My apologies to Philly.com: how the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com are related

The Philly.com icon that welcomes you to their headquarters on the 35th floor of 1601 Market Street in Center City Philadelphia.
The Philly.com icon that welcomes you to their headquarters on the 35th floor of 1601 Market Street in Center City Philadelphia, as seen on Jan. 8, 2009.

I owe Philly.com an apology.

I got heavy traffic on a recent post of mine in which I complimented the video product  (particularly Philadelphia Business Today) but regarded it as incomplete in many ways. I haven’t shifted much on my analysis, but I have learned I put the wrong address on the post. Find out where it should have gone below, and what every newspaper – or company, or organization, or individual – can learn from it about branding.

Philadelphia Business Today is not a product of the Inquirer… exactly. I know, Inqy business columnist Mike Armstrong is the lead host. Of course, it’s not a Daily News product. It’s a Philly.com product.

Do you know the difference? This is the most powerful, storied media organization in the fourth largest media market in the country, so if you live near Philadelphia and you don’t, they have a problem. If you aren’t from here, you should pay attention, too.

On Thursday, I got the extreme pleasure and privilege to nag and ask questions of two important fellas in this newspaper-digitization revolution we have on our hands: Yoni Greenbaum and Bob McGovern, executive producer and managing producer of Philly.com respectively.

I always had a vague sense that Philly.com was a different animal than the two newspapers whose content is hosted there. But it’s more.

They are full-throttle three different companies who just happen to be owned by the same company – Philadelphia Media Holdings. These different companies poach and they pilfer and share, for sure, but different companies they be.

So, get it straight. the Inquirer is the third-oldest surviving daily newspaper in the country, the region’s paper of record with 18 Pulitzers and a reputation as a once-was-truly-Great. The Daily News is the city’s 83-year-old tabloid known for its headlines, sports and city coverage. Philly.com is PMH’s future, a “portal” for Philadelphia, as Greenbaum said it. It has a content agreement with the two papers but creates its own multimedia content because the newspapers aren’t doing enough of it and has its own devoted advertising department, all in its own headquarters in skyscraper row along Market St.

That means my compliments for the innovative newspaper video I credited to the Inquirer was misplaced. While Armstrong, an Inqy columnist, is being leveraged, its produced by Philly.com.

While it doesn’t change that I like the product – and, to be fair the multimedia that is being produced by the Daily News – it also doesn’t change my criticisms.

During my time at Philly.com, Managing Producer Bob McGovern told me most readers don’t care about who creates the content. Of course he is absolutely right. Maybe – just maybe – one out of ten redaers cares, only those most loyal to either the Inquirer or Daily News brand. The trouble, I think, is that that number can only be dwindling.

Look, Yoni Greenbaum knows what he is doing, so do his bosses. He claims Philly.com is profitable, and not by a slim margin. We already pretty much guessed the Web site was becoming the workhorse for PMH – which owns other properties, including the Northeast Times.

But Philly.com, and, I am willing to guess, PMH CEO Brian Tierney, aren’t as concerned about the longterm brands of the Inqy and the DN. To be fair, they don’t have to be. They may be doing just fine – or near to it – in the business that many people say they should be, online content creation and advertising dissemination business, not the newspaper business.

But that can’t be the only solution, can it?

Let’s peer into the future of possibilities. The three players could split and play the online game on their own, or the more like-minded newspapers could merge and split with Philly.com. Unless some newspaper ideologue wants to swoop in and buy two financially-struggling newspapers at an inflated price (to cover the costs PMH took on) neither will happen. What’s a lot more likely is the three completely merging.

And the only one of the three really planning for the future is Philly.com. So, it figures that’s the brand name that will stand – however strange that seems.

What’s a possible alternative? Could the Inquirer survive on brand monetization and take on its own Web venture? There doesn’t appear to be any signs of that. I get the feeling that Chris Krewson, the Inquirer’s executive online editor, is overwhelmed with the little fights to be leading revolution. As I’ve said, he seems to get it, but I don’t know how well-supported he really is. The evergreen content – interactive flash design, maps, in-site RSS collections, etc. – that is to the future what 70-inch investigative stories were in the past are nonexistent. If the New York Times can’t get enough genuine clicks to support itself online, the thought of the Inquirer doing it on its own is, sadly, laughable.

After fighting the threat of technology for generations, the Internet has shook newspapers in a way we’ve never seen before. The newspaper bubble, I say often, is bursting. Newspapers need branded personalities in the way cable news has scored with the likes of Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly. They need to convince online advertising is worthwhile – best done with innovation that doesn’t appear likely in that environment.

So, of course, PMH and Tierney rightly and sensibly see Philly.com as their future. It isn’t innovation. It isn’t bold. It just appears to be the only reality.

Because conversely, Philly.com is boasting five million unique visitors per month, Greenbaum said. That’s perhaps a sixth of the Wall Street Journal and a fourth of the New York Times. Considering the Inquirer was absolutely on par editorially with any paper in the world in the 1970s, it’s hard to say, but that’s probably not a bad proportion, to be a fourth of a newspaper that is likely more than four times the size, cost and output. (Some very real criticism of using unique visitors as a metric has surfaced, but to compare similar entities, we can assume the flaws in the totals are comparable too.)

It isn’t what I’d like to see. I suppose fortunately, this is all generally seen to be a slow death – though some wonder about faster versions. There will be at bare minimum a sunday Inquirer for a decade in some form, I’d think, if only out of nostalgia and pride – I should hope. But what then? What does Philly.com need with an old brand that has now developed a grumpy, failing connotation? I would think the plan is for Philly.com to usurp the Inquirer’s national recognition (however now diminished), the urban regard for the Daily News, all with developing a something-else-ness. Their  fresh design from May,  seemed to tell that tale.

But, gosh, could the Inquirer really be put to bed?

The historic white Inquirer building, longtime headquarters of the Philadelphia Inquirer, as seen from the headquarters of Philly.com
The historic white Inquirer building, longtime headquarters of the Philadelphia Inquirer, as seen from the headquarters of Philly.com