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The New Newspaper Barons

David Carr’s insightful column about the resurgence of newspaper barons struck home for two reasons.

The first, of course, was what prompted Carr to write it: the most recent sale of The Philadelphia Inquirer, my journalistic home for 25 years. When I return to Philadelphia, which I do now with less and less frequency, I’m startled by how thin and wan the newspaper has become, looking like a patient with the kind of illness that saps the body of weight, strength and vitality.

Yet more than once, especially upon reading another stellar investigative story, I have also been reminded of the determination of so many of my former colleagues to maintain the quality and the mission of the enterprise — an enterprise Philadelphia desperately needs and deserves.

The Inquirer newsroom is but a fraction of what it was in the 1980s and 1990s, the scope of coverage has shrunk dramatically, and I can’t imagine that it is as silly and irreverent a place as I remember. But there are still good people there doing good work, and one can only hope that the latest gaggle of businessmen who have bought the entire company for far less than the price of the fanciest apartment in Manhattan know what they are doing. And know how to make it work.

The second reason Carr’s piece struck home is more immediate. The sale of The Inquirer, and other metropolitan newspapers bought by rich guys, highlights the need for alternative ways of funding journalism. That’s the challenge in my current home, The Forward.

We’ve been a non-profit since the doors to the Yiddish Forverts opened in 1897, but only in the last two years have we become a 501(c)3, actively fundraising to supplement circulation and advertising revenue, and our investments. And we want to raise money our way. We don’t want the philanthropic version of a single “newspaper baron” dictating content or politics, no matter how well-meaning that person may be.

Instead, we want to maintain the sense that, as our publisher often notes, we are a news organization from the bottom up, not the top down, serving our readers, not necessarily our leaders, supported by as wide and as deep a swath of the American Jewish community as possible.

That means we must count on the participation of lots and lots of ordinary people. In a sense, that’s what newspapers used to be able to count on — the ordinary subscriber, the ordinary advertiser, the people who believed that good journalism was a public service that they were willing to pay for and support. It’s not just that the economics of the newspaper industry have been upended. It’s also the sense of reciprocity with the community that’s disappeared.

Who are the new newspaper barons? You and you and you.

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