Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News Building,” It’s Our City

July 18, 2019; Philadelphia

As Ralph Cipriano writes in Philadelphia magazine, nonprofit ownership of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which began three years ago, has hardly shielded the media outlet from broader trends affecting local newspaper dailies nationwide. An eight-page memo sent by top managers at the Inquirer to their newsroom employees underlines the challenges.

Titled “Unlocking a New Era of Inquirer Journalism,” the memo paints a picture of an external context that’s now very familiar to other nonprofit news sites. As an ongoing concern, the Inquirer is exploring its path with far more baggage. Most nonprofit news sites essentially start from scratch; they may not be as cash-rich but have some more agility in design. The situation of the Inquirer is relatively unusual, but it may be able to more closely embrace its nonprofit-ness in addressing the realities on the ground.

The memo, the introductory section explains, came after senior managers met off site over a period of four months for weekly “intensive half-day sessions” to “identify a common vision for our future.” After the introductory section, the memo details a litany of woes affecting newspapers:

Metro US daily newspapers experienced an average circulation drop of 41-45 percent from 2012 to 2018 (​CJR​). Newspaper print advertising revenue nationwide declined about 70 percent between 2005 and 2018, from $49 billion to about $15 billion. Digital advertising revenue, has been insufficient to offset these declines, growing to about $5 billion in 2018, up from $2 billion in 2005. Facebook and Google simply dominate the digital marketplace, accounting for 77 percent of local digital advertising revenue and 58 percent of national digital ad revenue… The total number of full-time US newspaper newsroom employees dropped about 45 percent between 2008 and 2017, from 71,000 to 39,000 (​Pew). Approximately 36 percent of US newspapers experienced layoffs from January 2017 to April 2018 (​Pew​).

Surely the Inquirer’s reporters already knew all of this and more. And, as Cipriano details, over the past two decades, the paper has lost more than two-thirds of its peak circulation. The Inquirer is clearly not an exception to the national pattern.

The question, however, is, what to do about the challenges. Alas, the measures outlined are both unimaginative and uninspiring. They include a $95 million “Spot on the Wall” stretch goal for digital advertising revenue, “while also maximizing…revenue growth through strategic investments related to digital subscriptions, advertising, events, philanthropy, and entirely new businesses.” There is also some verbiage about building cross-functional teams; Cipriano notes that after the memo was released, management announced a reorganization of editorial staff from eight departments into three (news, features, and business/health/environment).

As Cipriano observes, the memo comes just three years after the late philanthropist Gerry Lenfest donated the for-profit Philadelphia Media Network—owner of the Inquirer, Daily News, and the former website—to what has become the Lenfest Institute, seeding it with a $20 million donation.

As the Lenfest Institute’s website explains, “The Institute’s Board of Managers includes leading digital news leaders, accomplished media software entrepreneurs, leading journalism academics, community leaders, and philanthropists.” The Inquirer and other media properties are supposed to “serve as a live lab for the Institute’s innovation efforts.” Might these leading lights have some thoughts about the Inquirer’s direction? Could the Lenfest mission be tapped into to build deeper community ties and audience? Hard to say, but the memo does not address how the paper might leverage the connections and knowledge of its Lenfest partners.

To be clear, no one should expect nonprofit ownership by itself to turn around the business. Still, the apparent failure to take advantage of Lenfest’s extensive networks is startling.

Perhaps less startling—because workers are so often excluded—but also a notable omission, is the lack of involvement of newsroom staff in those four months of meetings, even as senior management itself has highlighted “the need for revolutionary—not evolutionary—change.”

Instead, there has been feuding. Cipriano explains that, “management and labor have been banging heads since February, when the NewsGuild of Greater Philadelphia, which represents more than 300 employees, including reporters, editors, photographers, and sales reps, declared that they had no confidence in the leadership of Inquirer publisher Terry Egger.”

Recently, 30 employees accepted “voluntary buyouts,” avoiding layoffs. But workers complain they have worked more than 10 years without a raise, even as contractors in 2017 received six-figure payments for such matters as project management and website services. NewsGuild Local 38010 President Diane Mastrull, Cipriano adds, warns of “a crisis in confidence in company leadership” and says workers “crave a business plan that we believe in.”—Steve Dubb