Feature: Greg Osberg: Savior?

The genial but bold-thinking new CEO of the Inquirer and Daily News represents the papers’ last best hope to survive in the age of digital news. At stake is nothing less than how Philadelphia knows what it knows

 

Of course, any realistic view demands that this question be turned on its head. The Inquirer and Daily News are fading newspapers in a fading industry, and the very people Osberg hopes to rescue could stand in his way. While writers like Will Bunch and Daniel Rubin created popular blogs, and old hands like Bob Moran and Pulitzer Prize-nominated crime reporter George Anastasia quickly and enthusiastically took to cutting stories on video, do enough of the papers’ veteran staffers understand the Internet culture they hope to conquer?

Any attempt to remake the company will hinge on the success of Philly.com, which has long looked like a cluttered, unattractive afterthought in comparison to the websites of top-end papers such as the New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe, and even some small city newspapers like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Such aesthetic concerns may seem purely subjective. But there are numbers, too: Philly.com, though located in one of the nation’s top five media markets, isn’t even in the top 10 for local newspaper Web traffic. And even Osberg’s vice president of Philly.com, Wendy Warren, seems to be missing the bigger picture.

When I ask Warren if she’s happy that she and her staff have been relocated back to the main office, she seems a bit dejected. “It was nice to be in Center City,” she says, and “tech companies need to be located where young people like to be.”

It’s true that tech employees generally get the best and slickest of everything. But the Philly.com staff is no longer in what amounted to a satellite office — and therefore is no longer a satellite — and Warren wants what? To be closer to shops and restaurants?

Then there are the unions, the largest of which, the Newspaper Guild, insisted on a provision mandating that all layoffs over the next three years be conducted purely on the basis of seniority — an old-school stipulation that seems strictly counterproductive to the new-media world. But Osberg, grabbing his sandwich and bidding the cashier a good day, expresses a philosophical view of his challenges. “It would be easier to build a new-media organization from the ground up,” he says, back in the quiet of his office. “But that’s not the situation we’re in.”

This is a telling statement, a sign that Osberg does recognize the need for radical change — that if he could, he’d start over with a flattened Earth. And it seems Greg Osberg is so friendly that the people watching him closest don’t seem to have noticed how deeply interested he is in shifting the ground under their feet.

Lean and over six feet tall, Osberg boasts an athlete’s rangy, loping stride. And at 53 years old, he still appears hale and hearty enough to run down people a generation younger. His easy physicality and his thinning but still youthful shank of brown hair suggest raging good health. And a big smile is his default expression — the prize anyone receives just for making eye contact with him.

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