The Long Fall of Philly Newspapers

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Oh, what an ugly difference a dozen years can make.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the newspaper business was a happy one, fed by fat profit margins and a lack of competition in most cities. Philadelphia was no different: Yes, it had two major daily papers, but they shared an owner, reached different audiences — and maximized revenue.

What’s happened since then has been brutal. Everybody knows about the bankruptcy, revolving door ownership, and multiple rounds of layoffs that the Inquirer and Daily News — along with their digital cousin, Philly.com — have experienced in recent years. But a new document obtained by Philadelphia magazine shows just how deep the pain went.

The document is called “Interstate General Media: EBITDA Trend – 2000-2012.” (EBITDA stands for “earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization” and is one way to measure a company’s profitability.) And it reveals how the finances of Philadelphia’s leading newspapers imploded during that time — a period covering four owners: Knight Ridder, McClatchy, Brian Tierney, and finally the hedge fund owners who brought the newspapers out of bankruptcy. The last two years — that include two different sets of local ownership, one headed by George Norcross, the more recent one by Gerry Lenfest — are not included.

The document reveals:

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The Paywall Gets a Little Lower at the Inky Website

The hard and high paywall is dead. Long live the somewhat lowered paywall.

More than a year after the Inquirer and Daily News unveiled their new websites — hidden behind “hard” paywalls that required a paid subscription (or, more often, an access code) to read — the paywalls are softening a bit. Starting today, readers who go to Inquirer.com via links on Facebook or Twitter will get to read the story for free.

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Journalism Critics Question Philadelphia Daily News Cover

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Oh, yeah, we should probably make note of this Daily News cover today. The paper has a 2,700-word piece on sex slavery in Philadelphia. A lot of it is harrowing — a pimp named King Kobra would “send the young women who worked for him into the Gallery at Market East to try to recruit new girls,” Morgan Zalot writes — and yet it has to share space on the cover with Sexy Singles. With Sexy Singles Day 2: The Swimsuit Edition. There’s not even a Monkee in it this year!

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Christine Flowers Insults a Philly Civil Rights Hero

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We were reading Christine Flowers’ column this morning, thinking maybe once we could get through it without spitting our coffee in rage. After all, she was writing in favor of letting 30th Street Station keep its name — an understandable stance — and waxing rhapsodic about “old” Philadelphia.

Cute, really. But then she did this:

I mean, who was Cecil B. Moore and what did he do with my subway stop? (And hold the emails, I actually do know who Cecil B. Moore was.)

For the love of God.

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Interview: Stan Wischnowski Leads Philly Newspapers to the Future

Stan Wischnowski has been named Vice President, News Operations for The Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com.

Stan Wischnowski has been named Vice President, News Operations for The Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com.

In an Inquirer newsroom often known for infighting and factionalism, longtime editor Stan Wischnowski somehow emerged with his own reputation … for being a nice guy.

Whether that reputation can help him survive in his new job is an open question. As the new vice president of news operations for Interstate General Media (a job that didn’t exist until new company owner Gerry Lenfest gave it to him this week), Wischnowski gets to set the strategic direction of the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com.

It’s a tall order:

• He has to manage the company’s long-faltering transition to the digital era — with his first job being to get Philly.com and the newspapers to play nice with each other, to each side’s benefit, instead of constantly bickering.

• He has has to reinvigorate a Sunday paper that — even with large print circulation losses in the last year — remains the economic engine powering much that happens at the company.

• And he’ll probably need to do what nobody else in the industry has quite managed yet: Figure out how to make newspaper-style journalism pay — online or off — so that his newsrooms can continue to do their job for the next few decades.

It’s clear in talking to Wischnowski that Philly.com — which, after all, has the largest audience of the three newsrooms — will be central to his strategy for distributing and promoting the journalism of all three.  “Philly.com is still the dominant website in the region and we have an opportunity to make it better,” he said. “I think we owe it to our users to make it much easier to find what it is they are looking for.”

Last week, following his promotion, Wischnowski spoke to PhillyMag about the task ahead. Some excerpts:

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Daily News Correction: Our Ex-Editor Didn’t Say ‘Horse Manure’

There’s a fantastic correction in today’s Daily News:

In yesterday’s “Chillin’ Wit’” column, a fond farewell to former Daily News editor Zack Stalberg as he heads west to New Mexico, Stalberg was misquoted as using the term “horse manure.” He responded: “I demand a correction. Does anyone really think I would use the word ‘manure’?” No. Stalberg actually said “horse s—.” And that’s no bull manure.

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Dear Inky: I Got It Wrong

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This about sums it up.

I get it wrong sometimes.

I was wrong back in January 2013. At the time, new ownership had taken over at the Inquirer and Daily News — is the ever not the case —and immediately demanded millions  of dollars in wage and benefit cuts from the salaries of  journalists employed by the paper.

It seemed another example of a newspaper trying and failing to cut its way to profiitability, a plan that hadn’t worked at any of the other million or so papers that had been trying it recent years. So I offered a potential way out of the never-ending death spiral:

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Sarah Jessica Parker to Star in TV Show Based on Daily News Pulitzer

Ruderman and Laker (left); Parker (Shutterstock)

Ruderman and Laker (left); Parker (Shutterstock)

We already knew that Busted, the great true-crime dirty-cop book by Daily News reporters Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman, was a Philly classic. Can it be a TV classic?

We’re going to find out. Sarah Jessica Parker has signed on to star in a “limited series” TV show based on the book, which in turn is based on the Pulitzer-winning reporting the two journos did on the “Tainted Justice” series of Daily News articles that uncovered corruption on a Philly Police narcotics squad.

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Lenfest to Inquirer, Daily News Reporters: “Work Hard But Rest Easy”

Leaders of the Newspaper Guild, the union that represents the journalists of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com, had their first formal meeting with new owner Gerry Lenfest on Tuesday. Some developments:

• Lenfest told the journalists he is “committed” to continuing with two papers, meaning the perpetually in danger Daily News can rest easy for the moment.

• He’s considering keeping Philly.com as its own, independent entity with its own identity.

• He expects to have a publisher in place within three months.

• He does not expect to seek any wage cuts from journalists, and may offer a contract longer than two years during the next round of negotiations.

• He buried the hatchet with Bill Ross, the guild’s executive director. The two famously feuded by letter during the Inky’s ownership crisis.

A full memo from the Guild regarding the meeting, after the jump:

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The Last Days of the Philadelphia Inquirer?

Philanthropist H.G. "Gerry" Lenfest speak at a news conference after a closed-door auction to buy the The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News Tuesday, May 27, 2014, in Philadelphia. Photo | AP, Matt Rourke

Philanthropist H.G. “Gerry” Lenfest speak at a news conference after a closed-door auction to buy the The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News Tuesday, May 27th, 2014, in Philadelphia. Photo | AP, Matt Rourke

Let’s stipulate many things about Gerry Lenfest. That he’s a good man. A boon to the community. Somebody whose philanthropy has enriched this city beyond the usual ways of measuring. Philadelphia is better, much better, for his devotion to us.

But he is not the man to lead the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com into the future — which is the plan, now that the auction he and Lewis Katz won two weeks ago has ended with Wednesday’s official closing, putting the organizations into his hands. His leadership may, in fact, signal the effective demise of those publications.

Let’s be blunt about the reasons why.

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