Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

A very special No Blood in Ants: Destroying the village to save it

A very special No Blood in Ants: Destroying the village to save it

The Philadelphia newspapers have reached the point where "concern trolls" are popping out of the woodwork -- every Tom, Dick and Harriet who's ever plucked down a greenback for the paper or clicked on Philly.com now has a bold idea for how almost our constantly-on-sale ("Always Lower Prices. Always.") newsroom can save itself.

Some of them are actually pretty good, like this one from Editorialista Andrew Nusca, who has some ideas about overhauling Philly.com:

Philly.com is one of three brands offered by its parent company, but each has been mismanaged online. The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News websites have been scuttled in favor of a locked-down online experience, so most Delaware Valley readers expect Philly.com to have their daily news.

And it does. But it's conflicting at every turn.

The Editorialista make a point I've also been arguing for some time. In the 20th Century, newspapers covered everything from sports to fashion because they owned the metro monopoly of a large printing press and delivery trucks. In the 21st Century, people can visit websites to hone in like a laser beam on their special interests -- so it's kind of bizarre when football fanatics visit a site to get their Eagles fix only to be hit over the proverbial head with a feature on women's shoes. And when you're trying to combine an in-your-face tabloid with a refined broadsheet in the same website...well, it gets complicated. There needs to be a better way.

On the other hand, a piece by former Inquirer scribe Tom Ferrick -- which is what the Editorialista post is in response to -- is a case where his love and concern for the future of Philly.com would smother us to death and kill us. Philly.com doesn't need to get more deathly serious as Ferrick argues -- the hard news is there now, intermingled with the cheesy good fun of cheerleader pics and what not, and that's how it should be in 2012.

Philly.com and the whole operation here does need to get better, and it's great there are smart people out there like Andrew Nusca who do care and have interesting thoughts on how we can improve. It makes me think about the most dynamic and successful companies out there -- your Apples and your Facebooks -- and how they're driven by a passion for making things happen, for throwing everything behind a great idea. Even, gasp, throwing more people at the problem, not less.

Which is why Tom Ferrick's idea for the news org located (for now) at 400 North Broad Street -- as bad as it is -- isn't the worst idea of the day.

Not by a longshot:

I really, really don't want to write this.

But I've learned from a credible source that the management of Philadelphia Media Network, which owns the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com, envisions dumping another 35 people from the payroll over the next six months.

This would be in addition to roughly four dozen recent departures through buyouts and layoffs.

The specific information that came my way is this: In a March 20 offer to buy the company, the group including New Jersey businessmen Lewis Katz and George Norcross proposed paying $57 million, with certain adjustments - among them severance costs associated with planned termination of roughly 35 more employees over the next six months. The planned terminations were disclosed, according to the source, in a management presentation the day before the offer, which would have been a week ago.

OK, I have to put it out there: I just don't get this. Reportedly, another one of the would-be buyers of the newsroom of former cable mogul H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, a man now ranked as one of the 50 top philanthropists in the nation because he has given tens of millions of dollars back to the Philadelphia region -- projects such as the American Revolution Center and the Barnes Foundation as well as his law school alma mater Columbia University.

Every dollar that Lenfest has invested in Philadelphia has served the same purpose -- to make the city a better place. Remember that time that Lenfest gave $5 million to the Barnes so that it could lay off 20 percent of its staff? Of course not -- such a silly thing never happened.

Admittedly, a newspaper is not a charity but a for-profit (and yes, there supposedly still is a small one) business. But on the other hand, during that brief era when former Gov. Ed Rendell (remember him?) was organizing the newspaper bailout group, we were told the motivation was "more out of a sense of civic duty than to earn a profit."

The idea -- as I and others understood it --was that a great American city like Philadelphia, the cradle of liberty, the First Amendment and the American tradition of a free and freewheeling press, should continue to have great newspapers. So how is it "civic duty" to eviscerate and demoralize your future newsroom with yet another round of job cuts? In Vietnam they called this destroying the village to save it.

Another 35 job cuts would do exactly that -- it would make two newspapers that collectively won 21 Pulitzer Prizes into shells of their former selves, and it might even be the end of the Daily News, a "People's Paper" that has connected with working class readers of every stripe across the Balkanized neighborhoods that comprise the real Philly. It doesn't have to be this way. This is not a plea for prospective new owners to run away, but rather simply to get to know our civic mission. Better yet, get to know us -- the people of the Daily News, Inquirer and Philly.com, who live with ink (or pixels) in our veins to publish the big stories of the remarkable city that we share.

If you want to kick the tires on your future investment (and who wouldn't?), you should have been here two weeks ago. It was the day that a cluster of us surrounded and hugged our friends and co-workers Morgan Zalot and Phillip Lucas -- two of the finest young reporters you could ever hope to put on your new payroll -- when we learned they had narrowly avoided the meat cleaver of the last layoffs, even as we mourned the unwanted departure of other great journalists like Sarah Glover and Natalie Pompilio. You'd have seen that's who we are and that's how we carry our our shared "civic duty"-- as a family (and, sure, insert your joke about a crazy dysfunctional family here).

You would never adopt a family to rip it apart.

Just like you can't save a village by destroying it.

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Will Bunch
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