This week, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article headlined, “Sheriff sale ads: A bonanza for the politically connected in Philly.” The paper is the city’s second-largest recipient of sheriff’s ads, at $1,613,157, only behind the Legal Intelligencer at $1,812,244 annually.
The articled conflated two issues: the private-contractor system by which sheriff’s ads are placed in Philadelphia-area publications, and the fact that minority news organizations receive those same ads.
PGN places sheriff’s ads in its pages through a relationship with political operative and ad broker Ken Smuckler. The Inquirer did not disclose its own relationship with Smuckler and his connection to Gerry Lenfest, the Inquirer’s funder.
But most important is how the Inquirer exploits a 1976 law for which it lobbied to enhance the paper’s own profits at the expense of minority and LGBT media.
The Inquirer benefits from the law, which requires that sheriff’s ads be placed in a general-interest newspaper and a local legal publication. But circulation rates in that general-interest paper have declined over the years and, in its place, smaller news outlets targeting specific populations have filled in the gaps of local, independent journalism, all while remaining profitable (as PGN is).
The substance of the Inquirer’s article looking at whether middle brokers are needed to replace ads is undermined by the snarky and dismissive tone the reporters used toward multicultural media outlets.
Despite the overwhelming advantages enshrined in the law, the Inquirer’s current survival is sustained not by paying customers, but by Lenfest literally donating The Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com to the Institute for Journalism in New Media so that it can receive funding beyond the sheriff’s ads.
PGN survives by its journalism. Why can’t the Inquirer? n