Interview: David Boardman and the Future of Philly Newspapers
Meet David Boardman. It’s possible you’ve not heard of him, but he may have a lot of influence over how you get your news in Philadelphia in coming years. He’s the dean of Temple University’s School of Media and Communication, and it’s from that perch — he’s been at Temple about a year — that he informally advised the late Lewis Katz as Katz prepared his final bid for the city’s major daily newspapers earlier this summer.
But that’s not been Boardman’s only move. He pulled the plug on the little-seen Axis Philly website in June and instead announced that Temple would help fund journalism startups in the city. First up: Brother.ly, a forthcoming website from former WashingtonPost.com editor Jim Brady and a crew of about six local journalists.
One thing to understand about Boardman: He’s not some ivory tower egghead. He spent three decades at the Seattle Times, rising from reporter to top editor and helping that paper win several Pulitzer Prizes along the way. He’s gone through the pain of every news industry veteran, laying off trusted friends and colleagues, but he’s also given a lot of thought to what newspapers should look like in the future. Hint: There’s not quite as much paper involved.
He talked to Philly Mag last week about that future:
You’ve been here a year now. How’s the first year going?
It’s been fabulous, Temple is a really amazing place, incredible energy, diversity. It’s a place that’s very much on the rise in terms of student interest and the scholarship that’s coming out of here, and the activity here — it’s an exciting time to be here and I’m having a lot of fun.
What is Temple’s role going forward as far as helping define the larger media ecosystem in Philadelphia?
We very much want to be a major player in what happens with the news ecosystem here, with the combination of the stellar faculty that we have and the really amazing students. I think it’s an appropriate role for a public university to help both define and reinvent, invigorate and populate the ecosystem. I’ve been in a lot of conversations with a lot of people this year trying to understand what the landscape looks like and what role Temple can play to help.
One of the people you were in conversation with was Lew Katz, before his demise. Can you describe the kind of conversations you were having with him?
Yeah, I had been in informal conversations with him, and to a lesser degree with Gerry Lenfest [now the owner of Philadelphia’s major daily newspapers], just trying to advise them as somebody who had worked in the newspaper business for many years and who has a lot of connections and networks in both the digital space and in the newspaper industry, about where they may want to take the newspapers going forward. Those were really interesting, fun conversations, and even though I didn’t know Lewis for a long time, I came to like and respect him greatly in a short time, and it was really a tragedy for the community to lose him.
Well. Where might we want to take the newspapers in the future?
I don’t have any magic answer for that, but I do believe very strongly that it is essential that a community have good, strong, vibrant, healthy newsrooms. Individuals bring real vibrancy and value to the community but there are so many important stories that really need a collective, trained, experienced newsroom to do and I’m not hung up on what the delivery system will be, but I do think it’s essential to come up with business models that allow us to sustain strong newsrooms. Those are the kinds of things that I was talking with Lewis about.
Do those business models involve daily printed newspapers?
Personally, I don’t think so. I still believe in the power of print and I think that there is a market for a printed newspaper — personally I think ultimately most cities are probably looking at a model that would have one, very very strong, last-you-all-week printed paper, probably printed on Saturday or Sunday, and then high-quality digital products during the week.
I think there may be a place for smaller, free-distribution publications [like the Metro] , but this idea of a daily printed newspaper delivered to your doorstep everyday, while I think it has some vibrancy now, I don’t think it’s the long-term answer. It’s not where readers of today are migrating quickly and it’s certainly not where readers of tomorrow are going, so I think a more forward-looking approach would be a mix of variety of digital products that work for readers and advertisers, and then maybe a really strong weekly newspaper that lasts you all week and has a lot of investigative reporting, in-depth reporting, culture, ideas.
How quickly a city like Philadelphia is ready to move there, that’s hard to say.
Is Temple preparing students for that kind of future then?
We absolutely are. Our students are coming out with the ability to work across any and every platform. When they go through with us they’re not put into a platform track, they’re taught journalism across platforms — they come out with the ability to think, to analyze, and to write … and then they come out with the ability to adapt to various sorts of technologies. But we don’t get them hung up on a particular delivery platform.
Let me ask about Axis Philly. You guys provided a home for Axis Philly and not too long ago you basically pulled the plug on that project. What was Axis Philly supposed to do and how was it failing to meet that charge?
As I understood it the idea initially behind Axis Philly — and this of course predates me by a couple of years — but I think the initial idea was for Axis Philly to be a hub and a point of real energy for all of the emerging ecosystems of news here in town, all the various sites that are one, two, three people and to somehow draw all that together and help build some sustainability for those sites. What it wound up being was a small, pretty narrowly focused, public affairs focused, news website that actually did some good and important work, but had very low readership and frankly was running out of money. We didn’t see any real percentage in trying to sustain something that wasn’t really working.
We’re still very interested — Temple, the School for Media and Communication and our Center for Public Interest Journalism — we’re still very interested in contributing in big ways to the news landscape here. So we decided among other things to turn our attention to creating an incubator for news startups, and we’re working with Jim Brady and some other folks right now who are working on a commercial news startup for Philadelphia and they’re teaching an entrepreneurial journalism class at Temple. Our students will have the experience of working from the ground up with a new enterprise, which I think will be great for our students and hopefully great for the city as well.
How are you going to judge which enterprises to incubate going forward?
The idea I think is that we’ll take proposals from people who have ideas for startups and we can provide them some space, some technology resources and obviously student resources to help them get started
So, five years from now, what might the Philadelphia ecosystem look like then?
I think it’s will only get better actually. I have tremendous respect for Gerry Lenfest — his heart and values totally are in the right place, I have no question about it. I know that he’s out looking for really smart, forwarding looking people to work with, to carry this forward.
I think we’re gonna see a very healthy newspaper company whether that involves both newspapers, who knows, whether that involves a seven-day-a-week printed newspaper who knows, but I’m optimistic about what that looks like. I admire a lot of the work that’s being done by WHYY, I think the quality of television journalism here is actually far better than most cities. I think good things are ahead for Philadelphia journalism.
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