Notes on bold change for the Philadelphia Media Network, regardless of who the owners are, and why it won’t happen

Ownership concerns be damned, the publisher of the largest news organization in one of the largest markets in the country needs to make a major shake up in company structure and output or face a continued decline.

The Philadelphia Media Network, owners of the city’s two daily newspapers and most trafficked news site, announced almost 40 more editorial layoffs and buyouts this month, prompting speculation of another sale. The perception of leadership at the paper has been seriously damaged with a growing number of reports of editorial interference, particularly around coverage of the potential sale, though they’ve happened before.

Fears have risen that an investor group led by former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell could be a biased fifth owner in six years for the company. News of what damage bias could do the organization has clouded the root frustration that the company is failing.

While ownership bias has dominated the coverage, I’m most concerned that no one whose news innovation vision garners much contemporary respect is at the organization’s helm. That’s what is most keeping rhythm to the slow drumbeat of expectations for failure that has been heralded for a decade.

Below, find some initial, broad thoughts on how the organization might be reshaped.

Remarkably in the less than a decade I have been in Philadelphia, I have watched four ownership structures come with brief periods of excitement and no bold change. Anything that has been announced this go-around has either been underwhelming — a sports-focused weekly edition, a suburban hyperlocal — or has looked not much more than a good press release — a stalled tablet initiative or a foundation-subsidized incubation effort.

[As always with Philadelphia media, there are too many disclosures to offer here. Just assume I have close relationships with people involved in all of these organizations I mention here.]

Even with more layoffs and further brand decline, institutional structure keeps PMN’s properties as among the most important in the region, but it cannot be overstated that without a dramatic shakeup, their relevance can and will continue to lessen.

Looking elsewhere in corners of the media landscape that have always been an afterthrought to the dominant daily newspapers, innovation stirs.

At public media outfit WHYY, its editorial team is trying to build a collaborative and hyperlocal space with its 18-month old NewsWorks initiative. At Philadelphia magazine, the century-plus-old city glossy is bolstering its web presence with the Huffington Post model — as many high profile contributors as it can manage. At the local NBC affiliate, its web and mobile strategy has earned it the largest online audience shy of philly.com. Circling its wagons in suburbs surrounding the city is the digital first effort at the Journal Register Company, and so a major partnership there could impact the region profoundly. Most other city-wide efforts fall far short of innovative, particularly among the local TV affiliates, though the co-ownership of CBS3 and news radio KYW has always been an opportunity.

In short, the ecosystem is evolving and no one can bet on the existence of a robust daily newspaper here forever.

The reason why Rendell’s PMN bidding-rival developer Bart Blatstein’s plans to launch a news organization to combat PMN seems a short-term fight, if plausible at all, is because with so much else already happening, the real strength of the daily papers and its dot com is longevity. Even if he already bought the building, Blatstein would not only have to compete with the daily newspapers but — lest he forget — the growing list of region-wide news efforts. PMN’s properties stay out front because they’ve been here so damn long that inertia alone has kept them relevant.

But that can’t be PMN’s defense forever.

In 2006, the Inquirer had an editorial staff of roughly 400. The Daily News was always considerably smaller, perhaps fewer than 100 at that time, and they went through another recent round of buyouts in October, with increasingly small perks. Staff numbers are hard to come by today, but with the continue decline, it may be fair to suggest that the two share a combined staff of fewer than 300. For comparison, the Inquirer alone, I’ve been told, had more than 600 reporters and editors as recent as the late 1990s, though I allow for some exaggeration.

There’s some understandable hand-wringing about the impact of these falling numbers and an imploding company, but the reality remains that sheer legacy will sustain this company’s properties for a time. And other efforts abound.

Without a dramatic change, it is without question that the organization will eventually die, or, to be more precise, cease to be the clear news leader in Philadelphia.

To shift that course, this is what the Philadelphia Media Network should publish:

  • Philly.com: Run a lean hub site, as I’ve previously suggested, serving as an editorial fire hose, but also being home to compelling video content and content from the below sources.
    Staff of 50: Community managers, sales representatives, video producers, data specialists, web analysts
  • Daily newspaper: Folding the staffs from both dailies and maintaining the Inquirer brand, the newspaper should further shed staff and focus on core areas (local and state politics, investigative, crime and business), in addition to heavily vetting and copyediting contributions from various independent and partner news outlets, in addition to individuals. The big voice still looms large, so they have an opportunity to be filled with rich content from a variety of sources, and profit against that. Reporters are plentiful, editors scarce.
    Staff of 150: Reporters, editors, copyeditors, designers, community managers, sales representatives
  • Sports Weekly: Continue to publish and grow the sports-focused weekly paper that may likely sell well and drive longer-form sports reporting. If sensible, perhaps fold this and a broader feature push into a more robust Sunday paper product.
    Staff of 20: Reporters, columnists, editors, copyeditors, designers, community managers, sales representatives
  • Incubator: Sure, they’ve launched it, so they should bolster their efforts to house and receive some revenue back from mentoring and partnering with media innovation startups.
    Staff of 5:
  • Administration: managing the actual company, its building and staff.
    Staff of 20: administration, security, leadership, accounting, HR,

Of course, this would require significant bloodletting, major union concessions and reorganization, forced buyouts of older staff who have not evolved, a completely new vision of what its content looks like, who its partners are and what groups do what. In short, they are all things that won’t happen.

In 1947, a staff strike crippled a daily paper here called the Record and forced its sale. It wasn’t the first time in the long history of daily newspapers in Philadelphia. And I would expect it to happen again before something so dramatic were to happen today.

I am not predicting the collapse of the Inquirer. That would still surprise me. I am not predicting that the paper will become completely irrelevant. That would surprise me too.

If nothing bold happens, though, I do predict a slow, sad, muffled trend downward in impact, something most would argue has been happening for 20 years.

Big stories will still come out. But among all the outlets in the region, more and more of them will from time to time share the lead story of the day.

At a recent event at the NBC affiliate here, I asked a few of their staff members whether they thought the future would be more competitive — because media convergence would put everyone on the same playing field — or less competitive — because everyone will find a niche and largely partner. None had an answer, nor did they appear to have ever thought about the subject.

One can envision a PMN that looks more like a TV affiliate with much more serious reporting and resurgent impact. My fear is that no one involved in the actual ownership negotiation of the company even thinks to do so or has the will to ever make that happen.

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