Service of Newspapers—When The Good Guys Win

August 30th, 2018

Categories: Charity, Newspapers, Tariff

Photo: philly.com

On one side of this post is a man who did extremely well, lived simply and used his fortune to help the newspaper industry, and many others. On the other is a private equity firm that pushed for a tariff against Canada to allegedly help some US businesses while threatening the survival of others. Amazingly, our system worked and the good guys won. Read on.

Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest. Photo: mercersburg.edu

“I can’t think of any cause that we support that’s more important than the support of the newspapers,” Mr. Lenfest said in 2014. That’s H.F. Lenfest, known as Gerry, who died early in August. James R. Hagerty wrote Lenfest’s obituary in The Wall Street Journal.

These weren’t just words for Lenfest and his wife Marguerite. They paid $88 million for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com four years ago and in 2016, “donated that company to a nonprofit, now known as the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, charged with preserving quality journalism in Philadelphia and testing ideas that might sustain fact-based news reporting elsewhere,” wrote Hagerty.

In all, the Lenfests have given away $1.2 billion. In spite of Lenfest’s financial success in the cable TV industry, the family lived modestly—keeping the house they moved into in 1966, for example. Their son Brook said his father “rode city buses and flew coach” because people in coach were “more open to conversation.” [The Lenfests gave $14 million to Teach America after Gerry Lenfest chatted with the founder he met on the train to NYC.]

Photo: ehshumfinancial.com

At the same time as this stalwart attempt at saving an industry takes place the Department of Commerce was supporting a tariff on Canadian newsprint that would raise the price as much as 30 percent ringing the death knell for many papers and causing severe cutbacks in staff and production in others. The tariff was to save jobs here. It appeared to back wealthy cronies at a private equity firm who pushed for the tariff because they own a US newsprint business. Some wondered if there wasn’t another agenda: to cut off yet more arteries of information that feed [legitimate] news to communities across the country.

A few days before the International Trade Commission’s decision–made yesterday–William Mauldin told the story in: “Bad News for U.S. Papers, but Tariffs Are Paying Off for One Rock Capital –Private-equity firm headed by a Washington and Wall Street veteran pushed for the tariffs on behalf of its North Pacific Paper and hope they are affirmed in a coming trade-commission vote.”

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

He reported that after salaries, newsprint is usually a newspaper’s second biggest cost. The increased cost “threatens the viability of small-town papers across the country, forcing reduced publication days, layoffs and other cut backs. Canadian mills have historically supplied a large portion of U.S. newsprint.”

He continued: “Some industry observers say a Trump administration, led by a president antagonistic to the media, is unlikely to be sympathetic to newspapers.” A White House spokeswoman said such a claim is “absurd.”

So what happened yesterday? Tom Kludt and Jill Disis at CNN.com wrote: “In what amounts to a blow to the Department of Commerce, which upheld the tariffs earlier this month, the International Trade Commission found that the imports of Canadian paper do not hurt American producers. The commission’s vote was unanimous.” Commissioner David S. Johnson, a Texas Republican, serves as chairman.

Do you predict the success of the Lenfest Institute’s research may save the newspaper industry? Are philanthropists like the Lenfests who gain little more than personal pleasure from their generous gifts, few and far between? Were you surprised by the International Trade Commission’s unanimous decision regarding what Thehill.com called the “Trump tariffs?” Did you also see the proposed tariffs as the administration’s attempt to punish and diminish the fourth estate? Dare we extrapolate this decision, with David and Goliath overtones, as a turning point where responsible commissioners based their decisions on facts and not due to pressure from a bully–with more to come?

Photo: thedailystar.net

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6 Responses to “Service of Newspapers—When The Good Guys Win”

  1. David Reich Said:

    It’s good to see this story of saving the news in Philly. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has also done a massive public service with his purchase and cash infusion into the Washington Post. And I read the other day of a small daily in California (can’t remember where) that had been struggling and was bought by a wealthy local who is trying to keep the paper alive.

    With all the changes in how we consume news, the printed newspaper faces so many challenges — costs, distribution, timeliness. But we need independent newspapers and other media that have the funds and the will to hunt down what’s happening behind the scenes, especially in government where actions (an inaction) impact us directly in so many ways.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    David,

    My philosophy is to facilitate spreading the news to as many eyes as possible and if a significant number of people want to read a newspaper on paper so be it. To have a tariff pushed on the public by a wealthy private equity firm supported by an administration that wants to control news outlets that results in knocking out newspapers is wrong. Hooray for the International Trade Commission for putting a stop to the manipulation.

    There are communities around our country that are not connected to the Internet–or that have poor connectivity–and some people who can’t afford the devices to access news. Until that–and privacy issues–are resolved, I hope that we continue to have the option to hold a newspaper in our hands.

  3. Protius Said:

    As laudable as Lenfests’ philanthropic efforts to support newspaper publishing may be, I am troubled by a political system in which individuals, as opposed to the state, decide how welfare to meet the needs of a community should be distributed. I would prefer to see the community as a whole decide how such resources are allocated.

    That said, I also question the wisdom of spending money on lost causes. My impression is that computers have already made the printed word, whether in books, magazines or newspapers, an anachronism, and that we all may expect in the future to enjoy the benefits of automation as we will have anything we really need to know available to us electronically on demand.

    We shouldn’t try to fight progress like the Lenfests seem to be.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Apologies Protius,

    I left out so much from this post so that it didn’t drag on any longer and therefore misled you.

    Jim Friedlick, executive director of the Lenfest Institute, wrote this in Gerry Lenfest’s obituary: A question Gerry Lenfest asked: “’How can digital technology be used to enable and ennoble news, rather than to destroy it?’ He sounded liked an 85-year-old millennial.”

    I further confused the issue by next writing about the tariff on newsprint.

    I can’t imagine a world without reporters to dig for the truth. Lenfest’s institute is trying to find a business model that makes this possible and at the same time to rediscover how the news business can be viable.

  5. Anonymous Said:

    The Minneapolis Star Tribune, where my husband worked, is still healthy. Good thing since his pension is very necessary.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Minnesota seems to do many things right–health care as well i.e. Mayo Clinic.

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