A stake through the heart of the has-been Inquirer

What the hell are they thinking in Philadelphia? Inquirer ME Mike Leary just sent a memo saying they are going to hold all but breaking news for the paper and even restrict bloggers from using their blogs to work on stories in progress.

Let me make this very clear to Inquirer ownership and management:

You are killing the paper. You might as well just burn the place down. You’re setting a match to it. This is insane. Even the slowest, most curmudgeonly, most backward in your dying, suffering industry would not be this stupid anymore. They know that the internet is the present and the future and the paper is the past. Protecting the past is no strategy for the future. It is suicide. It is murder. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

And my message to staff, the few of them left:

Get the hell out now! Get away from these fools or you’ll get it on you. Let’s hold a new Norg meeting right now and organize a competitor to the ailing Inquirer. It won’t take much to kill it now. Let’s put it out of its misery.

And my question to readers:

Do you care?

: LATER: What a rotten time for Norgman Will Bunch to be on vacation and offline.

: An online producer elsewhere asked me for stats on the cannibalization of print by online. I responded:

That’s not the point. The point is that we need to make the leap over to the next medium and business model and an extra 10 or 100 saved copies now is NOT going to save the business as it was. It’s short-sighted and foolish. So forget that calculation and ask, instead, how to invent the next product and drive audience and advertisers there and reshape the staff — completely — around that. It will be a smaller scale business — no longer a monopoly — but likely more profitable in the longrun if it also relies on collaboration.

: Here’s Steve Outing’s reaction.

: As I write this, the top story on the Inquirer’s Philly.com: Paris Hilton. Oh, yeah, that’s local. But I guess they have to fill the page with something because they don’t have those stories from what’s left of the newsroom staff.

  • Jeff, you are missing the big picture. This is actually GOOD news for the future of online journalism. Print journalisms is dead. The body just hasn’t stopped moving. By tossing all their news onto the Web for free, newspapers are freezing out online startups that would probably need to charge a small subscription fee to survive. Much smaller, in fact, than the cost of home delivery.

    In other words, by offering for free what their would-be competitors would have to offer for a fee, newspapers’ free Web sites are an anti-competitive act.

    By insisting that their news must appear on paper first, the Inquirer is actually opening the door for an online start up. I’m sure that there are forward-thinking entrepreneurs are thinking that Philly is now a target rich environment.

    The best thing that could happen for the news gathering industry would be for a newspaper like the Inquirer to vanish off the face of the earth and be replaced with an online-only norg (love that term, BTW). It would scare the rest into evolving, at last.

  • Jeff, The Inquirer is dead. As they cling to the edge of the abyss, someone will step on their fingers. However, replacing them may not be quick. Can you imagine a day when a city the size of Philadelphia goes with out a major print medium? I can. During airline deregulation airlines failed across the U.S. In major cities like Kansas City they weren’t replaced, instead they were serviced by healthier carriers from other markets. Is it analogous? Not entirely. But the first major city that loses its print medium will be quite a story. I’m not sure the results will be predictable. I’m interested in how sports journalism will be delivered. Are bloggers getting press passes to major sports events? Locker rooms?

    Bill, I disagree. Subscription news sites will not make it, not even if the Inquirer or any other major newspaper fails. No one cares enough. If you can’t provide news to readers for free, they won’t read your content. There are too many other things readers can do with their time and money. Fewer and fewer people care about traditional news.

  • This makes me very sad, Philly’s my home town and my family subscribes to the Inquirer. I think one of the things the company has struggled with is an identity for their organization – its properties include the Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com. The Daily News seems to be able to maintain its “attytood” and I think it does a good job of staying local and has unique voice. The Inquirer in attempts to be a “serious” newspaper has gone bland over the years. You have to go 16 pages into the paper to get anything with a PHILADELPHIA dateline or a writer who works for their paper. And Philly.com, which started as a pioneering online journalism site, has now become a wastebasket – like a TMZ.com of wire stories and hand-me-downs.

