Value Deals: Baseball and Journalism

By Jacob Lambert
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 4, 2010

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Last Monday, the Phillies signed franchise slugger Ryan Howard to a staggering five-year, $125 million contract extension. The deal made him the second-richest player in the game and quashed fan anxiety about his potential loss in 2012. The move proved that the Phillies are a big-market team that is finally willing to spend like one.

Two days after the extension was made public, a similar sum was paid for a much different entity: Philadelphia Media Holdings’ lenders shelled out $135 million at auction for the bankrupt Inquirer, Daily News and Like the first baseman’s deal, the numbers were stunning, but for far different reasons: The winning sum was a fraction of the $515 million PMH paid for the papers in 2006—when company head Brian Tierney declared that “the next great era of Philadelphia journalism begins today.”

On the day of the sale, there was Tierney again, now miserably drinking a Scotch on the Acela ride back from Manhattan. The next day, he was replaced by former Newsweek president Greg Osberg, who told the Daily News that the goal is “to become the most successful regional media company in the nation.” More successful than the teetering Newsweek, one hopes. According to Crain’s New York, “[Osberg] led efforts to integrate Newsweek ’s print and online operations and to boost advertising sales and circulation … His efforts were not enough in a deteriorating ad market.”

Whenever ballplayers sign monstrous contracts, teacher salaries are often used as a contrast: educators wear themselves out, shape our children’s future, and for what? To make less than A-Rod makes in a single at-bat? The timing of the newspaper auction, however, so soon after Howard’s pact, enables a different comparison. If money can show us exactly where our values lie, then last week’s transactions show this: A few more years of moonshots are about as valuable to us as our city’s fading journalism.

Perhaps the average citizen doesn’t care about journalism. Maybe writers and editors are the only ones who still do, which kinda makes sense; only a cotton farmer frets about weevils. But even if our dailies are no longer read, the city remains deeply dependent on them. The Inquirer and Daily News may be dying, but the rest of the local media—radio and TV stations, bloggers and alt-weekly columnists—still draw heavily from their reporting. It’s easy to scoff at the papers’ cultural obsolescence, and their wealth of interior wire pieces—sitting like wads of singles tucked between a fifty—is particularly depressing. But as evidenced by the Daily News’ recent Pulitzer and the Inquirer ’s various investigations, they can still produce quality work. And the inevitable further hollowing of the enterprise, while not quite a tragedy, is an unquestionable negative for the city.

Does Ryan Howard bring us similar value? Not really. He’s a dominant force, and if he remains healthy, he’ll be a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer for sure. But that’s well beside the point. What he ultimately gives us is this: a few seconds of excitement when he holds out his bat, then turns on a hanging curveball. Or a reason to cheer when he rips one into the gap, driving in the tying run. And that’s about it. He represents nothing beyond a brief distraction, however welcome it might be. When the games end, Ryan Howard ends too, and we’re right back where we started: sitting on the couch, stuck in our own reality.

Newspapers’ decline, while greatly tied to the Web’s quickness and pay-nothing ethos, seems to me equally tethered to a rising avoidance of that reality. The unpleasantness and complication of all that surrounds us, from the entrenchment of our poverty to the chemicals in our air, are not particularly inviting. Reading about such things doesn’t stand much chance amidst hot-button blogs, silly-kitty clips and Twitter—and isn’t much helped by, either: According to Editor and Publisher last December, the average visitor to the site spends eight minutes per month there. If you have a genuine interest in Philadelphia—that is, if you want to devote more than eight minutes per month toward your understanding of it—then such statistics, combined with the passing of print, should give you pause. Because for every news item skipped for a momentary kick, we lose another chance to know a little bit more about our city. And that strikes me as the loss of a valuable thing.

There’s a scene in Road to Perdition, a film set in the early 1930s, that’s always sort of amazed me: Tom Hanks leaves his son in a waiting room, where the boy is surrounded by dozens of men. Each of them intently reads a newspaper, and, save for the turning of pages, the silence is total. It’s practically science fiction: Were things really like that back then? Were those people really that engaged? Maybe they were, and maybe they weren’t. Maybe, after all is said and done, the decades don’t change us as much as we might think. Because if those men are anything at all like we are today, they were reading the sports page—enjoying a home run’s vicarious thrill.

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