Who Wins, Who Loses in a Philly Newspaper Strike?
The reason a potential newspaper strike is of such interest, course, is because the city’s major daily newspapers — the Inquirer, Daily News, and their online cousin Philly.com — touch so many other parts of the community: Local government and crime coverage, yes, but also arts, sports, neighborhoods, and more.
Which means that the list of possible winners and losers from a walkout — the strike authorization is Wednesday night; any actual strike probably wouldn’t come for a few weeks after that — extends far beyond the Market Street headquarters of Philadelphia Media Network.
Some assumptions embedded into the following: A) That the PMN’s other unions will largely honor a strike by the Newspaper Guild — but that remains to be seen; B) Whether or not they do, it’ll probably still be difficult to print and distribute a print product in the city and C) even if that happens there might not be that much content to put in the papers, since the content producers would be out on the picket line. Any one of those assumptions might prove false.
That said, here’s a list of potential winners and losers from a walkout, in no particular order:
WINNER: Kathleen Kane. The strike probably would come too late to save Pennsylvania’s attorney general, but it’s been the investigative reporting of the Inquirer that has doomed her, uncovering the so-called “abandoned sting,” and zealously bird-dogging the grand-jury investigation of her leaks. She’d probably welcome a respite from investigative-driven headlines.
LOSER: Harrisburg. State capitol reporting staffs are in decline all over the country. The Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association still has a somewhat robust membership, comparatively speaking, but it appears PMN is the only organization that has full-timers reporting on state government exclusively from a Philadelphia point-of-view. (KYW shares a reporter with Pittsburgh’s KDKA; likewise, the Pennsylvania Public Radio network has one reporter serving several stations.) A strike means Philadelphia loses an important watchdog on state government.
WINNER: The city’s pro sports teams: One thing the digital revolution of recent years has enabled — aside from the decline of newspapers — is the ability of institutions large and small to bypass the media and take their messages straight to the people. Want to know why Hillary Clinton doesn’t take questions at photo ops anymore? She doesn’t have to! Similarly: The Sixers, Eagles, Phillies and Flyers all have dynamic websites with video, independent-sounding reporting and analysis, and they increasingly don’t have to cooperate with the old-school media. All those reporters griping they don’t get access to Chip? Well, that’s how Chip likes it. And with a strike, there’d be fewer reporters doing the griping.
WINNER: Ruben Amaro Jr.: The “fire Ruben” chants figure to keep getting louder this summer. The absence of hilarious Daily News sports covers to magnify those chants probably will not bother him.
LOSER: Older readers: There’s a lot of talk about how the audience has moved online. Well, not the entire audience. The most faithful readers of print are the people who grew up with it and spent their entire adult lives reading it. Will they be willing to pick up the digital habit?
WINNER: Police, L&I, and any other local government agency that receives its fair share of unpleasant scrutiny. ’Nuff said.
LOSER: Public relations people: We assure you from experience: There are a lot of PR people in this town. They probably don’t want to lose access to one of the organizations that justifies their existence.
WINNER: Other media organizations: You might’ve noticed the rise of new organizations like BillyPenn.com and Philly Voice in the last year, as well as expanded daily reporting from older hands like WHYY — known as NewsWorks — and, ahem, even PhillyMag.com. (Reporters and photographers from the papers could be expected to produce their own product online, as well.) The city’s media scene is as robust as it’s been in years. Should the city’s major dailies make even a temporary exit, we will all be competing for your attention and eyeballs, and hoping you’ll make us enough of a habit to stick with if/when the papers return.
LOSER: Other media orgs: Yes, the news ecosystem has become more robust — but even yet, and even with the Inky and Daily News being in relatively diminished states, there’s no one in town that has quite matched the breadth of resources that PMN’s institutions bring to the news-gathering table. In the short-term, matching those resources would probably prove difficult for the new guys. And readers might notice.
LOSER: Philadelphia: The newspaper industry has been through a rough decade, yes, but no major city has completely lost the services of all its major newspapers. A thinning here or there, yes, but always: Somebody has survived to fight another day.
The fragile state of newspapers these days offers no guarantees, of course. A strike started might never be finished. A final, thunderous shaking out of old journalistic institutions might be required by one or both sides in order to finally move on to the future — it might leave Philly leading the way into a new media age, who knows? But something would be lost. And a town like Philly, keenly aware of its traditions, might feel that loss more keenly than some of its peers. It’s a scary prospect, for all of us.
The Newspaper Guild takes a strike authorization vote on Wednesday night. The actual contract between PMN and the guild doesn’t expire until June 27th.
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