At Daily News, New Fears About the Future

Apparent hiring freeze, staff exodus to Inquirer have raised concerns about restructuring at parent company.

They're owned by the same company, but rivals just the same.

They’re owned by the same company, but rivals just the same.

An apparent hiring freeze and the exodus of several high-profile staffers to the Inquirer has left Daily News staffers feeling stretched thin and wondering — again — what the future holds for their long-beleaguered newspaper.

Interstate General Media, which owns both newspapers and Philly.com, has been restructuring operations ever since Gerry Lenfest took over as owner and publisher last year: The photo staffs of the two newspapers were combined this month — managed out of the Inky newsroom — and Philly.com has been hard at work building up its roster of talent while supplanting the old newspaper websites.

But this week’s announcement that political columnist Chris Brennan is moving to the Inquirer after 15 years at the tabloid appears to have unleashed fears among staffers that the Daily News is being left to wither slowly on the vine. And those frustrations are peaking while IGM and the Newspaper Guild — which represents employees of all three newsrooms — negotiate a new bargaining agreement to replace the contract that expires February 8th. 

“I think it’s fair to say the Daily News won’t be hiring anybody in the short run. Hopefully that will change,” said Howard Gensler, the Daily News gossip columnist and president of the guild. “The belief is that the Daily News has too many employees.”

But, he added: “I haven’t gotten any evidence from the company they don’t want there to be a Daily News.”

Stan Wischnowski, IGM’s vice president of news operations, declined to comment for this story, citing personnel issues. Michael Days, editor of the Daily News, also declined comment.

The decade-long financial struggles of Interstate General Media and its predecessors in owning the newspapers and Philly.com are well-documented. While most of the attention has gone to the decline of the Inquirer’s financial and circulation numbers, the Daily Newswhile earning plaudits for its journalism — has actually fared slightly worse.

In the most recent circulation reports compiled in September, the Inky’s average daily weekday print circulation stood at 158,547 — roughly 70 percent of where it stood three years previously. The Daily News had a weekday print circulation of 43,744 last fall; that’s just 66 percent of its 2011 number. (See the reports below.)

Combine that with the wisdom of investing in Philly.com — the future of news will be mostly online — and some cuts might seem inevitable during the current restructuring. Daily News staffers (who have long complained behind the scenes that their work doesn’t get the same support and promotion as does that of their sister newspaper) don’t quite see it that way, especially when they see colleagues crossing the hallway to join a paper that’s also losing audience.

“It’s obvious the staff continues to shrink,” said Bill Ross, executive director of the Newspaper Guild. “There’s open jobs posted at the Inquirer, but there’s no action at the Daily News. The staffing level at the Daily News is a major concern.”

Ross added that company officials have said they want to maintain the tabloid as a valuable, separate asset. “If that’s true, is that the way you treat a valuable asset?” he said.

Conversations with multiple staffers at the Daily News and IGM suggest there’s little reason to think the paper will be closed outright. There is fear, however, about the paper limping along in a much-diminished state.

Several DN writers have left the paper for the Inquirer in recent weeks, including high school sports reporter Aaron Carter (though his work will be shared back with the DN) and Jake Kaplan, who’ll cover the Phillies. It’s Brennan’s departure, though, that seemed to be the catalyst for the current fuss.

Brennan, however, cast his decision as a simple personal decision.

“The Inquirer’s editors expressed an interest in my work and asked if I would come over to their side of the building,” Brennan said by email. “I gave it some thought and considered it the right move for me. That’s about it.” 

Columnist Ronnie Polaneczky took a wry view on the situation, noting that the Daily News has been on the verge of imminent demise for, well, decades.

“The better question is, when are we ever NOT worried?” she said via email. “Still, the paper has been at death’s door since I got here in 1999 so the worry — reignited with each buyout offer or layoff rumor – has more of a ‘what’s new?’ feel to it.  We just want to keep doing good journalism and telling stories that need to be told for a paper that we dearly love.”

The Guild and IGM management next meet for negotiations on Thursday. 

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.

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