    My dream for the company is break into 3 distinct properties. The Inquirer would continue as a paid daily, with a new local focus and investigative reporting. It would operate its own site – free of philly.com – that did cutting edge online journalism and didn’t hold stories for the paper. The Daily News would also be a standalone Web site and perhaps go smaller and free to compete with the wire-heavy Metro papers that have become popular amongst SEPTA commuters. And philly.com would become a community portal with events calendars, movie times, tv listings, etc. as well as a hub for local blogs and other publications. I would make its front page a Digg-like site where a community of editors and users picked and rated local stories. I don’t think its ever going to happen though, today is clearly a big step in the wrong direction.

  • I think people grossly overestimate the value of “breaking news” in the post-home page, aggregated and social web time that we live in. So what if they’re not posting short, useless blurbs before the story is cooked yet? The story that gets big links and the long tail is the *good* version of the story, not the fast version of the story. Kudos to them for trying something different and not following the herd running off the fasterfasterfaster cliff of Breaking News.

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  • I see a scenario while not rushing to publish enterprise reporting that you also create value for online readers. If you read most local and regional newspaper websites throughout the day there’s nothing new from 4 p.m. when writers begin focusing on print deadlines until 12 p.m. when the newsroom comes awake again and editors conclude their morning meetings. As an online reader, I welcome the day when I look forward to new, engaging content when I log-in at 8 a.m. (And as an online reader, I think these stories deserve a more thoughtful visual presentation and deeper texture through thoughtful use of interactivity than what you get in a quick headline rushed to the web). I think the web-first mantra has become so uniform that editors are too shy to step out of line and ask how its effecting both online and especially print readers. After all, lets not forget that print operations still support most online news gathering operations.

  • Steve Olson: “If you can’t provide news to readers for free, they won’t read your content.”

    Really? I was under the impression there were still one or two people alive who bought newspapers.

    Kidding aside, it will be hard to get people to transition from free online news to paid subscription online news. I humbly submit that there are those with a few ideas on the subject: http://tinyurl.com/deadtrees.


    Commit to being an online news company that also prints a newspaper, rather than the other way around.

    Offer more online than you do in print.

    Raise prices for print ads.

    Raise newsstand and subscription prices.

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  • Mike

    I live in Philly, and with the free daily metro and two alt weeklies I just don’t see a need to buy a print version of the inquirer or daily news-so any strategy for print should involve free newspapers. If the inquirer were free, I would definitely choose it over the metro-so their brand still has some value to me-for what thats worth.

    I would also suggest that they make a bid to buy the metro-if they can-are they considered a real newspaper? The FCC clouds the picture.

    If the future of journalism is creating value for your customers-then the inquirer and others need to figure out how to get me the news that I want and/or help me solve my problems when I need them.

    A platform that consistently amazes me is online message boards-phillyblog for one. I have used it several times for local issues and advice for work and school and I am very happy with the results.

    Its relative success is because unlike the inquirer which throws the news at you and expects you to eat it because they said its important, phillyblog solves my problems and answers my questions on my time for my issues.

    Some of their content comes from links from the inquirer- but the inquirer-philly.com has no way for me to search it effectively or efficiently. There is no community-no search, no organization, hence dwindling value.

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  • Andrew

    why don’t papers pay bloggers and run the content

  • I’d just like to reference Duncan Riley’s article link, above — “At the end of the war, Newspapers commit ritual suicide.” As a journalist for an online publication, the Inquirer’s decision just seems laughably sad. Basically, the Inquirer is creating a business opportunity for anyone with a lean enough budget — and the chops — to start their own online news organization focusing on Philadelphia. In fact, some Inquirer reporters should look into that if they already aren’t.

  • Good news. The sooner all the newspapers die, the better for society.

  • Epic Fail.

    Sorry, that’s all that comes to mind. I have been sidelined with personal issues since the last un-conference.

    This saddens me so much.

    Mike – yes phillyblog.com rocks. That’s a terrific online community.

    And Bill – it is you who is missing the bigger picture. Looking at that memo, and at the current redesign of the site – it is clear that the company that owns the Daily News, Inquirer and Philly.com, already looks at them as three separate companies – and it looks like they are operating on that principal. Their intention must be for Philly.com to be that online start up. I would imagine Philly.com specific content/bloggers, to emerge any day now.

