No One is Coming to Save Philadelphia Newspapers

These owners and these journalists will decide the fate of the Inky and Daily News. First they need a plan. Any plan at all.

Well, now we know: There will be no white knight to save Philadelphia’s two major daily newspapers.

That was always the hope of course, that some deep-pocketed local guys—men with deep pockets and sense of community mission—would finally buy the papers and restore them to health. And if there were some questions about influence and motives, it seemed like the Inquirer and Daily News finally found those owners last year when a group led by Lew KatzGerry Lenfest and George Norcross, among others, brought the publications under the umbrella of Interstate General Media and promised to end the revolving-door cycle of ownership in favor of rebuilding.

The era of good feelings? It last just a few months. With its ultimatum last week that the journalists at the two newspapers eat a collective $8 million in wage and benefit cuts, it’s clear that the new ownership group isn’t willing to sit around and lose money any more than its predecessors were. And there don’t seem to be any other rich guys left. (Ronald Perelman? Seems unlikely at this point.)

Now that may just be hardball negotiating tactics—it’s hard to find anybody who expects the owners to start “liquidating” the newspapers if the demands aren’t met by Friday—but it also tells us that the future is probably going to be painful at the newspapers, and that the media landscape in this city could shift significantly in the coming weeks and months.

Consider what happens if the owners win: That $8 million in cuts would probably eliminate roughly 80 journalists from those newspapers. Given that total employment between the Inky and Daily News is estimated somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 journalists, news coverage and its quality would be radically affected. There would be no “doing more with less” in this scenario, only … less.

And if the owners lose? Maybe they make good on their threats to liquidate—part of the empire, if not all of it. In which case, you still have lost jobs and lost coverage in a city that could probably use more, not less, journalism.

Bill Ross, the executive director of the Newspaper Guild chapter that represents journalists at these papers, doesn’t share this doomsday outlook, at least not yet. He told me Tuesday that—despite the Friday deadline issued by the owners—his union hadn’t opened contract negotiations yet, and is waiting to see the bargains struck by other unions. Technically, the Newspaper Guild contract runs to October.

And he seems to believe the owners can find a less-dire way to solve the newspapers’ money woes. “These are some very smart businessmen running this operation” Ross said.

Where’s the future?

Publicly, at least, it seems that the new ownership group is repeating the pattern of its predecessors—showing guild members the stick without offering any sort of carrot. It might be easier to extract concessions from the union if Interstate General Media could show journalists its plan for the future—how it plans to regain health, and what the business will look like when it does. That assumes such a vision exists.

And the guild? Does it have any ideas for winning the future? Ross laughed when I asked him that. “I’m sure that we do, if anybody would listen to us,” he said. Step One, he suggested, would be to stop giving away content for free on Philly.com. “We need to figure that out jointly” with Interstate General, he said.

In fact, Ross chided me for a piece I wrote last year, which mocked another guild idea: To give up on the digital future and focus ever-more-intensely on print. I can defend that criticism: Yes, newspaper money still mostly comes from print—but the audience is moving online, quickly, and betting on a dying medium doesn’t seem like a forward-thinking strategy.

But I could be wrong.

Out in California, the Orange County Register is remaking itself along a new print-centric strategy that is deliberately pushing digital to the side in favor of making … better print newspapers. New publisher Aaron Kushner is reaching into his deep pockets to hire more and better journalists, as well as top-flight designers, to make the “deadwood” version of the Register so compelling that people will pay to read it. The idea is that relentless quality and a refusal to work for free will win the day. Will it pay off? We don’t know yet.

Most interesting to me is who has bought into that strategy: Rob Curley. You might not know his name, but he was my boss a decade ago at the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, and made his name as one of the country’s foremost digital journalism gurus, skipping to jobs in Florida, Washington D.C., and Vegas. And now he’s in California … helping re-build the Register’s family of weekly newspapers. The digital guru has gone print-centric, in other words. It’s an astounding transformation for many of us who have known him or seen one of his presentations. But he indicated to me this week he’d tired of “trading digital dimes for print dollars.”

“Now that I understand the revenue model and business strategy for the Register, and that it isn’t like a typical newspaper, I know that I need to make a print product that people want to read,” Curley told me Tuesday. “Scratch that–make a print product that people feel like they have to read.”

Now I don’t know if the Register has the right plan. (Again: The audience is going online, and it seems like that ought to mean something.)  But it’s a plan, damnit, one supported by an owner willing to invest towards growth. And it’s entirely possible that pursuing an actual vision—any vision—might be worthier, and have a better payoff, than sitting around and dying the death of a thousand rounds of staff cuts. Which appears to be what’s happening in Philly.

There are no white knights left. These owners, and this band of journalists, will decide whether the Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com have a real future in this city. They’re running out of time to do so. Chose a vision and pursue it, folks. Now.

  • MasterJedi_Yoda

    Newspapers across the country have shot themselves in the foot over these past several years by putting their newspapers online and charging nothing for this service. How can you make money doing business this way? Also, allowing your writers to report breaking news and stories on Twitter hurts your business further. I don’t feel sorry for bad business people that run these newspapers. You did this to yourselves. The future of newspapers will contain almost solely AP wire content and your few remaining journalists will be relegated to posting their stories online and on Twitter. I used to have pity for the demise of the newspapers, but no more. I’m actually tired of the whining by articles like this one. Solve the problem or go bankrupt. Don’t care anymore.

    • JTFloore

      exactly: you cannot sell something that you’re giving away! THAT was supposed to make sense?! some who eagerly pursued that course were called visionaries and given awards. geez.

  • Lafollette

    A labor contract is more than a technicality. At least it used to be.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=571634606 Joel Mathis

      Imprecise language on my part. I meant to suggest that the union might reopen the contract before October even though it’s not reqruired to.

  • Kevin Slimp

    Joel. Right on target. They call me the “news guru” for a reason. I’m going to share your column at conventions all over North America over the next three weeks. Here’s something I wrote about OCR two weeks ago. It’s made quiet a splash, appearing in hundreds of papers since:

    http://kevinslimp.com/slimp-rebuts-story-on-60-minutes-cms-231