They’re writing the Daily News’ obituary. Again.
Friday’s news that the newsrooms of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com are merging has prompted a new round of speculation that the gritty tabloid’s days are numbered. Yes, new publisher Terry Egger said the paper will continue to publish separately, but that didn’t stop other observers from checking the walls for signs of handwriting.
“A check with a few insiders reinforced my view that time is running out for the 90-year-old tabloid,” Poynter columnist — and Inky alum — Rick Edmonds wrote over the weekend, noting: “Most second papers under common ownership disappeared in the ’80s and ’90s.”
Rumors of the Daily News’ demise have been greatly exaggerated in the last few decades: You’d have been a sucker if you’d ever bet against the paper’s continued existence. In fact, there are still reasons to believe the paper will continue to exist — but there are also reasons to believe that the end is near.
It’s profitable. At least, that’s what Egger reportedly told journalists Friday when questioned about why the Daily News continues to publish. That profitability isn’t necessarily a sign of success though — the paper is simply a lot cheaper to produce than the Inquirer: It has a smaller staff and relies heavily on single-copy sales, meaning it doesn’t have the same big costs for home delivery as its broadsheet cousin does. It also doesn’t spend money on journalism in the suburbs — the Daily News has been a relentless urban newspaper. It’s easier to make money if you’re not spending too much of it in the first place.
But for how long? There is reason to believe the margins have gotten thinner. Egger told journalists on Friday that Philadelphia Media Network’s advertising revenue had declined by $90 million since 2010; as Edmonds noted at Poynter, “second papers tend to get a declining share of what’s left.” Setting aside those industry-wide trends, though, the Daily News has been under a de facto hiring freeze for most of the last year — the paper has seen several of its journalists move to the Inquirer, and been unable to replace them. The Daily News has stayed profitable, in part, by watching its own newsroom become more sparse.
It’s got voice! Probably most Philadelphians can hearken back to a favorite Daily News headline or cover — or maybe they simply remember gasping at the tabloid’s choices and wordplay. Certainly, no other respectable publication in town used the word “thug” so often to describe criminals. It’s also a voice that makes good business sense in the media’s increasingly digital future: Egger reportedly told journalists Friday that in a research project being done with Drexel, students more often picked DN stories to recommend to other readers.
But that voice seems destined to fade: The point of bringing all of Philadelphia Media Network’s journalists into the same newsroom is not to let Daily News reporters keep being Daily News reporters, but to have each journalist be ready, willing and able to produce journalism suitable for each and every platform in PMN’s network. That seems like a recipe for homogenization — and a slow, drip-drip way of killing what makes the Daily News interesting and special.
And that’s probably ultimately the real danger to the Daily News-as-we-know-it: Not that it will die any time soon, but that it will simply fade, that it will become neutered and boring — or, if not boring, at least indistinguishable from any other publication in town. Maybe that would be a fate worse than death — but they don’t write obituaries for that kind of thing.
Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.