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  • Jeff, I don’t think many people here in Philly still think of the Inquirer as a serious, vibrant newspaper. It maintains some inertia as the paper of record, which will be the case until it shuts down or something else emerges to take that role. The new ownership doesn’t seem to have changed anything. I subscribe to four newspapers, and pretty much the only thing I read the Inquirer for is the sports and occasional weekend events listings.

    They are managing down a dying business, like the guys at AOL, rather than building a bridge to the future. This latest move is dumb for the Ludditism it symbolizes. However, I don’t think it makes them any worse off than they already were.

    Frankly, this kind of move may hasten the sea change that we both hope for. If the newspapers declare allegiance to the dying medium of print, in opposition to the web and blogs, it clarifies the divide. If it’s a battle, we know which side will win. It will just be more costly to the losers (including many good people and good journalists) this way.

  • Fantastic post and series of comments. Yes, *reducing* service is no way to stop departing customers.

    Mike Leary has made a basic, strategic mistake. If the Inquirer were the only game in town, tightening access to its content might stimulate demand for the print paper. But with information everywhere, and 95% of what’s in a city daily available elsewhere for free, putting up a dam will only cause readers to flow like water elsewhere.

    Commentator Bill Dennis at top said it best: This creates an opportunity for someone else, and in the grand scheme, that’s probably a good thing.

  • Indeed, I should have said that Bill was right about that – this does create opportunities for others.

    Namely – philly.com itself.

    In this thread, we are imagining The Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Philly.com as one entity.

    They are not. This is a misperception.

    They have separate staffs, and when I worked there, separate financial structures.

    This memo exposes the divide between those organizations – and pushes it wider apart.

    Philly.com will respond with more original content made in-house and elsewhere, I am sure. They have no other alternative.

    To put it more bluntly – the Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com do not speak for each other and now – it would appear – are not part of the same team.

    Kinda like when Knight Ridder pulled the Web operations group into its own business – Knight Ridder Digital. This speed up the death of Knight Ridder IMHO.

  • Jeff,

    This is an old story:

    The offline boys against the online boys.

    The solution:

    Newsroom integration.

    The challenge:

    A fully integrated 24/7news operation.

    The vision:

    An online newsroom that also edits a print edition.

    The lesson:

    They don’t work FOR us.

    They work WITH us.

    Because ALL OF US are the same and work for the same:

    Readers + Audiences + Communities.

  • I am convinced more than ever that Howard Owens, GateHouse Media’s online guru, is all about protecting the paper product than he transitioning to online.


    “Furthermore, let’s face it, while a well-run newspaper website operation can throw off lots of cash, it’s largely dependent on the newspaper success itself, and the cash flow is still insufficient to support a metro newsroom.”

    What he’s saying is that even though newspaper readership is is steadily declining, along with with newspaper advertising, and while Internet news readership is increasing along with online advertising, he fully expects print versions of the news will now and forevermore be the bread-winner.

    He argues that online readers must be given content that is much different than what they get in print. But the Web content must be the best content out there, and print reporters should be training in how to do it differently online.

    Ummm … this is from a newspaper company that is constantly begging it’s more experiences and talented staffers to please take early retirement. Please.

    It’s nice to see this strategy working so swell for GateHouse. What’s their stock at these days? A whopping 71 cents?

  • Karl: I stand corrected. I was not familiar with the organizational structure/business model in place there.

    Provided there’s enough funding and a will to sustain losses during the transition, perhaps philly.com can make a go of it.

    It just seems silly to fund two newsrooms, one distributing the news they’ve collected via dead trees, and the other online — which is cheaper, more flexible, more environmentally friendly and much, much, much faster.

    How many of these die-hard have-to-read-it-on-a-sheet-of-paper customers of their’s will be dead in 20 years? 20 percent? 50 percent? The percentage ain’t gonna go up folks.

  • I have no idea what they’re thinking over there, but you know what it sounds like? It sounds like an answer to the grumbling curmudgeons and one of their earliest complaints about the online edition, “why are we scooping ourselves?” The memo says: except for when we have to (breaking news) we will no longer be scooping ourselves.

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  • Jeff,

    Couldn’t agree with you more. I felt the same kind of outrage when I read the memo, too.

