To my editor at the Philly Post: Brace yourself. I’m about to praise the Philadelphia Inquirer. Yes, the Inquirer. Because a funny thing has been going on in my house. I’m reading the Inquirer again.
Frankly, the Inquirer has always been a pretty lousy paper. I should know. I’ve suffered as a subscriber for more than 30 years. How many times did I wonder why I didn’t just cancel the subscription after my usual routine of perusing the sports page and tossing the rest? I can’t even remember. But I’ve kept it going. Probably out of loyalty. Or more likely laziness.
But recently things have changed. The Inquirer has gotten better. A lot better. New owners took over the paper back in 2012. I can’t speak to what’s going on inside of the newsroom. I don’t know whether it’s a good or bad atmosphere for an Inquirer employee. But as a reader and a longtime subscriber, I can say this: I’m now actually reading the front and the metro sections of the paper, too. What has happened? What’s improved? Four things immediately jump out at me.
1. The front page is way better. I’ve noticed now that the Inquirer’s front page is at least 75 to 80 percent local news. And I like that. It’s a local paper. It will never, ever compete against the New York Times, USA Today or The Wall Street Journal. And the paper’s management and editors seem now, after so many years of trying, to accept that. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t provide quality local reporting on regional stories that affect all of us and also mirror what’s going on in the country. Take this past Tuesday. The front page had five stories and two large photos. Three of the stories were home-grown (health incentives at local employers, N.J. banning anti-gay therapy treatment, and a look at how to better prepare for storms like last year’s Hurricane Sandy). The two photos showed a fishing boat that crashed in Atlantic City and young football players on a new field in Hunting Park. Sure, the top national story was there. But the mix is better and more interesting to a Philadelphian.
2. There are more investigative pieces. From the school system to Vince Fumo to Sandusky to last Sunday’s piece on the double-dipper who oversees oil and natural-gas development for the state Game Commission while maintaining a side job advising landowners on energy leases, the Inquirer has invested more in longer, better, more interesting investigative pieces that are unique to our area. I like that. I like reading stories where I can turn to someone and say “can you believe that guy?” or “this can’t be for real, can it?” And in a city of millions there are plenty of stories to go around about people taking advantage of other people. I am not a trained journalist. But boy do I have respect for those journalists who really know how to investigate and report on a good story. I hope the paper continues to invest in these people.
3. Finally, a small but noticeable turn towards the center. One of the reasons I paid little attention to the front section of the Inquirer was because of its very left-leaning bent. I admit that I consider myself to be right of center. But hey… I did vote for President Obama and Governor Rendell. And I enjoy reading and discussing other points of view. But for years the Inquirer was… phew! Every news piece seemed to have an agenda. The editorial page made Barbara Streisand appear like a member of the Tea Party. And those Tony Auth cartoons… really? I realize that the city is heavily Democratic. But there are significant numbers of (gasp!) Republicans who are also in the surrounding areas and it gets tiring reading a local paper that attacks them on a daily basis. So now there are more opposing viewpoints. There are frequent contributions from (gasp!) Republicans. The editorials seem less poisonous. Maybe it’s just me. But whatever the reason, I’m now finding myself reading the opinion pages again.
4. Philly.com. It’s excellent. And it keeps getting better. Not, of course, as excellent as The Philly Post (that goes without saying). But the company recently invested significant resources into making it a vibrant and readable place for Philadelphia based news. They’ve added more bloggers and expanded their coverage of local stories. They’re integrating it better with the print edition. There are deeper stories. And more photos. Philly.com is finally getting the attention it needed.
Yes, the Inquirer has improved dramatically. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to get better.
For example, more and better opinion pieces are needed. One of the reasons I love The Wall Street Journal is that I learn from their editorials. Their opinions are well researched. And of course they lean to the right, no denying that. But with every day there are plenty of other columns, many of them in opposition to the editorial viewpoint. There are regular columnists and guest columnists. I tend to glance through the front page of the Journal and then immediately turn to the opinion page because I know I’ll get insightful, well written pieces that educate me on both sides of an issue. The Inquirer needs to do more of that. We need more columnists on their payroll. Make them stars. Make them write more often. Double the size of the opinion pages. Equally feature them in print and online.
I’m not done with opinions. Besides expanding the staff of columnists and producing more and better quality opinion pieces I’d like to see the Inquirer feature more guest voices. And not just the odd school teacher. There are scores of academics and experienced bloggers in the Philadelphia area writing for great sites like this one, Philebrity (they may hate me, but I’m a fan of theirs), Naked Philadelphian and News Works. There are plenty of local papers like the Main Line Times and the Bucks County Courier Times with interesting angles. They are really not competitors. They’re all part of the Philadelphia news community. We want to hear all the voices in the region, not just the ones on the Inquirer’s staff.
And please… swap equity with a local TV station. Local newspapers are getting squeezed. Local TV is getting pummeled by online and cable competitors. Our local news programs need online content. And the Inquirer needs more video content. Everyone’s covering the same stories with ever decreasing budgets. When will this finally happen? Instead of “partnering” which always turns out to be a lame excuse for some marketing campaign, when will our two main sources of news, TV and newspapers, finally take a financial interest in each other and share their journalistic assets? Imagine if the Inquirer had the resources of a TV news station to complement their written pieces? Imagine if Fox 29, for example, had the resources of the Inquirer’s staff to more fully expand the story of something that they could only cover in 2 to 3 minutes on-air?
Of course the newspaper world has suffered serious subscription and ad revenue decline. But the business is still attractive. Why else would Warren Buffett buy up the Press of Atlantic City last month? Why did Jeff Bezos just purchase The Washington Post? These media assets will never have the clout they had 20 or 30 years ago. But there’s money to be made by leveraging their brands. The Inquirer is finally producing a readable local edition after all these years. For what it’s worth, I’m noticing. I hope others are too.