The Inky Should Go Online Only and Other Radical Ideas to Save Philly Newspapers

The Inquirer and Daily News have survived ownership changes and staff reductions. Now it's time for them to try something startlingly new.

It’s time to do something different—radically different—to save Philadelphia’s major daily newspapers.

This is just a rough estimate, but the Inquirer and Daily News in recent years have been through about a kajillion ownership changes and a kajillion-and-a-half staff reductions and givebacks. Somehow, both have continued to put out occasionally impressive journalism—both have earned well-deserved Pulitzers in the last four years—but it’s become clear lately that the new boss is the same as the old boss.

That’s literally true, in the cases of Bill Marimow and Michael Days returning to the top editorials spots at the Inky and DN, respectively. But it’s also become clear that the newest owners—a group of community-minded Philadelphia millionaires who bought the newspaper group earlier this year–have roughly the same three-step plan for prosperity as their predecessors:

  • Reduce the number of jobs at each paper, and the wages of those left behind.
  • ??????
  • Profit!

The result? We’re watching Philadelphia’s biggest, best, most important news organization slowly melt away. It’s become increasingly clear that few of the journalists who remain believe the top management has a real plan to survive and thrive.

So maybe it’s time to try something breathtakingly, radically different. Here’s the proposal:

  • Let’s turn the Philadelphia Inquirer into a digital-only publication—except for Sundays. Give them a paywalled website (somewhat like the one already in place at the New York Times) and make people pay for a subscription that includes home delivery of the Sunday newspaper.
  • Meanwhile, get the Daily News off the web entirely—but continue to print six days a week as the city’s major daily print publication.

Crazy right? This is why it makes sense.

Of the two papers, the Inquirer has the more suburban, more wired, more affluent audience—one that’s more likely to get much of its news online already. The Daily News, meanwhile, has the more urban, less-wired audience more likely to disappear entirely without the print publication. (Check out the media kit from Philadelphia Media Network, and you’ll see that the Inquirer’s audience skews pretty closely, education and income-wise, to that of; Will Bunch articulated the DN‘s appeal in an “open letter” to new owners back in February.) Keeping one paper in print and turning the other digital makes sense for both brands, and lets each make a more focused effort to retain and grow their natural audiences.

Turning the Inquirer into a digital product would eliminate massive daily printing costs while growing digital revenue, and position that organization among the news industry’s leaders in the post-print future. (Leaving it in print on Sunday also makes sense: That day’s circulation is up, even though the paper’s circulation is down every other day of the week.) Keeping the Daily News as a print-only publication would eliminate the competition—and cannibalization—of the two publications for print advertising dollars while still giving the city’s deadwood diehards something to hold in their hands over morning coffee.

In some respects, this proposal is similar to one being put in place at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which is cutting back to three days of publication per week and shifting the organization’s focus to digital products. But there’s an important difference: Philadelphians who still want (or need) a print newspaper would still be able to buy one. Every single day.

Here’s the critical question: Will it work?

Straight answer: I don’t know.

But nobody knows how, or if, the business is going to survive. What seems clear, though, is that the old business model for newspapers—nationwide, not just in Philadelphia—is just about dead. So rather than try to perpetuate an ever-smaller, ever-more-impotent version of that same model, why not try to reinvent the model? What’s to lose? A couple of years of lost advertising and lower page counts? A few readers who might be close to jumping ship anyway?

We already know that experimentation will be necessary to preserve one or both of the papers in some form. So far, that experimentation has taken place at the edges—Phone apps, that sort of thing. It’s time to try something that alters the core of the organization. It’s time for something radical.