October 30, 2005
The Inky's Future: A Call For Conversation
A lot of gatherings these days along the rail that overlooks the cavernous newsroom. A religion writer catches your eye, tells you he's leaving. He’s thinking about non-profit work, he says. Something totally different.
Your editor tells you the same thing. Taking the buyout, rewriting Act Two while he can. Others have talked about joining the Peace Corps, or retiring early to try blogging, for God’s sake. A lot of people are suddenly looking younger.
We’re saying goodbye to 75 journalists – 15 percent of the 506 positions we have at the Inquirer. The Daily News is losing 25 of its 130 newsroom jobs – that’s 19 percent. It’s not clear whether this publicly held corporation will have to lay off anyone to meet its numbers, but the place where one gets one’s buyout papers is doing land-office business. We’re more than two thirds of the way there with five days to go.
That’s a lot of sheet cake, a lot of farewell newspaper pages to make up. Or maybe the people will pack up overnight and slip away, and a year from now, I'll ask "Where is Huntly Collins?" Oh yeah, she took the last buyout, but I was in Berlin, and never got the memo. I'll do my best to get lost in the work this week. I can't watch.
You could put out the best newspaper in America with the people we've helped walk out the door over the 17 years I’ve been here. I think we once did.
The process is nearly done. Editors talk over new assignments with reporters behind closed doors. We strain to read the faces. We’re having so many meetings it’s a wonder we can get the paper out. But we do. The Inquirer knows it has to take the opportunity to re-invent itself. We must figure out who we are and what we do best, and do it now.
There’s been a chain of emails going around about the future of these papers, prompted by Will Bunch two-fisted piece in the Daily News blog Attytood.
Much of the blame really lies with us, as journalists. We have, for the most part, allowed our product to become humorless and dull. In an era when it seems most people truly will be famous for 15 minutes, newspapers have stubbornly avoided creating personalities...or having a personality, for that matter. In a pathologically obsessive quest for two false goddesses – named Objectivity and Balance – we have completely ceded the great American political debate to talk radio, cable TV and the Internet, where people have learned that politics is actually interesting and even fun when people are allowed to take sides.
I thought I’d open this up for conversation. If you have some thoughts, please comment here. You've got a stake. It's your paper.
We hosted a group of bloggers at the Inquirer last week. They pulled no punches in criticizing the paper, both at the session, afterward in emails.
Duncan Black, who writes under the name Atrios, suggested expanding home delivery of the Daily News across the suburbs.
Susie Madrak of Suburban Guerrilla suggested putting all the political reporters in the suburbs, and leaving the city to our sister tabloid or the wires. If we're cutting reporters, enliven the op-ed pages, she recommended.
She asked her readers what they’d do if they ran the paper. The answers, here, make brutal reading for reporters at the Inquirer. But they should be read.
What would you do?
At a time when our newsroom reminds me what of the end of July at camp, when the station wagons would pull up for the kids staying only half the summer – it’s good to see someone pumped about the future. I just saw a conference filled with people like that.
I spent three days in San Jose, Ca, at the Associated Press Managing Editors annual meeting. They hand awards for great work and hold workshops, doing much of their business in the hallways and in the bar. I talked about blogging – what’s working and what’s not working with my experiment here at Blinq.
I went to every online session I could, and thought I would post a little show and tell.
Scariest stuff first. It was a quick movie called EPIC 2015. Ken Sands, online publisher of the Spokane, (WA) Spokesman-Review, opened his talk with this three-minute cautionary tale that tells us how we got the press-less mediascape of a decade from now.
After recalling the Web’s creation in 1989, then the birth of Amazon and Google, and blogging software, it ventures into the near future, when Microsoft does battle with the merged Googlezon, when people take individually tailored news and advertising, based on their interests and habits or what their friends and colleagues read.
The New York Times becomes print-only – for its small audience of the well-off and the elderly.
But Sands was not there for eulogies.
He sees the Web as the salvation of newspapers, and showed some of the work going on that gives hope, experiments in video at his own paper, that documented moments like a girl's first day in kindergarten, the day two moose got loose in downtown Spokane. Here in Philly, I think they would have shot them.
The message I came away with was: Use your army of 400-plus journalists to beat the local television and radio stations to the punch, create "a culture of urgency" online, post sound and video and cherish the freedom of being able to offer longer, more in-depth pieces that commercial considerations have scared electronic media from offering.
