Meet the New Brain Trust

Can Mike Topel and Eric Ulken steer the region's biggest website down a new path?

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Mike Topel, left, and Eric Ulken of

Meet the new braintrust of These are the guys who may hold the future of Philadelphia’s two major daily newspapers in their hands.

Mike Topel, the executive editor of, is an old hand — he worked on the print side at the Inquirer, then, before leaving for several years. He returned this summer to lead the operation. Eric Ulken arrived shortly after from the Seattle Times to become the site’s director of digital strategy — a position that has a foot both in journalism and the business of

With the recent announcement that the Inquirer and Daily News sites are shutting down and folding into, this duo’s work becomes more important than ever to the future of the Interstate General Media, which owns all three organizations. It’s a fraught assignment: The three newsrooms have a spotty record, at best, of cooperation. has had its own reputational problems. But the duo vows a renewed emphasis on journalism — and on making that journalism look good on the web.

The two sat down with Philly Mag recently to talk about the future of, how to get three newsrooms to cooperate together on the web, what went wrong with the newspapers’ websites, and’s advantages in the marketplace.

Oh, and we talked about comments. Of course.

Mike, what’s different about the company this time around, in particular its attitude towards digital?

Topel: I think there’s a lot more focus on digital now, as there should be, and one of the great differences is that the walls and silos are coming down among the three newsrooms. So, there’s really great, much greater, cooperation now and we’re moving away from separate agendas. That’s very clear and it’s happening actively.

Eric, you don’t have the deep Philly background, and you weren’t here for the tragedies of the last few years. What was the attraction?

Ulken: The attraction for me was the opportunity to work in an organization that has a long and storied history of doing great journalism, that still has the muscle to cover the big stories and to really make a difference in the community. I was attracted also by the challenge. There are three newsrooms that, as far as I could tell, had a history of not getting along very well, and it was clear that there were some early wins that could be had here.

Have you accomplished any of those wins yet?

Ulken: Just the announcement of the unifying of the three sites has been a partial fulfillment of an early win, right? The sense that we’re going to start focusing our finite energies on We’ll have a lot more to say about that, I think, as we go. I think just telegraphing internally that we can’t afford to split our energies in such a way. In digital, we need to be able to focus.

One of the reasons the websites went up in the first place — at least it seemed this way from the outside — was that there were strong sentiments in the newsrooms against — for content reasons, for comments reasons. Do you sense the newsrooms are on board this time?

Topel: I think they’re on board because they see that we want to be strong and robust, and we need their journalism. Again, I’ve been here since July, but I think in the past couple months I have a track record now. They’ve seen what I’ve done over the last couple months, and I’ve played Inquirer and Daily News stories big. I mean, I depend on their stories, there’s great journalism going on. So, again, I don’t know what went on here in the past, but going forward, I depend on those newsrooms and we’re going to give their stories respect, and I think they see that.

It could be argued that a reason the websites failed is that was giving away their content for free, making a paywall absurd. Was there any thought given to stopping that practice, of taking the Inquirer and Daily News content away from and seeing if the sites could survive on their own?

Ulken: My sense is that there is a finite amount of great content that an organization can produce. You can slice and dice it in different ways, and one of the things we looked at was the situation in Boston, where there are two sites, and the Boston Globe company decided earlier this year to basically remove all Boston Globe content from and to bolster Of course you see the traffic graph acknowledging that there’s all of a sudden a downturn in traffic to and an upturn for At the same time, they have all of this infrastructure and people having to maintain two websites, and it just seemed in our situation … I said it before, we needed to focus.

It seems like the leadership of IGM has decided to exploit for the asset that it can be.

Ulken: I would say so. has great traffic, and a great audience in the sense that it’s a desirable audience for advertisers. It’s an audience that we think has a lot of potential to grow and to engage.  I think of as having a lot of potential as a premium product, both for users and advertisers. A place where we can run the big Sunday stories and we can also cover breaking news in an effective and compelling way. I don’t know exactly why has the reputation that it has, but I believe that there’s enough potential there for us to overcome some of the bad rap that it may have gotten.

The whole site’s going to be free initially, but a memo last week suggested that might not be the case in the future. It said you wanted to be 100 percent certain you’re giving users a premium experience that they’ll be happy to pay for before actually consider charging for it. What kind of timeline do you see for making that decision?

Ulken: I don’t know if I can give you a timeline. I just know that we’ve got a lot of work to do between now and any potential premium or paid product. There’s just a lot that needs to happen in order to improve the user experience, to build as a product, before we could credibly consider asking people to pay money for any part of it.

Are you envisioning as a paid product in itself or specific paid products within

Ulken: I just don’t know yet at this point. I think we’re looking at all of those possibilities. Certainly, there are content areas where we think we’re really strong, where we might be able to develop some type of vertical, but at the same time there’s value in the bundle. I would say really this is premature to talk about what kinds of premium products might exist. Our focus now is on improving and building audience, and building engagement.

Do you have any thoughts about the comment section?

Topel and Ulken: [laughing].

Topel: Well, I know we’re known for our comments, and right now we’re in a contract with that vendor, so it hasn’t been front of mind for me, but we’ll look at comments and figure out if there’s a better way to do it.

Ulken: I think that we’re really no different from a lot of news organizations in terms of the battle or the challenge to make sure that there is a productive and healthy discussion going on there, and that it doesn’t evolve into personal attacks, and name calling, and things like that. I don’t know that we have a solution in mind at this point but, this position might be a little controversial, but I think that even now, on balance, with the comments in the situation that they are, the aggregate benefits are still greater than the downsides.

What are the benefits?

Ulken: The ability to engage the audience but also to be able to supplement, to some extent, our reporting. I’ve seen commenters actually contribute to the story in the comments. Now granted, yes, you have to wade through a lot of crap to get there [laughs]. So, I think maybe the challenge in the commenting might be less about how do we block the trolls and more about how do we elevate the great stuff. I know that there are initiatives taking place now. The Washington Post and The New York Times are working on an improved commenting platform that’s supposed to solve some of these problems and that’s something I’m sure we’ll look at if it makes sense for us. I still see comments as, on the whole, a value add.

Circulation has been declining at the newspapers, which is no surprise — that’s what’s happening everywhere. is, from the numbers I’ve seen, very well read, the biggest website in the region. Do you guys get the sense that the future of the company is in your hands?

Topel: I would answer that by saying its really in all of our hands. The two newsrooms have multiple Pulitzer winners … we need that. That’s what we need. The investigative stuff, the enterprise, the explanatory journalism — that’s what’s going to give this company future success. The local content, the unique content. So, in that sense we’re an important part of the future — but it’s really all of us, the whole building.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.