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Ending the Death Spiral

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Ten years ago, when cracks first began to appear in the facades of American's great metropolitan newspapers, it seemed to me that there were two ways the papers could go in terms of editorial direction.

One path was to continue its embrace of the mass/mass model so successful in the past.  We write for a mass audience and offer a diverse mélange of stories, features, etc. to please them all. It's a bit like the auto companies of old, with a wide array of models to satisfy every customer.

The other path was to realize that the newspaper audience was destined to become smaller and more niched - though certainly still big, in comparison with the rest of the media, and tailor the product to that niche.  And that niche would be?  The core of readers - many of them better educated - who care about what was happening in this region and turn to the paper to inform them. Smart, well-educated, generally affluent, engaged adults.

To put it another way, the papers had a choice between staying mass or moving up - to the kind of model European readers have come to expect from their newspapers, at least the ones that are not tabloid. In this way, you may not be able to offer advertisers as big an audience, but you would be able to offer them a choice audience.

Alas, newspapers continued to embrace the mass/mass model, though often not consciously.  They simply drifted downward, trying to maintain unsustainable profit margins, mostly by cutting costs and staff.  They diminished their product.  They offered less while charging more. The recession accelerated this downward drift into a spiral. Perhaps a death spiral.


I thought of that the other day when news broke that the latest owners of the Inquirer/Daily News are apparently looking to sell the papers - less than two years after they purchased them for $139 million.  The asking price is $100 million, but it is to laugh.  According to news reports, the media company had a $4 million before-tax profit last year.  (Just to compare and contrast, in 2000 then-Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. had a profit of nearly $120 million.)

If you use the standard math applied to such deals, with a $4 million profit, the papers should sell for about $40 million.  Unless they can sell it to a bunch of investors who are willing to pay a premium for owning a grand Philadelphia institution.  (Enter Ed Rendell, who apparently is gathering such a group.)

The existing owners - a consortium of New York hedge funds - apparently are hoping that they will get more for the property than it is worth because the buyers are misty eyed about the glory of newspapers and the Inquirer brand.  (And why not? It worked before, when the paper was sold in 2006 to a bunch of local investors - most of them millionaires - who wanted the papers to remain locally owned and were willing to pay a premium price.)

But, it's less important to me who owns the papers than what they do with them.

If they keep running them the way they are now, the path is clear: the spiral will continue downwards.  Advertising revenue and circulation will continue to decrease.  Fewer resources will mean a diminished product and a diminished product will mean declines in readership and revenue.  And so it will go, until the inevitable collapse.

What the new owners need to do - and I think there will be new owners - is to fundamentally rethink what the newspapers are.  They need to embrace the niche concept and create a product for a smart, well-educated, engaged audience.

You can't do this through gimmicks.  Apps are fine and digital editions are wonderful.  Finding the paper on Facebook and Twitter is so au courant.

But, the means of delivery are, IMHOP, incidental.

What is important is the content.

When you open up the Inquirer - whether it's the paper version on your kitchen table or on your iPad - what you often get is a watered down version of mass/mass.  A paper, with half the staff it had 10 years ago and probably half the news hole --  trying to convince you it still covers the earth like Sherman-Williams paint, to use an ancient slogan from the glory days of newspapers.

The reality is that the staff of the newspapers are stretched too thin to provide that kind of coverage.  And the demands of the modern, on-line media world - requiring reporters to do Tweets, blogs, file update online, etc. -before they sit down to write their story has turned them into gerbils running in wheels that turn faster and faster each year.

To its credit, the Inquirer manages to do this frenetic dance with some dignity.  The smart people who decide what stories go where play up the strongest stories of the day on the front page and BBB-Page, the local front. They lavish attention, space and staff on sports.

They have strong voices in their Feature sections (Think: Craig LeBan, Inga Saffron, David Patrick Stearns, Dave Hiltbrand)

I left the paper in 2008, so I don't know about what is happening inside today.  But in my mind, I have the image of editors constantly rushing hither and yon, using their fingers to stop leaks in the dike.  After five years of cut-and-slash reductions in staff and resources, they must be exhausted.