The story now is citizen participation – giving the audience a say in what’s going on. They examples are blazing across the country, from Bakersfield, Ca., to Greensboro, N.C., Brattleboro, Vt., to Denver, Co.
Spokane has selected eight readers to weigh in on what the paper is doing right and wrong in a page called News Is A Conversation. It also has a page that features and links to more than a dozen local bloggers.
In Denver, Yourhub.com has taken off – 42 different Web sites that once a week are harvested for a tabloid version that wraps around both the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post. It has a small staff, and serves up community news written by readers. Said publisher Travis Henry, "It's a billboard. If someone wants to write about a car wash .... it serves a purpose."
The conference also highlighted some award-winning online work, from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s coverage of the courthouse shootings – they invited readers to write in what they saw and then used the space for community grieving – to the Providence Journal’s gorgeous several-part series on one man’s effort to save the beauty of Block Island. The Roanoke Times used the Web to show what life was like for Christian and Muslim refugees from Africa and Eastern Europe sharing a nine-acre apartment complex called Terrace.
Sands told how reporters and readers have vastly different senses of papers. He told how some reporters were asked to respond to question, If your paper were a celebrity, who would it be?
Tom Hanks, the reporters answered.
The readers' perception?
We're got our work cut out for us.
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Well, Dan, I'd say the first thing you ought not do is listen to Duncan Black or any other "lefty" bloggers, since listening to the left is what's driving down newspaper subscriptions nationally.
Also, don't fool yourself into buying into the notion the Inquirer doesn't have a personality. It does, and that's why I don't subscribe. (Although you guys occasionally give me a week or two free for reasons I'll never figure out, but assume are meant to artificially drive up ciruclation numbers)
Want to increase the readership? Eliminate the oped pages and re-assign a few of the international, national and DC reporters to cover Bucks, Chester, Montgomery and south NJ in a bit more detail than the skimpy offerings you've got now. Nobody cares about what "the Inquirer" thinks about anything, and when I say nobody and anything, I mean everybody in the world could care less what some editorialist/poetitorialist thinks about anything (sorry to be harsh, but it's the truth). Plus, and I'm going from memory here, the Inquirer's cartoonist is lousy. Use the Pittsburgh P-G's Rogers if you need a cartoon.
Also, want to save money on the bottom line? Cut out the stock listings and cartoons and TV listings: nobody buys a *news*paper for those things anymore so it's a waste of ink and paper. Put a link to Achewood and Day By Day on your blog and consider the Inquirer covered in the comics dept.
But the number one thing I'd avoid doing at all costs is trying to emulate the likes of Atrios, Kos and the other socialists, Marxists and psuedo-anarchists of the left. They stand for nothing; don't let your paper stand for nothing.
Or, more obviously, allow the Inquirer to admit it's lefty bias so that the average under-informed reader knows the filter through which he's reading *the news.*
Posted by: William Young | Oct 31, 2005 9:01:09 AM
I have to disagree with William Young about eliminating the Op-Ed pages. My suggestion is to change them, fundamentally, and USE them as a way to draw readers into the discussion online.
The problem I have found, from working on an op-ed page and now as a Jane Schmoe newspaper reader, is that both the near-static design of Editorial and Op/Ed pages (not just at the Inky, but nearly everywhere) creates a wall between the reader and what's written -- it's like a big poster where the newspaper is telling you what IT thinks without giving a crap what YOU think.
Well, that was fine in 1960, but people are tired of being talked at rather than spoken with. There's nowhere near enough room for the opinion of the everyday person, those other than the university professors, pundit-types, special-interest groups, ghostwritten pieces from legislators, and other "expert" op-eds.
Think about it: The best blogs are the ones who have open diaglogue with readers through the comments sections. Imagine if each of those blogs limited themselves to, say, three or four comments from readers each day? It would suck.
But that's EXACTLY what happens on the Letters to the Editor page every day, due to space constraints.
Why not continue the conversations online, in real-time, WITHOUT the days-long filtering process that letters go through now? How much can readers trust and take seriously the opinion section when they know the paper only ones the runs opinions IT deems worthy?
The reason conservatives like William Young will NEVER trust newspaper op-ed pages is because they believe some liberal is sitting at a desk picking and choosing what opinion gets heard.
What I'm trying to say is that the future of Op-Ed isn't just throwing opinion AT readers, it's allowing them to become part of the conversation. The one place in the paper where feedback happens every day SHOULD be the one leading the charge online. Letters to the editor pages were the original blogs.
