America needs a chance to watch a forthcoming documentary about The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s glory years.
The film — nearly done, but in need of finishing funds to pay for archival music and video — is called Inquirer: Gene Roberts and the Golden Age of Newspapers. From filmmakers Davyd Layton and Mike Nicholson, it chronicles the seminal two decades or so during which a pretty pathetic second-place broadsheet daily in Pennsylvania’s largest city transformed into, pound-for-pound, arguably the best newspaper in America.
Well, certainly the most fun.
I watched the rough cut Tuesday night at the Prince Theater on 15th Street, with an audience of about 300, most of them Inquirer alumni like me. Full disclosure: I was the Inquirer‘s executive online editor from 2007-2010, long after the period covered in the film; with that said, I’m hardly an impartial observer.
But I don’t want it released just because I like where I used to work; it needs to be seen because great local journalism in America is under siege, and there’s no better argument for what it can do than what Roberts did at the intersection of Broad and Callowhill streets for 18 years.
And oh, the things the Inky could do, once Roberts hired up. The film chronicles Walter Annenberg’s sale of the paper to the Knight Brothers; before that time, it labored as a partisan organ, its reporters tasked with investigating its publishers enemies, and castigating them in print.
The sale put the paper in the hands of John S. and James L. Knight, and the brothers plucked Roberts from the national desk of the New York Times. That, dear reader, remains the ultimate perch in daily journalism, this many years later; it’s a place reporters still strive to work because it’s the best newspaper in America. Roberts’ arrival, as chronicled by the cast of downtrodden staff at a second-place paper (thumped every day by the bigger Philadelphia Bulletin) was pretty inauspicious.
Roberts is portrayed in the film as a sort of newspaper savant, a man of few words who drew talent to him from across the journalism firmament.
Examples? There’s Steve Lovelady from the Wall Street Journal; in the time before Rupert Murdoch owned it, the best daily business report in the country; Gene Foreman from Newsday; John Carroll, who’d leave the Inquirer and lead first the Baltimore Sun and then the Los Angeles Times; a Murderer’s Row of people who’d go on to edit some of America’s best titles after their time in Roberts’ tutelage.
Their stories are told by former staffers still scratching their heads at how Roberts pulled it off, massaging corporate budgets to wrangle a few more hires, hopping on a call to shrink the comics pages so he could afford just one more.
The film shows the Inquirer steadily gaining ground on the staid Bulletin, and its literal fights with legendary Philadelphia mayor (and former police chief) Frank Rizzo, who once caused a barricade of the newspaper’s headquarters by burly men waving anti-Inquirer placards after a particularly epic disagreement, bruising journalists who couldn’t get into work as Philly police calmly did nothing to stop it.
Ups and downs
High points? They’re in there. Reporting that shut down a mental hospital that brutalized patients, freed a man framed in a deadly arson case, changed laws and made the city, the state and the country safer. Or that time the paper sent a swarm of 80 reporters to cover the Three Mile Island nuclear emergency outside Harrisburg, and nabbed a Pulitzer Prize in the process.
The film also chronicles some of the paper’s low points, including the tale of Laura Foreman, a young reporter who covered politics and eventually grew close with one of her sources, South Philly pol Buddy Cianfrani. Eventually, a grand jury report detailed the romance, and Roberts approved (but, crucially, didn’t okay pre-publication) as open an investigation and airing-out of the conflict as any modern newspaper. It’s the closest thing to a black mark in the film.
By the time the story ran in the pages of the Sunday Inquirer, Foreman had left for a new job at the New York Times; what the film leaves out is that in fact she was fired from that job; the paper’s legendary editor, A.M. “Abe” Rosenthal, had generated the best line about journalists not getting in bed with their sources in the history of the industry.
“I don’t care if my reporters are fucking elephants,” Rosenthal is quoted as saying, “as long as they aren’t covering the circus.”
Then there’s the inevitable moment when Roberts’ Inquirer forces the shutdown of the cross-town Bulletin, a moment when he convinced his corporate masters to still further increase the paper’s budget. I might be wrong, but the film looks like the first time the wider world would learn about the “Alpha Plan,” the Inquirer brain trust’s blueprint to keep the ground it won by flooding the city and suburbs with still more reporters, and open a slew of foreign bureaus to boot.
The bad guys
Interestingly, the villain in the film isn’t the Internet.
Sure, the Inquirer struggled with the effects of the demolition of first its classifieds business, then the display advertising that’s now flowing to Google and Facebook. But when Knight Newspapers became Knight Ridder, and Roberts’ budgets began to get pinched, he saw no use in dismantling what he’d built.
Tony Ridder, Roberts’ corporate boss, is interviewed, and calmly discusses that newspapers in publicly traded companies like his Knight Ridder owe a duty to their shareholders, first and foremost. Ridder would go on to sell his chain to McClatchy (a company still struggling with the debt its purchase created, and which led to the Inquirer‘s sale again to Brian Tierney, a bankruptcy, an ownership fight, etc. etc.).
It’s this moment — Roberts deciding he was done — that brings the film’s most emotional moments, as the staff he built contemplates continuing without him. It’s almost as if a flight crew who’d never known how high they could fly suddenly watched their pilot bail out at altitude.
The film ends with an epilogue that’s both disheartening and encouraging. The Inquirer‘s iconic 400 North Broad Street former headquarters is, of course, under renovation to become the headquarters of the Philadelphia Police Department, investigations of which won the Inquirer two of its Pulitzer Prizes. (There’s some irony for you.)
But the encouraging part shows the current newsroom, under the auspices of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, a nonprofit organization that, the film notes, makes the obligation of the newspaper serving the public.
There’s a through-line in the film where former Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden, who’d go on to write Black Hawk Down and more magazine features and books than you can shake a stick at. Bowden’s talking about a quixotic, quintessentially Roberts assignment: To travel to Africa and write about the possible extinction of the rhinoceros. Roberts laughs that people could argue that the excess of that story — what was a Philly paper doing sending a reporter to the other side of the planet?
But it spoke to the resources once devoted to local journalism, something that — in the waves of layoffs and closures, purchases by billionaires, and shouts of “fake news” and “enemy of the people” — seems very much in danger of extinction itself.