Is this the only way to go?  Is this the future of the Inquirer until it has no future?

What can be done to staunch the loss of readers and advertisers?

I think there is a path, but it not an easy one.  It requires people to re-imagine the papers.  It has to build on its strengths, shuck weak aspects of its operation and build the future around one, existing solid product.

In no particular order, here are my suggestions (and I welcome yours):

One. A total revamp of Philly.com so that it emphasizes breaking news.  As it is, the site is a burlesque of what a news site should be: a messy mélange of silly features, bad videos, and huge smelly piles of "comments" created by web trolls - ranters, haters, psychopaths and morons - who have, de facto, taken over operation of the site.

A cleaner, simpler site that emphasis the latest news, plus the top stories in the paper on that day, may draw a smaller audience, but it could also easily become the hub of all those in the region seeking to know what is going on.  Also, tear down the garden walls.  If KYW beats you on a story, link to it.  Ditto Action News. 

Two. Convert the Daily News into a sports daily, Monday through Friday.  It's the great remaining strength of the paper so why not make it the sole focus?  Sell it for $1 on the street and let Inquirer home delivery customers get it for 50-cents if they want it delivered along with the Inquirer. At the end of the day, it will have a larger circulation and be a more attractive buy for advertisers.

Three.  Create a two-tiered beat system for major beats.  Have one group of reporters focus on breaking news on a beat (say, Education), while the others focus on broader trends, analyses, backgrounders and mini-investigations on the same beat.  Now, they are asking one reporter do both tasks now and the demands of the daily news grind make it impossible for them to produce the other stuff.  And the other stuff is what differentiates newspapers from the rest of the media pack.

Four: Revive the Sunday paper. That's where the money is.  And it's still a habit with a lot of Philadelphians.  The Inquirer usually manages to have one or two strong pieces each Sunday in its news sections, but the fall off is rapid.  Point your best content to Sunday, make sure your strongest voices are present on Sunday, increase news hole and run longer pieces.  Have those top-tier reporters aim their pieces for Sunday. Make the daily paper a breaking news journal, but make the Sunday paper a must-read.  Also, create a slick sports magazine to go as an insert into the Sunday paper to replace (and be an improvement upon) the Saturday sports tab you now produce. Direct money and effort to building circulation for the paper, but most of all, give people more and better content.  A Sunday paper that is a 10-minute read is a failure.

Five: Preserve, protect and display your best performers.  Why shouldn't we see Inga Saffron and Joe DiStefano or Trudy Rubin on the Front Page, as opposed to being ghettoized in their assigned sections? Currently, the paper is diluting its brand by having too many staffers be bloggers and too many feature writers be columnists.  This is an example where less will be more. Intelligence, strong voices, well-defined points of view, passion and honesty are what readers want and deserve with columnists.  Not pabulum.

Six: Speaking of pabulum, whatever happened to the Inquirer editorial page?  Read it and you hear snoring in the background. With the exception of Tony Auth, who still does a brilliant job, the page has no bite to it.  Bring in people who can write with passion, clarity and a strong point of view.  Rehiring Paul Davies would be a start.  Bringing  Sandy Shea over from the Daily News would be another. Get people who can kick ass and take names.  Otherwise, why bother?

Seven: Strengthen your investigative team with strategic alliances.  This is a great group of people, but they can only do so much. Why not plan joint ventures with ProPublica or, locally, Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative or the soon-to-be-started Center for Public Interest Journalism at Temple? The days when newspaper shied away with alliances with outside entities need to end, as long as those entities practice the highest form of journalism.  It's not about whom you work with; it's about what you produce.

Gimmicks, new aps, talk about multi-platforms and circulation sleighs of hand will not save the Inquirer.  Journalism will - good, hard-hitting, smart journalism.

The readers deserve no less.

                                                                                                               -- Tom Ferrick

 

 

 

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