Also, you wrote:
"You could put out the best newspaper in America with the people we've helped walk out the door over the 17 years I’ve been here. I think we once did."
I know it's not easy to watch beloved colleagues leave, but the ONLY way you guys are going to survive this is to STOP believing that the paper's best days are behind, and that those leaving are taking the Inquirer's best days with them. What does that say about those who are left?
Many of the people who are leaving will probably tell you that the fire in their belly doesn't burn quite as brightly as it did when they came to the paper 20, 25 years ago -- so why shouldn't they take opportunities to write their own next chapters?
I learned this at the Asbury Park Press when we lost a quarter of our newsroom the first year after Gannett took over. The people are just gone, they're not coming back. Space will continue to shrink in the printed paper, but there's plenty of room online. The journalism -- the reporting and photo shooting, the editing and design -- still has to be done, whether it's published online or in the hard copy.
The lesson I learned through that newsroom contraction was that you can either die thinking that all the best journalism has already been done -- that the generation of journalist who are now at buyout/retirement age were the last ones who knew what they were doing, or you can live on by FORCING those left and those now in early-to-mid career to be the best they can be.
Posted by: Citizen Mom | Oct 31, 2005 9:45:30 AM
Thanks, both of you, for taking the time. One point, for Citizen Mom. My glasses are clear, not rosy. While the alumni club has an impressive roster, I don't idealize the past here. Like most reporters, I always think it's the next piece that holds the most promise.
Posted by: Daniel Rubin | Oct 31, 2005 10:18:27 AM
Cool. I know you know what I'm saying.
Oh, and I agree with William Young about changing coverage of the suburbs, too!
Posted by: Citizen Mom | Oct 31, 2005 10:26:02 AM
One of the most interesting things I ever did in my publishing days was sit in on focus groups. Of course, did we listen to the readers? Ha.
Posted by: PLD | Oct 31, 2005 10:47:15 AM
To be clear I wasn't necessarily suggesting that the PDN get wider suburban distribution now, it was more historical criticism of past bad decisions. With the staffing cuts it's not clear that it'd really be a reasonable option now.
But, yes, the Inky should farm out all/most city coverage to the Daily News, put their reporters into the burbs and try to cover the metro area in a combined fashion rather than the slice and dice way it's done now.
Posted by: Atrios | Oct 31, 2005 11:44:42 AM
Keep downsizing and soon enough some of your ex-reporters and editors will form blogs and online news organizations that will begin to take your ad revenue.
Competition is the key to good journalism.
So keep cutting back on your staff. In time, you'll let the wrong the people walk out the door, if you haven't already.
Keep the sheet cake trays handy.
Posted by: news buddy | Oct 31, 2005 12:11:45 PM
Figure out once and for all what you want to be: A national force, like in the Roberts Era, or a damn good regional paper? For too many years the Inquirer hasn't been able to answer that question -- it's tried to be both and ended up neither.
If the answer is the former, cutting staff and closing bureaus isn't the way to go. If the latter, stop trying to compete with the small county dailies in covering each and every suburban town -- you'll never win. Find on the best stories in the region and tell them. Get good local voices on your Op-Ed page; if I want to read Maureen Dowd or Charles Krauthammer, I can find them online. Don't know where to find the local voices? Click the links in your own blogroll.
Posted by: Tom Durso | Oct 31, 2005 12:30:21 PM
Isn't this the same paper that had 30 days of fawning editorials of why we should vote for Kerry over Bush. Some balance there, huh? As long as the liberal mainstream media mindset predominates whether it's here or the NYtimes or the WashPost or elsewhere, you will continue to lose vast amounts of subscribers.
Posted by: ravi | Oct 31, 2005 12:48:24 PM
I didn't read any of the above comments, just Daniel's piece, so forgive me if I retread territory.
The Inquirer needs help. Desperately. They cover everything poorly, from City Hall out to the suburbs. If an event happens, it tends to run 49 articles in a week, all covering the same material and often times just parroting what the Daily News has said a day earlier.
Philly doesn't need yet another article running-down the history of the corruption at City Hall. Everyone knows who Ron White is by now. What the city needs is more advocacy journalism with a personality, like what some alt-weeklies are doing right now. Steve Volk over at Philly Weekly is a great example: his award-winning Trouble Spots series, about local hotspots for drug dealing, is compelling reading that stands for something and is exactly what the Inky should be doing.
There is so much crap and injustice happening in our city that you could fill two or three papers just with what is going on in North Philly. And let's not get started with all the ignored corruption happening in our suburbs. But for some reason, the Inky is more concerned with running wire stories no one reads.
