (Paul Robeson, John Coltrane) from Jenice Armstrong when, he tells Billy Penn, he was seized with the idea of a security problem during the World Meeting of Families.
The 67-year-old Joseph tried to tell his co-workers, but the words didn’t come.
Any of them.
“It was such a strange thing,” Joseph remembers of the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 18, when an ambulance crew showed up in the newsroom at Eighth and Market streets. “They assumed I had a stroke.”
But the shot of steroids they gave him en route to Jefferson Hospital to clear any clots wound up clearing up the speech problem as well, presenting a new issue: This was no stroke. As the MRI Joseph underwent would later reveal, it was Stage IV brain cancer. And Joseph’s decade as city editor for the tabloid (almost always adjectivized as “scrappy”) was, clearly, on hold.
The condition, and its treatment
The technical term for Joseph’s tumor is “glioblastoma multiforme.” It’s the most common type of brain tumor for people over age 60; it’s also the most dangerous. Two days after that MRI, Joseph went under the knife at Jefferson. There, a surgeon, Dr. James J. Evans, removed more than 95 percent of the growth on his brain; he was stitched up and sent home by the following Tuesday.
And now his follow-up treatment begins. That means radiation five days every week, and chemotherapy daily for six weeks. Right now, Joseph is looking at the second week of his treatment.
Afterwards, they’ll do another MRI, and see whether what’s left of the tumor has stayed the same, or whether it’s gotten smaller… or larger.
“I think the average for someone with brain cancer is [to live] maybe two years, two and a half years, but that can be a little misleading,” Joseph says. “Some people may live less, some could live five, six, 10 years. In some cases, it’s been known for it [the tumor] to be gone [after treatment.]”
A career at the Daily News
Joseph joined the Daily News in 1981, as a reporter. At that point, the DN was owned by Knight Ridder.
“I hired Gar after I’d passed him over about three times. He just kept coming back,” recalls Zack Stalberg, the paper’s longtime editor, now retired and living in New Mexico. “He told us at the beginning that he was going to work at the Daily News, arguing that he belonged there. He was right.”
Both the DN and the Inquirer, its sister paper, worked out of the building that still bears the latter newspaper’s name and sits vacant at 400 N. Broad St. Four years later its circulation stood at more than a quarter of a million copies sold daily, 260,000.
Sixteen years after that, when American Journalism Review (itself now defunct) checked in, circulation had dropped to 160,000. As of March, in an era of Facebook and cell phones and iPads, the six-day-a-week paper sells around 45,000 copies.
In November of 2005, ravaged by massive drops in classified and display advertising and plunging circulation, Knight Ridder put itself up for sale. The McClatchy Company bought it in March of 2006, but spun off a number of what it considered “lower-performing” newspapers a month later. Among them, the Inquirer and Daily News.
During this chaos, Joseph — whose sartorial taste leans towards the Blues Brothers, including the black tie and occasionally, the fedora — loomed, as Daily News reporter Wendy Ruderman notes, as a stereotypical newspaper editor.
“He’s your old-fashioned, crusty, grouchy, funny, outrageous news figure. The kind of person everyone thinks of when they think of ‘the press, the character,’” Ruderman says. “And he had a way of making your copy better, or telling you when your copy made no fucking sense.”
In 1996, Joseph created its “Clout Page,” what’s evolved into a weekly politics column.
Thanks in no small part to that, says Stalberg, “the people in the world of politics and government in Pennsylvania know Gar. He’s a known commodity. And even though they might not like reporters and editors… they can’t quite get really pissed off at Gar Joseph.
“Not a lot of media people come along who fit that description. He’s well known, he’s influential, and people think he’s fair.”
Joseph became city editor in 2005, just before the over-leveraged ownership of PR maven Brian Tierney, which led to hedge fund owners who sold to an uneasy alliance of a group of Philadelphia-area notables George Norcross, H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest and Lewis Katz.
During that time, Joseph edited the Daily News series “Tainted Justice,” about rogue cops caught on camera pilfering from bodegas, drug suspects and informers. The series became a book, Busted, and was awarded journalism’s highest honor.
“We won a goddamn Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting under him. That’s like the Bad News Bears winning. It just doesn’t happen,” Ruderman says. “You don’t see him because he let me and Barbara have the glory.”
The incredible shrinking newsrooms
Lenfest, the papers’ sole owner following the aforementioned court-mandated auction, had been mum about his plans for the newspapers. Then, on August 24, he announced a new hire: Terrance C.Z. Egger, formerly the publisher of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, would become publisher.
Four days later, in an interview with Philadelphia Magazine, Egger promised to effectively end the internal competition among the Inquirer, the Daily News and Philly.com, and merge newsroom operations. Reporters worried that would mean layoffs.
It did. On November 4, Egger announced the layoff of 46 people from the newsrooms. Among the hardest-hit was Joseph’s beloved Daily News, which will lose a third of its union staff when those layoffs take effect on December 4.
Uncharacteristically for a fighter like Joseph, he won’t be planning how to handle the loss, thanks to his rigorous treatment schedule, and his doctor-mandated daily hour-long nap.
“I’m no longer going to be city editor, because of my health situation. But nobody knows what’s going to happen because they’re merging the two staffs,” Joseph says. “The only thing we know is I will be available for consultancy or advice for anyone… if there’s anything I can do to help our laid-off journalists, I’ll do that.”
According to Dr. Evans, Joseph’s prognosis at this point is unclear. While the average age length of survival is two years, one of Evans’ patients is entering his 13th year after the removal of the tumor. Survival rates vary, the surgeon says, based largely on genetics.
Meanwhile, Joseph’s staff, bracing for the worst in their newsroom, is hoping for the best for him. “I hope he stays involved in the newsroom as long as he’s able to,” Ruderman says.
“It shouldn’t make me sad that he’s cheering from the sideline, like he’s never been before.”
Disclaimer: Chris Krewson was the executive online editor of The Inquirer from 2007-2010, when it was owned by Brian Tierney. Many friends remain there, as well as at the Daily News and Philly.com.