Temple, Philly Newspapers in Project to Create “Paperless” News Future

$1.3 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will support the process.

David Boardman, dean of Temple University's School of Media and Communication, left.

David Boardman, dean of Temple University’s School of Media and Communication, left.

Philly’s major daily newspapers are getting ready to take a big step away from “paper” — and they’re doing so with the help of Temple University.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced Monday it is giving a $1.3 million grant to Temple to help Philadelphia Media Network — owner of the the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com — to accelerate the transformation of the business to a “truly digitally focused” operation that “can look to the future without newsprint.” Three other “legacy” news organizations — the Dallas Morning News, Miami Herald, and a publication to be named later — will also participate in the project.  

David Boardman, dean of the School of Media and Communication at Temple, said the project should develop techniques and practices that help the entire newspaper industry make the shift to digital.

“We’re really confident that this will make a difference for metro news organizations,” he told Philly Mag on Monday afternoon. “They’re such an essential part of democracy, but they’re the layer of journalism that’s been hit the hardest.”

The close partnership between Temple and PMN will do little to discourage reports that the two are working on a plan to shift ownership of the papers to the non-profit control of the university. Boardman declined to comment on those reports, but he’s made no secret of his belief that radical change is needed for newspapers.

“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,” he told Philly Mag last year.

Monday, he cautioned that the new project may not lead to that end state. “”Clearly over time, digital is going to become more important and print less so,” he said. “We may get there, we may not.”

But a Knight Foundation blog post on Monday written by Arlene Notoro Morgan, assistant dean of external affairs at Temple University’s School of Media and Communication, suggested that the goal is a near-complete shift to digital.

“If you have spent any time in a journalism classroom, it’s obvious that today’s students don’t read newspapers or consume TV news the way their parents did. They are getting their news from Twitter, Facebook and other social media, mostly on their phones,” she wrote.

Morgan added: “When I describe that ‘paperless’ goal to people of a certain age, they cannot imagine a time when “paper” will not be the major conduit for news and information. But say that to my 12-year-old granddaughter, whose phone seems to be glued to her hand, and she just shrugs.”

The project is also a chance for PMN to build on the relative stability it has achieved, digitally, in the last couple of years under the leadership of executive editor Mike Topel. In just the last seven years, the two papers have gone from having separate websites to collaborating on Philly.com to having separate — paid — websites, to returning to a Philly.com model, oftentimes with bickering between newsrooms and digital editors reportedly reaching a fever pitch.

Morgan will co-lead the project with Douglas K. Smith, co-author of bestselling books, The Wisdom of Teams and The Discipline of Teams. Others on the panel will include Quentin Hope, a leading news industry expert; Tom Rosenstiel, executive director, American Press Institute; and Jeff Sonderman, deputy director, American Press Institute. The team will produce research to help other news organizations transform their newsrooms from print to digital.

“The goal of the project is to position these newsrooms as learning platforms for an industry that is grappling with the cultural, technical and economic challenges brought about by a rapidly changing digital environment,” said Jennifer Preston, Knight Foundation vice president for journalism. Perhaps not incidentally, she’s a veteran of Philly newspapers, having worked at both the now-defunct Bulletin and then the Daily News before a 19-year career at the New York Times.

“The Knight Foundation has provided us with a tremendous opportunity to create a digital transformation model for the future, and it comes at such an important time in our industry,” Stan Wischnowski, PMN’s vice president of news operations, said in a statement. “These three news organizations share a rich legacy of serving their markets with great distinction with indispensable journalism. This project enables us to collectively take that journalism to a higher level through unprecedented collaboration and innovation.”

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