Writer Steve Volk is a longtime observer of the Philadelphia media scene — so he brings a substantial foundation to this month’s Philly Mag print story that takes readers inside the furious battle for control of the city’s two major daily newspapers. It is also, he swears, the end of his media reporting days.
He talked this week about what he learned reporting the story, what he’s learned from his time on the beat, and what’s needed to finally, fully save the Inquirer and Daily News once and for all.
You’ve been covering Philadelphia media for more than a decade now, and it’s probably included some of the rockiest times in the history of the city’s two major daily newspapers. Have things ever been as messy as they are now?
No, I don’t think so. It’s like they’ve been spiraling the drain for 11 years. It’s been a steady disintegration, and this is the absolute bottom, because — even the bankruptcy with (former owner Brian) Tierney, in its way, wasn’t as bad as this sort of paralysis of ownership that they have now.
In your story I find it awfully hard to find a hero. The owners seem to be unwilling to put their egos aside to any extent. Inquirer editor Bill Marimow seems resistant to change; the paper’s reporters, as a group, seem resistant to reflecting on what they might do to improve the paper. Is there anybody in the story who has both credibility and an eye for the future of the papers?
I don’t think so. Will Bunch? [Laughs.]
I have a lot of respect for Bill (Marimow), I really do, and I think given what he achieved over the years, he’s an impressive guy, and I think I wrote he’s the closest thing at first glance to a hero. He is not the guy — even, given his age — he’s not the guy who’s going to be there five or six years from now. You couple that with his reputation for being resistant to change.
What permeates the Inquirer, I think, is a real sense of self-satisfaction with the product they put out, and I think there’s a lot of talented people there, but I don’t think that sense of satisfaction is earned. I don’t see something, when I open up the paper and look at it, that people over there should be puffing out their chests with too much pride. That sounds really brutal, but aside from a small handful of regular bylines — which I won’t get into — I think that they’re putting out kind of a bland product.
Let’s talk about one particular person in all of this: Nancy Phillips, who’s kind of at the nexus of the newsroom and the ownership battle. She of course is a tremendous investigative reporter, she’s apparently quite a good city editor. She’s also the paramour, let’s call it, of Lewis Katz (part owner of IGM, which owns the newspapers). You uncovered a memo from her to Mr. Katz suggesting that a number of people be fired, that the Daily News be shut down. Given her differing roles, how does she navigate the newsroom?
You mean going forward? I have no idea. The best compliment I’ve had about this piece — couple of people have said to me, “I couldn’t get a good read on Nancy,” for the reasons you’re saying. There’s this kick-ass journalist and passionate journalist — think about this, she could be anywhere in the world given who her companion is — and she chooses to be in a big-city newsroom, specifically the Inquirer, a paper that’s gone through all sorts of turmoil. I have nothing but respect for that.
You look at the memo. There are three people on the business side that she thought should’ve been canned. I don’t know that I’ve met anyone at any editorial operation, anyplace I’ve been or anyplace where I’ve interviewed people, who felt like they were qualified to say who kept their job and who didn’t keep their job on the business side. I would expect people find that kind of distasteful. But I also know that, within a newsroom, what people really respect is getting the story, and now that she’s in an editing role, from everything I hear she serves her writers very well. I think people are inclined to look past any of these sorts of what might be seen as a foible.
She did recommend an eye toward the closure of the Daily News. It seems like the Daily News is always on the verge of extinction, but it also seems, in this story, like the Daily News is the more nimble news operation. When new ownership came aboard and asked for a redesign, they accomplished theirs within weeks, while the Inquirer took months. Talk a little bit about the Daily News and what kind of operation that is.
Think about this for a second: Bob Hall was dispatched there a couple of decades ago, and one of his mandates from Knight Ridder — which owned the papers at the time — was to close the Daily News. Bob Hall proceeded to look at the numbers, and Bob Hall didn’t close the Daily News.
Every time there’s been an ownership change since, the assumption has been they’ll close the Daily News. But every time people invest money in the property and somebody gets around to looking at the situation, in-depth and in detail, they don’t close the Daily News. Most recently, Nancy Philips, the girlfriend of the new owner, saying “You really ought to look at closing the Daily News.” Lewis Katz, I think to his credit, has to my knowledge never made a single push to close the Daily News.
The Daily News should not be closed, that’s why.
I would use this to bang the Inquirer on the head a little further. I think there’s this canard they pass around there that “We’d be in better shape if we just closed the Daily News.” Fact is, that people who have expertise in these matters keep looking at the thing and deciding not to close it, and they need to ask themselves why that is.
I think there are a lot of reasons for that. One, I think there is very little readership crossover between the two papers. Not only is there no guarantee that the people who read the Daily News would start reading the Inquirer, I think it’s unlikely that a majority of them actually would. You’d ultimately lose a lot of people.
The other reason is: When you interact — and look, there are a lot of good Inquirer people that are friends of mine — but on the whole, when you interact with people on both sides, you just like the Daily News a lot better. Culturally, people at the Inquirer walk around like they won all those Pulitzers in the Gene Roberts era. And they didn’t. The people at the Daily News walk around like: “I need to get a hot story tomorrow. I need to get a hot story right now.” There’s a massive difference, culturally, between the two, and at some point the Inquirer needs to do some soul searching.
Last question: You’ve been covering Philadelphia media for more than a decade, across several publications. I know you’re hoping to make this your swan song, as far as that goes. What have you learned in that time?
That I don’t want to cover the media anymore, at least not local media in Philly. It’s 11 years of watching the bridge of the Enterprise shake while the cast runs from one side of the screen of the other.
Sometimes the demands of narrative make you seem impervious to the human cost of what’s going on there. And I’m not impervious. These are sort of would-be friends and colleagues, you know what I mean? I’ve been constantly covering them losing their jobs and wondering what’s next. I’m tired of marching that same beat.
I think what I’ve learned is: Experimentation is really hard. I think what’s necessary more than ever in papers is to experiment and try things to see what’ll bring more readers, more eyes and more subscribers. I think it’s been hard for people to let go of what they know and try something new. So I think there’s been this paralysis of people trying to hang on to whatever reader base they might retain, a fear of change because it might involve slipping ever farther. I feel for them, but I feel what’s needed now is a spirit of experimentation, owners who get along and are willing to lose some money in the short term by trying to make money in the long term.
Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.