    Makes me want to leave New York and go back to Philly, my hometown, just to start up a replacement paper (as in, online-only). After all, if the Inky and the DN aren’t worth reading, where are Philadelphians supposed to get their news? Phillyist?

    I’ve been critical of Philly.com before, and in turn, they’ve redesigned. But when I hear news like this, it makes me wonder why they’re bothering.

    I mentioned Philly.com to someone from NYT the other day. He just laughed.

    All the best,
    Andrew Nusca
    The Editorialiste

  • joewhoknows

    Wow — someone must have a time machine! Jarvis is right: This is absolute and utter insanity.

  • Self-Proclaimed Expert

    All this Leary memo means is that non-breaking Arts & Entertainment stories and investigative pieces will appear on the Inquirer website at 2 a.m. after the paper has been printed, instead of, say, 10 p.m. – which is pretty much how it works now, anyway.

    (Maybe some celebrity-obsessed insomniacs will lose sleep over this, but otherwise, big whoop!!!)

    When I saw your “stake through the heart” deadline, I at first thought you were referring to Boscov’s filing for Chapter 11 – which probably WILL have a significant impact on The Inquirer, being that Boscov’s has a major advertising account with the paper. Or perhaps Craigslist depleting all the classified advertising revenue.

    The poor financial health of newspapers is caused primarily by plummetting ad revenues (because advertising on Internet is so much cheaper, and because advertisers like Boscov’s are themselves struggling in a weak economy) – as well huge debt burdens and rising materials/distribution costs. And of course all that negatively affects news coverage due to the resulting staff cutbacks.

    But it has nothing to do with staff memos and minor shuffling of deadlines. You’re reading way too much into this.

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  • invitedmedia

    local tv has been moving in this direction of late… just not putting out a press release on it.


  • re Steve Olsen..

    But the first major city that loses its print medium will be quite a story. I’m not sure the results will be predictable. I’m interested in how sports journalism will be delivered. Are bloggers getting press passes to major sports events? Locker rooms?




    Geography-lite; deadline free; just ‘unbundle’ what’s still of any worth on the Inquirer – the ‘beat’ basketball, baseball and hockey writers that get into the locker room with their well-thumbed contacts book…

    …and then put them into an elegant network that can drive local/national advertising and local/national syndication.

    And pull affiliate deals out of the airlines, hotels, etc…


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  • Self-proclaimed,

    No, the more important prohibition was on bloggers talking with their publics about their stories in progress, making them more collaborative — and better journalism! And just because the paper was waiting until 10p didn’t mean they should have. Good papers today are putting news up when they know it. So the Inquirer went from behind to behinder.

  • I’m with ya Bill. Silly and unfortunate.

    Teamwork is the core of solving so many issues in this world. This looks to be a step back from that.

    I’ve been told that Philly.com does not yet have its own news staff.

    But as I see it, if the Inquirer (and Daily News) turn the screws this way…. well what will Philly.com need to do? It is a natural evolution with a state of affairs like exposed in the memo.

    There is some great stuff going on at Philly.com – check out the video segments on the home page. Embeddable and linkable. That’s due to collaboration between the Inquirer/Daily News and Philly.com.

    They are aggregating bloggers from across the region in certain sections of the site.

    And Jeff knows from meeting many of the folks there – there are forward thinkers fighting to move things in a good direction.

    I remain an optimist – because I believe in the people there.

    But damn.

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  • Karl,
    THey may be separate operations, but they have the same owner with the same financial mess. I would take this as a sign he’s not exactly investing in online. I’m all for optimism but….

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  • Danny L. McDaniel

    This blog alone shows the modern value and power of blogs, esoecially when discussing the topic of newspapers and print journalism. The Philadelphia Inquirer is dead if it doesn’t adapt and grasp the power of blogs. The printing press is far from dead by only a modern understanding of modern journalism can save and propell it into the modernity!

    Danny L. McDaniel
    Lafayette, Indiana

  • Very interesting post as the publisher I work for is wrestling with the ‘will online canibilise print’ question. (Again!)

    Among the usual questions such as ‘how do we make it a commercial success?’, ‘how to we deliver what our community wants?’ and ‘how do we deliver what are advertisers need?’ is the biggest question…..

