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

 

In a battle against Time magazine, which enjoyed all the resources of the AOL/Time Warner Partnership, Newsweek seemed like a guerilla army up against the panzer division. But Osberg pushed for a “content partnership” with MSNBC, MSN and NBC, delivering a veritable steroid cycle to the company’s website. He displayed a deft touch with special issues, sparking annual franchises in health, education and women in leadership. And when Time kept finishing strong with its “Person of the Year” issue, it was Osberg who suggested Newsweek counter with its own, forward-looking “Who’s Next?” feature.

In what was not quite the end, the guerilla army from Newsweek surpassed the hordes at Time in both readers and advertising. Osberg won a coveted Executive of the Year award from one of the ad industry’s most esteemed publications. And Newsweek pocketed two magazine awards for General Excellence.

Then the ad market tanked. Osberg recommended retrenching on the Internet — cutting costs and shifting resources from print to online. But in 2007, the company brass passed him over for a promotion to CEO and hired Tom Ascheim from Nickelodeon. Though Osberg denies he was upset, he left a year later, becoming CEO of Buzzwire, a company offering multimedia content on mobile devices.

Newsweek sold last summer for $1 and has since merged with the online-only
Daily Beast. As for Osberg, he got a call from a recruiting firm in September 2009, asking if he would be interested in serving as CEO of a newspaper company. For him, the selling points included the opportunity to come back home, near his mother, and the chance to innovate — to define the value of space and time in the digital space.

“He had a saying: ‘If you’re gonna fail, fail fast,’” says Mark Walters, associate publisher at Newsweek. “It was very freeing, because it created a culture in which the mind-set was to try something new.”

And it seems that such a mind-set is crucial to succeeding online, where best practices are still being discovered. Says Jane Seagrave, director of revenue at the Associated Press, “The key right now is to be willing to try new things and see what works, to be enthusiastic about experimenting.”

For observers of Philadelphia’s papers, all of this is, of course, highly relevant. In a publishing world where literally no one has the answers, Osberg seems at least a decent bet to help our papers make the shift from dead trees to the info cloud. And there is some opportunity for success: In 2010, iPads and other mobile devices grew the circulation of potentially lucrative e-editions by more than 40 percent. Osberg’s challenge will lie in finding numerous ways to monetize Internet hits, in finding multiple small profit-makers that total up to significant revenue. And his emphasis on experimenting seems key to achieving what no one else has: the sustainable newspaper.

That willingness to tolerate risk may stem, in part, from his personal life. Osberg is a husband and the father of two 20-something sons. Alex, appropriately enough, runs an Internet company in New York. But Eric’s story is different. The new CEO didn’t volunteer Eric’s tale, which has never before appeared in print. But when friends of Osberg’s, including the Washington Post Co.’s Don Graham, suggested I ask, Osberg explained that Eric, his firstborn, began suffering epileptic seizures at six months of age. “Basically,” says Osberg, his trademark smile gone, “his brain didn’t grow.”

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