Interview: Stan Wischnowski Leads Philly Newspapers to the Future
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:
Help me understand the hierarchy here: You’ll be reporting to Mr. Lenfest, and you’ll be leading the three newsrooms in strategic planning, budgeting and staffing. Will the editors of those newsrooms then be reporting to you or somewhere else in the chain?
No, all three editors will be reporting to me. And yeah, this is sort of a first for us, doing something like this.
So you’re confident then, you have the power you need to make the changes you need to make?
Yeah. I’m not sure power’s the right word, but you know, I think of it as a real collaborative spirit that I’ve built over the years with all three of those editors. As you know, me and Bill (Marimow, editor of the Inquirer) have worked together since about 2006, and me and Mike (Topel, interim editor at Philly.com) go back even further than that, and Mike (Days, editor of the Daily News) was my managing editor when I was editor of the Inquirer, so it’s a very collaborative team we have together.
Well, what exactly is your mission here? Because there have been attempts in the past to share resources and coordinate coverage among the newsrooms, and those efforts have generally withered away. Is that what you’re trying to get established again, or do you have a different mission in mind this time?
It’s a good question. I think the most important facet of this job — it’s the first time this job has existed — but as I see it, the most important facet is to get the Inquirer, Daily News, Philly.com, you know, headed in the right strategic direction, and that means maximizing the assets of all three in a very cohesive, unified manner, but while doing that, keeping the brands very distinctive, and if you want to use the word “competition,” it’s healthy competition. The devils are in the details, but this is a coordinated effort that everybody knows where we’re headed, and each entity has its own strengths. And my job is to really play off those strengths in a way that best serves the readership.
Are you going to be involved in decisions about such as whether the two newspaper websites will still have paywalls or how they’re promoted in the future?
Yes, I definitely will be involved in those decisions. You know, the model that exists right now clearly is flawed. It needs to be fixed. It can be fixed. There’s not a great template for making this work with three different newsrooms under one roof, but clearly we have some things that other organizations have tried, with sort of a main portal and complementary, supplementary newspaper websites. There’s clearly some things we can do to improve the user experience, and again, make it much easier for users — time-deprived users to find the content that they’re looking for.
Who are you looking to as an example, then?
You can look at Boston.com. (That’s a free, generalized news site, with more specific content from the Boston Globe available on the newspaper’s own paywalled site.) The Houston Chronicle has a similar situation where they have a portal as well as a newspaper site. Do those two do it perfectly? I think the jury’s still out on that, whether those two are the exact models to use, but those are similar size newsrooms, and they have got pay models that are similar along the lines of what we’re thinking about. I don’t think anybody in the industry has that part figured out, with two different websites.
I do think if we provide the right kind of content, and the content that is exclusive that readers can’t get anywhere else — that hasn’t been the case to this point — but if we do that in a strategic way, I think the assets and strengths of Philly.com will serve the Inquirer.com and PhillyDailyNews.com well.
From a reader’s standpoint, as they come to your products in the next year or so, what are they going to see that maybe looks different to them?
Well, from a web standpoint, I’m determined to really cross-promote and make sure people can find the best of all three brands, particularly on that home page. I also think we need to decide as a news organization what our strengths are, our five or six or seven primary strengths are. And I’ll tell you right now, investigative reporting from both newspapers is very important. I think our sports coverage in this sports-crazed market is very important. And I think our criticism, our arts criticism, our architecture criticism, our movie critics — that’s a primary strength.
When you come to this new and improved website, we are going to stand for something.
You particularly have been buffeted more than most people at IGM, in terms of how ownership changes have affected your standing, what job title you had at a particular time. A lot of people probably wouldn’t have sat still for very long, I’m guessing. What kept you — and what keeps you — committed to the Inquirer, to Philly, and to IGM?
Very good question. I’ve been here 14 years, and one of the reasons I came here was because of the great tradition of outstanding accountability journalism — investigative journalism — despite all the turmoil over these years, the paper continues to be considered one of the best when it comes to that sort of reporting, the reporting that is so important to this community.
I feel like it’s a calling, and the people who have survived a lot of this turmoil, those who are still here, they’re not here necessarily because of their paycheck, they’re here every day to really carry on that rich tradition that we have. I mean, it’s a tradition that dates back to carriers on horseback delivering papers to the war generals jn the Civil War at Gettysburg. It’s Gene Roberts and his 17 Pulitzer Prizes in that great era. I really pride this newsroom in its ability to overcome adversity. Particularly in the last six or eight weeks even, I don’t think I can recall an episode quite like this.
I haven’t been able to step away despite all this turmoil because I’m just passionate about doing whatever I can to keep this institution thriving. I think under Gerry Lenfest, we have a chance to thrive, not just survive, but to thrive. It speaks volumes to not just the people in this newsroom, but also to the community that has stayed with us. You know, we still have 500,000 subscribers on Sunday and that sort of speaks volumes to that there’s still a pulse to this journalism.
What kind of timeline are you working on? When will we start to see some of these changes you’re talking about?
We’re still putting our team together. We don’t have a publisher right now, so it wouldn’t be fair to me to sort of put any timeline on it. What I will say is, you know, we’re meeting daily. We’re making changes as we speak. … I don’t like to put a timeframe on it, but we don’t have time to sit idle, I’ll tell you that.
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