The Newspaper Business Is Dead in Philly

What's next? How about the public radio model?

The newspaper business — in Philadelphia, at least — is dead.

Not newspapers, understand: They’ll linger on, in diminished and probably less-frequently printed form, for the foreseeable future. And news itself will survive in any number of formats. But the newspaper business? Making profits from newspapers? Dead, on the mass level at least.

Any doubt on that front should be dispelled by two pieces of news that emerged Wednesday, one tremendously sad, the other actually somewhat uplifting:

The sad: It was announced that Broad Street Media had acquired the “intellectual property” of City Paper and is closing that venerable alt-weekly, folding its remnants into the slightly more alive remnants of its longtime rival, Philly Weekly. (Full disclosure: I worked for PW years ago.)

The potentially uplifting: Billy Penn reported that Philadelphia Media Network — owner of the Inquirer, Daily News and — is in talks to transform the company into a nonprofit institution “aligned” with Temple University. (None of the reported partners would confirm this on the record, but there was also a striking lack of denials.)

The news items might be different — one paper is being killed in order to give its competition a fighting chance, the other trying to find a new pathway to the future — but the underlying reality is the same: You can’t make money from legacy newspapers anymore. If that seems unsurprising, well, until now that moment has often appeared to be in the near future, just out of reach but on the way. Suddenly, it has arrived.

(And news fans should be grateful for a sign that Gerry Lenfest, owner of PMN, is thinking about succession. One thing was clear when he and Lewis Katz won the bidding for the company last year: They were the last rich guys in town interested in spending money trying to make the newspaper business work. George Norcross, who lost the bidding, took his money and started up a new website, not a newspaper, instead. Lenfest, in his mid-’80s, won’t be around forever to guide the papers. Aside from stabilizing their finances, preparing the papers for the post-Lenfest future is his most important job.)

What’s the future for printed news? This week’s news points to two likely paths for the city’s newspapers:

On the bottom end, nichier. Can we still call Philly Weekly an “alt weekly?” That doesn’t seem the right designation. Call it an arts-and-entertainment guide, maybe, or perhaps it’s just a glorified shopper. Whatever the name, it seems to have survived the war of attrition with City Paper. The difference? City Paper still did news, and it still did important news nobody else is doing. PW doesn’t, really. Why? News is expensive. The frugal way won the war … if it can be called winning.

To the extent that printed newspapers survive in Philly, they’ll most likely be devoted to serving niche audiences (like PW in its current form, Philly Gay News, Al Dia, the Public School Notebook, the Philadelphia Tribune and other publications with smallish-but-devoted audiences and mission-driven publishers) or be extremely devoted to targeted (probably high-income) neighborhoods. Even this scenario might be too optimistic. Big-screened smartphones may yet knock even niche publications entirely to the web. These guys, though, will be the last holdouts.

On the top end, a turning to the public radio model. Temple beware: The best example of academics controlling a metropolitan newspaper is Poynter Institute for Media Studies and its ownership of the Tampa Bay Times. The Times’ revenue dropped nearly in half between 2009 and 2013; Poynter has considered selling land and buildings to balance its books. Not a great example.

A possible better direction? Universities are often allied with community-wide newsgathering operations — usually through public radio. In many mid-sized and smaller communities, the local NPR affiliate is closely tied to the university, often having broadcast studios on or near the campus. It’s not an easy financial life, necessarily: Public radio affiliates have to do regular fund-raising drives and hustle for grants constantly in order to stay on air and do newsgathering of any sort. Ready to get an Inquirer tote bag for your “membership dues?” 

This hasn’t been tried with a legacy print newspaper in a major American city, but in some ways it might be the direction PMN is already headed: Remember, the company took a grant from Wyncote Foundation to cover the mayor’s race this year — it collaborated with the NewsWorks newsroom at NPR affiliate WHYY, in fact — and a William Penn Foundation grant to cover the mayor’s race in 2007. PMN, it seems, already has one foot in the public media space. And if the company needs advice on how to successfully produce news in this model, well, we hear former NewsWorks boss Chris Satullo is available.

It’s worth noting that the Philadelphia media scene is in some ways more independent of the major daily papers than it’s ever been. There was no shortage of places to get good, original reporting on the pope’s visit this last weekend. Some of the outlets were relatively new, some of them (like, ahem, us at Philly Mag) were old dogs showing off new tricks. In either case, it’s a sign that the non-newspaper media ecosystem in Philadelphia is maturing, finally.

Not a moment too soon, it seems. The newspaper business in Philadelphia is dead. Long live the news.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.