Bill Marimow Probably Can’t Save the Inquirer

Some failure is inevitable, given the challenges. But can the Inky’s once-and-future boss find a path to success?

Bill Marimow is destined to fail.

That’s not a knock on Marimow, who is a good journalist, and whose return from an Arizona exile to the top spot at the Philadelphia Inquirer should stabilize a newsroom that’s been rocked in recent years (and weeks) by ownership changes, layoffs, and Greg Osberg. But we’re at a stage now in the life cycle of the Inquirer that a certain amount of failure is inevitable—and may, in fact, be the only route to ultimate success.

Here is the situation: Print circulation is declining and it is probably never coming back. That’s true everywhere, but it’s possibly even more true in Philadelphia: The circulation of the Inquirer and its “branded editions”—which include the Daily Newsdropped from 11th nationally in 2010 to 15th in 2011. In a failing industry, Philadelphia is failing faster.

The audience is moving online.

And that’s where Marimow’s challenge lies. He was famously demoted at the Inquirer in the first place because Osberg didn’t believe he had the chops to compete in the digital realm. And it’s kind of easy to remain skeptical on this front: He only tweeted five times between September and last week’s announcement of his re-hiring; as of Sunday, his Twitter avatar remained the generic “I don’t give a damn” placeholder egg.

But maybe Marimow has a few tricks up his sleeve that we don’t know about. Even if he does, though, there are three obstacles standing in the way as he tries to lead the Inquirer toward its future:

The union: When the old owners announced layoffs last month at the Inquirer and Daily News, the Newspaper Guild struck back with a nasty, sarcastic memorandum. That’s to be expected, and is even kind of laudable—even in the digital future you’ll need journalists to do journalism; obviously the Philadelphia Media Network’s owners weren’t looking beyond about a month into the future.

Alarmingly, though, the memo also openly sneered at the idea of a digital future.

“Perhaps instead of killing stories he didn’t like about the sale of the company and trying to be seen as some sort of digital visionary by holding press conferences at the Academy of Natural Sciences, giving free rent to start-up companies who play ping pong on the 5th floor at 400 N. Broad, creating a poorly-launched tablet and worrying about apps that make a few dollars, Osberg should be focused on properly staffing the newspapers in a manner that will allow more copies to be sold,” said the letter from Dan Gross and Bill Ross, the guild’s president and executive director. “The duplication of stories in both papers and the ongoing push to dump more and more content onto Philly.com will not solve any revenue problems.”

They continued:

“Whether Osberg wants to admit it or not, the print editions of the Inquirer and Daily News, which he offensively labels ‘legacy products,’ are responsible for generating more than 90 percent of the revenue.”

There’s nothing new here. The guild has previously shown more interest in defending work rules adopted 20 years ago than it has in adapting to the times. But it’s tremendously short-sighted. Maybe the print papers provide 90 percent of the company’s revenue—but, uh, even the new owners say that revenue has dropped by half over the last six years. And you might’ve noticed that the sale value of the newspapers dropped by 90 percentage points during the same time.

Innovation is the only way to save the guild’s journalists. They’re mocking it instead. Unfortunately, that’s kind of understandable because of Marimow’s Challenge No. 2:

Current innovation is actually backward-looking: The latest digital offering from the Inquirer is a new iPad app … that will make it cooler to read the newspaper. Seriously. The new app will “show animations, video and audio when it’s pointed at a printed copy of the newspaper.” To use a well-worn analogy: This is like giving new car owners a buggy-whip instead of the keys to the ignition.

Obviously, this project probably isn’t meant to be a home run. It won’t be. One hates to criticize necessary experimentation, but attempts to get iPad owners to buy more print newspapers seem doomed, doomed, doomed.

Which brings us to Marimow’s Challenge No. 3:

This shit is hard: The guild is right—Osberg’s Android tablet project appears to be a failure. Man oh man, though, it’s a noble failure. For years before the initiative was launched in 2011, the Daily News’s Will Bunch advocated that the paper give away netbooks with digital subscriptions to the newspaper. Industry analysts at one point suggested the New York Times might increase profits by shutting down the printing plants and sending every subscriber a Kindle.

Other newspapers talked about doing something similar for years. Philadelphia actually took action. It just didn’t work.

The truth is that nobody really has this figured out yet. The Times—which is the queen of American papers—has barely managed to avoid going under in recent years. It’s also impossible not to notice that two-newspaper towns like Dallas, Seattle, and Denver have in recent years become one-newspaper towns. Everybody’s just trying to hold on until somebody else figures it out.

It’s good that Marimow is back: Good journalism is an essential foundation for journalistic innovation.

Unfortunately, his task probably requires a little bit of failure along the way. And maybe the job can’t be done. Maybe Marimow’s job is going to be to shepherd the Inquirer to permanent twilight in a dignified, respectable manner. For Philadelphia’s sake, though, he needs to keep fighting.