    ‘What is our online editorial policy?’

    This decision has to be based on what supports the first three questions that I posed. It shouldn’t be based on protecting the exclusivity of print.

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  • Jeff – and all –
    The “prohibition” about reporters using blogs to report their stories is wrong, an interpretation of this memo that was not intended, just as the memo itself wasn’t intended for a wider audience.

    From a memo I’d written (co-signed by Mike Leary) that went to staff the day before the One Heard Round The World, which notes that our blog traffic is up more than 700 percent this July over last July:

    Blogs offer us a great way to keep people coming back to the great work produced by The Inquirer throughout their day. There’s no quicker way to break news than on a blog, and no better way for us to leverage our staffing advantage over other local media. In addition, beat reporters with blogs say the process has helped them cultivate and nurture sources.

    Beyond that, by exponentially growing our online audience like this, we allow our online sales force to charge higher rates to advertise along side those newly popular items. That’s something that will help ensure the future of The Inquirer.

    Web editor Ryan Sholin and I had an IM exchange about the policy here: http://ryansholin.com/2008/08/08/chris-krewson-on-philadelphia-inquirer-memo/

    And, Jeff, I emailed you earlier – you’re more than welcome to come to The Inquirer’s newsroom and watch how we work with philly.com to grow online audience.

    Chris Krewson
    Executive Editor, Online / News
    The Philadelphia Inquirer

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  • Bob Benson

    Well … I’m afraid I’m not clear on why you all think this plan is so crazy. First, I’m not convinced that on-line business plans linked mostly to ad revenue will prosper over the long haul for the majority of players. One aspect of the net is that mass isn’t so easy to find, and so ad revenues will not be so easily obtained as everyone matures. Second, at least for the next twenty years, not everyone likes electronic reading. Third, a lot of the enthusiasm for this medium is by providers – people who want to write/communicate. I mean, like 81% of us have books in us? That might be true, but who’s gonna read (and pay for) these books? Fourth: I suggest this mania is very much like the auto business eons ago – a thousand or more manufacturers. Everyone wants to be a supplier in this market. But sustainable?
    My point is essentially that the business model for this “new” environment – the on-line news outlet – is certainly not proven as being sustainable for most players. And it all comes down to “show me the money.” Since the Internet is the great leveler – available easily by all candidate providers – the only sustainable business plan over the long haul is to be the premier (only) provider (can anyone say Google?) So choosing to believe that transitioning to an on-line model competing with the rest of the world and for which revenue support is problematic, may be just as crazy.

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  • The point is that we need to make the leap over to the next medium and business model and an extra 10 or 100 saved copies now is NOT going to save the business as it was. It’s short-sighted and foolish.
    What’s short-sighted and foolish is this perpetual hope that the “next business model” is just going to happen along. We’ve been promised it for 15 years, and in the meantime newspapers have been flooding free copy on to the net and building sometimes sizable audiences.

    And making no money.

    The illusion that a web model is being created that can invest in the sort of expensive journalism that print newsrooms create is a fantasy, and until even the inkling of a workable business model appears newspapers would do well to resist the acceleration of their (inevitable) decline.

  • Rudolph Bell

    Why shouldn’t the Inquirer give print readers a reason to pay for the product? I think the AJC in Atlanta was doing the same thing, reserving enterprise for print.

    I’m still waiting for hard evidence to prove wrong the claim that newspapers made a big mistake giving content away for free online.

    I heard Little Rock was growing in print and online, and charging for both.

  • The audience is online and there’s no longer a monopoly so they can replace you easily. Your occasional 10-part series about the trail of cocaine across Colombia is not going to motivate them to say. Only habit will. And habits can be broken. So if you want to be where the audience is – and where, thus, the advertisers will be – you’d better serve them well where they want to be served. Dictating to them where that has to be just won’t work anymore. Monoply days are gone. The business must change, its method and scale.

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  • robert hession

    the best thing to happent to the Inky is loss of ownership by the Tierney group. his concerns were not the employees but lining his own pockets with extravagant raises that he gave himself after asking union members to forego their raises. his company also refused to let employees get their jobs back after being out on disability

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