Osberg got his deals, ultimately, with all 11 unions. An agreement with the Teamsters passed with the kidney-shredding slowness of a gallstone. But it passed. And at the moment, even the papers’ largest union by membership, the Newspaper Guild, has nice things to say about the guy who talked them into two percent pay cuts, unpaid furlough time, and working 40 hours but only getting paid for 37.5. “So far,” Guild Executive Director Bill Ross says, “Osberg seems like a nice guy.”
But being swell isn’t the sort of narrative that will lead a bedraggled people out of the wilderness of bankruptcy. As Osberg noted to an audience at Temple last fall, in the past five years — as the media landscape underwent a tectonic shift and readers found untold other ways to stay informed — Philadelphia’s newspapers have lost 25 percent of their readership and an astonishing 50 percent of their revenue. Nationwide, industry analyst Ken Doctor looks at continuing declines in print readership and advertising, and delivers the grim prognosis that newspapers remain locked in a “death spiral.”
So the question isn’t whether Greg Osberg can return the Inquirer and Daily News to their former glory, but whether, in fact, he can find a way for them to survive at all. Anne Gordon, a former Inquirer managing editor and now a media investment advisor with Dubilier & Company, likens the tribe at 400 North Broad Street to the climber in the hit film 127 Hours, who literally cuts off his own arm to escape the rocks. “They’ve reached the point where they need to do something that scary,” says Gordon. “Something that makes people say, ‘They’re going to try that?’ Something equivalent to cutting off a limb.”
The stakes are high — nothing less than our most coercive, corrective force. In the past couple years, the Inquirer and Daily News conducted investigations that literally reshaped city narcotics squads, the Department of Human Services and the city courts for the better. More fundamentally, the daily drumbeat of stories emanating from their pages continues to prompt local TV, radio and the blogosphere into action — the media pack chasing the lead dog.
Success for Greg Osberg, then, is as easy to define as it is difficult to achieve: Just be the first guy in the industry to radically remake a big city newspaper company so that it’s financially stable in the new media climate of iPads and smartphones.
Is he up to the task? In theory, at least, his affable personality and track record of bold ideas would seem to give him as good a chance as anyone. But even he acknowledges the size of the challenge. As he says one day, grinning in his office: “There is no case study for this.”
LOOKING AT THE EARLY DAYS of his tenure, it seems Osberg realizes the urgency of the situation. In fact, he moved on numerous fronts — and quickly.
> He transplanted the employees of Philly.com from Center City back into the Inquirer building, a move designed to correct one of the more egregious errors committed by the previous owners.