You want to know how to keep people reading? Slash the national/foreign news budget and increase local coverage. Get some worthwhile investigative journalism happening about things people in Philly care about.
I'm a young journalism student, actually interning at the Inky right now, and I'm about to graduate. Needless to say, I've picked maybe the worst time to ever graduate with a journalism degree in Philadelphia. The big papers are on the decline, the alt-weeklies are being killed with their budgets and the little guys are all struggling to survive.
Here I am, a young idealist full of ideas and potential, and I'm going to have nowhere to go because the Inky, along with most other papers in the city and the country, refuses to change. I'm starting to regret choosing my major.
Posted by: mike | Oct 31, 2005 1:04:30 PM
Why not read the comments? This is no 400+ Atriosesque thread here. Being a journalism major working at the organization publishing the very blog you're commenting on, I'd think you'd pay more attention to what the rest of us are saying.
As much as the guts of the paper want things to change, it's going to have to be from the top. They're going to have to stop cutting down to the bottom line all the time and make some investments instead of cutting things down to the bone and demanding the same, if not more, output.
I haven't been in Philly long enough to have witnessed the great downfall of the Inky as I've read about, but now, what's done is done. Philly.com is slowly adapting to the times [faster than many other papers, but not at the lead] with developed blogs and more writers on the blog beat testing out the waters. Outbound links, comments and trackbacks include others more and more.
I guess at this point, it's time to focus on what the Inky is good at and get to it. Cut out the fat. I don't know what that is since I'm not a cover to cover reader, but it seems that the Inky is stretching itself thin trying to cover everything and overlapping too much with the DN.
I think that cutting the OpEd page only helps to kill the paper and that's not something I want.
Posted by: albert | Oct 31, 2005 1:28:33 PM
Don't lose faith, dude. This is an AMAZING time to be a journalist -- just look at what's happening in the world right now!
I was you, 11 years ago -- Philly-bred, j-school degree in hand, looking for a chance. Like you, I got an internship at the Inky -- we were called correspondents then -- in the Cherry Hill bureau. Then I left to cut my teeth at a good-sized paper where I had more FAR more opportunity than I would have at the Inquirer. They simply didn't hire young journalists for full-time jobs.
The problem with growing up in city that has a "major" paper is that you can't very well walk right out of school with no experience and have them give you a shot -- or, you can, but not as a "real" staffer.
The Inquirer has DOZENS of people working there now who got hired at 25 and 27, but that was 25 years ago. People don't leave, because the Inquirer is as close to "big league" as you can get without being national. There are fewer opportunities for young journalists to break in the door.
Which is why maybe it's GOOD to offer buyouts now and again?
I'm just saying.
Posted by: Citizen Mom | Oct 31, 2005 1:36:13 PM
Thanks for the encouragment. I'm aware that I won't be able to walk right into the Inky and get a job upon graduation and that I'll probably start out at a small local paper somewhere. That would just be delusional of me to think otherwise.
I suppose my point was that there are a lot of good writers out there who could really enrich the content of the Inquirer, but that's not happening. Not by any means. And a lot of them are under the roof of 400 N. Broad. If Knight-Ridder wants to sustain their profit, and they are a profitable company last time I checked, their tactic should be to expand their coverage and use their writers more, not cut budgets and buy out contracts. They need to be thinking of how to make a better quality product, not cutting off an arm or a leg to save some money.
One thing Susie Madrak said at the conversation with the bloggers thing was that beat writers should have to rotate beats every two years or so. It's a little thing that Inky doesn't do that would maybe alter the paper greatly. It would definitely help keep the news fresh and relevant, rather than routine and comfortable. Just a thought.
Posted by: mike | Oct 31, 2005 1:47:34 PM
- Chuck the tv listings.
- Expand home delivery to the burbs.
- Sack at least 1/2 the sports columnists and get some new blood.
- Hire some conservatives. Now, I am not saying become a conservative paper, but give some of us a reason to buy the paper. Also, don't just pick up national convervatives, you need some local ones too. Have some actual debate in the Op-Ed pages.
It could be fun, but alas, the Inky and DN are dinosaurs that don't know to get out of the cold.
Posted by: That Dude | Oct 31, 2005 3:05:34 PM
See, now THAT'S blogging. Finally, you put your heart and soul into a piece - and look how many people are reading it.
Posted by: Susie from Philly | Oct 31, 2005 5:02:11 PM
You are to be commended for acknowledging that "Much of the blame really lies with us, as journalists."
People make time to consumer media that is interesting and important to them
Posted by: Lou Alexander | Oct 31, 2005 7:01:12 PM
You are to be commended for acknowledging that "Much of the blame really lies with us, as journalists."
People make time to consumer media that is interesting and important to them
Posted by: Lou Alexander | Oct 31, 2005 7:04:16 PM
It's such a no-win situation -- give the people what they want and what they want is celeb gossip, politico shouting matches and the local everything...and don't give two craps about what's going on beyond the blinkers of their own parochial worlds. Oh, and make it short. I remember when the Inquirer actually covered the world outside of Philly and South Jersey with its own correspondents and did it well, tying what goes on in other parts of the country, other countries and other hemispheres to our own backyard. Local may be beautiful but the cynic in me points to the fact that when you give the people what they want, it translates into no book section, no international news, no science coverage and more and more, really too many reality shows and so much of the drivel that passes for news magazines, film and other forms of infotainment. The NYT of the future predicted by Ken Sands sounds like a scary Halloween ghoul but as a 30-something who actually likes to read news -- local, national and intl -- and doesn't need to be tricked into doing so, sign me up now for a charter subscription because the watered-down version the Inky has become hasn't been cutting it for a while. Mike suggests the paper "slash the national/foreign news budget"? Ha! Is there any budget left? Don't use the "soft bigotry of low expectations" (to paraphrase out fearless leader) to cater to a crowd that doesn't really care about news but seems to be interested in only one topic: people like themselves. Surely, there's a point to this business beyond simply giving readers only what they want? (Hint: the answer is a phrase that's fallen out of fashion...the public good.)
Posted by: Young Curmudgeon | Oct 31, 2005 10:07:53 PM
Earlier this summer I was arrested on South Street. Why? Because I was calmly reading a store window advertisement and an officer started barking at me to move. I was doing nothing wrong. There was no crowd, no disturbance, just an arrogant cop pushing his weight around denying me my constitutional right to exist. I am 44 years old and not the typical demographic of a hoodlum on South Street. The charge was "Failure to Disperse" and when I looked up the law in the city code, it was obvious I was not guilty of any violation. (The law requires 3 or more people causing a disturbance--I was by myself and not making a sound). I plead not guilty in Municipal Court where a totally incompetent judge (name edited) refused to respect the law and instead re-wrote it from the bench to convict me. Thankfully I had it overturned on appeal so long as I apologized to the arrogant cop who should have been made to apologize to me.
OK. What's this got to do with the Inquirer? While in court I naturally ran into several other people who had suffered the same misfortune. There is obviously a problem right now in Philadelphia with overly zealous cops getting away with not respecting the law--I am not an isolated case--not to mention new laws being passed with no respect to the Constitution. But a search on philly.com comes up close to nada. Where is the great Philadelphia newspaper to expose this? Every weekend good citizens are getting arrested in this city for exercising constitutional rights to free speech and free assembly. The free press is supposed to exist to help protect and preserve these rights, but the Inquirer couldn't be more blind. Why is that?
Posted by: Justice Exists | Nov 2, 2005 1:43:01 PM
Why is that? LOL. Becuase the police protect the Philadelphia establishment from the people. And the Philadelphia establishment is liberal, and Democratic just like its bedmate, the Inquirer.
If you are one of the core constituencies of the Street Administration and the power structure - Lynn Abraham will be kind to you - otherwise you are dead.
Posted by: NoJustice | Nov 3, 2005 1:21:23 PM
The Inquirer literally doesn't have a public face for the generation it has lost, i.e., the 18 - 35 year old crowd. It is merely a stack of newsprint at a kiosk or convenience store but not a force in their lives. Two suggestions on how to change that:
1. Select a few centrally located spaces in Center City and display the actual newspaper (principal sections, principal pages)publicly for those who wish to stop and read; and,
2. Do the same thing electronically in a few central locations using large display screens that scroll periodically.
If the newspaper wants to attract a new audience it must take form in a way that appeals to that audience.
Posted by: Tom Goodman | Nov 7, 2005 8:14:57 AM
Tom, those are two cool ideas - retro even - but with a modern application.
Posted by: Daniel Rubin | Nov 7, 2005 9:06:57 AM
Hi. The link attached to this comment is my blog, where I commented on this entry. Feel free to stop by and drop a line! Thanks.
Posted by: Laura Grow | Nov 10, 2005 10:32:48 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.