Here we go again.
There's nothing worse in life than watching a feel-good story wear off, which is what seems to be happening at 400 North Broad Street, the home of the Philadelphia Daily News (and the Inquirer). The feel-good story came in 2005 and 2006, after the staff of the Daily News was whittled beyond the bone by buyouts and then -- with the Philly papers' parent up for sale -- when a bunch of "experts" (more on them in a minute) opined that any buyer would have to close the People Paper for good.
And so a bunch of us took to the Web and went to anyone else who would listen and explained why -- if you knew anything about Philadelphia or the newspapers here -- that, no, whacking the city's daily tabloid actually made no sense at all. And our campaign actually worked. Talk about closing the DN died down after that, and the papers were sold to an offspring of the middle-class streets of Upper Darby who -- pushing other issues off to the side for now -- understood the unusual bond between the Daily News and its readers.
The new owners didn't understand a lot of other things, however -- like the notion that the American newspaper wasn't just down in the dumps, but plunging off a cliff. This week, the parent of the Daily News and Inquirer filed for Chapter 11, unable to pay back the massive sum they borrowed to buy the paper three years ago. The news was jarring, but all we really have for now is a court battle between lawyers for millionaires and lawyers for multi-millionaires -- the papers are still publishing, the staffs are still writing stories and getting paid, for now. But into that vacuum has flooded the speculation, with Topic A that the Daily News will have to close. But as anyone who watches too much cable news (like me) could tell you, the first cousins of "speculation" are "laziness" and "uninformedness."
Some of these newspaper pundits I have little or no respect for -- like Lauren Rich Fine, who used to be a highly paid newspaper analyst despite writing in 2005 that the Daily News was "an afternoon paper," something it ceased being in 1991. Fine actually claims that she grew up in Philadelphia, but maybe she means Philadelphia, Miss., because she doesn't seem to really know a lot about journalism here, just how to read a bloodless accounting book that assumes whoover owns 400 N. Broad could save a ton of cash by whacking a tabloid aimed at the middle class. You see, analysts and pundits have to say something, and "close the Daily News" makes a compelling second-day headline after the shock of Chapter 11.
I was a little disappointed to see my (virtual) friend Alan Mutter, who I have a great deal of respect for, reach the same conclusion. Mutter knows a great deal about the newspaper biz, but he's also 3,000 miles away and his argument here doesn't fully hold water. Specifically, he looks at the weekly bump in circulation for the Sunday Inquirer, the day that DN doesn't publish, and assumes that a lot of People Paper readers would automatically flip to the Inquirer if we disappeared. What is scary is not that an analyst-blogger like Mutter thinks that, but that some of the paper's creditors -- people who as much about producing and marketing a daily newspaper as I know about U.S. bankruptcy law -- seemed to have lazily reached the same conclusion, that killing the DN would save big bucks.
So let me tell all of your people a little bit about the Daily News.
First of all, as I understand it, even now with the economy sliding into Great Depression, the Sequel, and the horrible conditions for newspapers in 2009, the Daily News as a unit continues to make money. So closing it altogether only makes slam-dunk sense if what Mutter assumes is true, that the majority of Daily News readers would become Inquirer readers or at least boost our revenues online by turning to Philly.com in greater numbers. But all of us who work the streets of Philadelphia know that's simply not true. The Daily News has survived by being the kind of paper that our readers -- heavily urban, weighted towards the kind of folks who don't spend all day staring into a computer screen -- will not replace with any other.
The irony that drives me crazy is that the Daily News has survived -- when many No. 2 papers in metro markets, especially tabloids, have failed -- because years ago we became the kind of news organization that many newsrooms wish they were today. When other newspapers squandered millions on overseas bureaus and first-class air travel, we made a decision to focus most of our fire on the streets of Philadelphia, with front pages and an upfront section that was 80 percent (my own guesstimate) local. And we crusaded for local causes that no one else would touch, from putting lights on a major bridge to raising awareness about one of the nation's most deadly roads, Roosevelt Boulevard, to fighting for lower wage taxes. We became the kind of paper that working people --firefighters and teachers and overtaxed moms -- could read, and wanted to read. We became, and still are, the metro newpaper with the highest percentage of African-American readers in the nation, serving urban readers of the kind who've been ignored in other cities by news execs chasing after suburban ad dollars.
That's also a good thing because we are not San Francisco or Seattle -- Internet penetration is lower than average here. But the tabloid format works pretty well here, just as news companies from London to Chicago are finding as they, too, shift away from a traditional broadsheet format. (Tabloids especially make sense in a place where mass transit ridership is increasing, as is the case here in Philadelphia.) As an issue of public service, thousands of Philadelphia residents be would cut off from local news without the Daily News.
But newspapers aren't strictly a public service, they are a capitalistic business enterprise that also serves the public. And we all know the business model for a traditional newspaper is broken -- not dinged, but shattered in a thousand tiny pieces. Every year, more readers mainly get news from the Web, where they want it for free (or not at all) and advertisers are learning how to reach consumers without a middleman (which is what "the media" means). Even before our book fell open to Chapter 11, it was pretty clear that the current set-up -- two papers publishing 13 editions a week, with the current staffing levels and salaries -- would change, and change sooner rather than later.
But the "close the Daily News" chicken littles -- be they pundits or bankers -- are showing the same lack of imagination that's killing the business in the first place. Why take a sledgehammer to a problem that requires a scalpel? And why break the unusual bond that the Daily News has with its readers when so many newsrooms elsewhere are desperately trying now to create exactly what we already have?
Isn't there a more sensible way to keep the Daily News -- not just our name, but our core mission and our core people? That could include a lot of things -- fewer days of the week (although you'd have to keep Monday, because it's impossible to imagine the day after an Eagles' game without the DN) coupled with a more serious push to be smarter about the Web, such as beat-blogging around the DN's core issues of education, crime, City Hall and, of course, sports, or even a free tabloid (although the ad-dollar recession may have killed that once-intriguing idea). All of these things would keep whatever journalistic enterprise that eventually emerges from Chapter 11 in Philadelphia better connected to the people who we'd lose for good if we simply "close the Daily News" because it makes for a good headline.
Make no mistake -- this time around, saving the Daily News may prove harder than in 2005-6 -- it will take more creativity, more time (which may be in short supply) and more passion than ever. And, to my friends and incredible colleagues at the paper, that last ingredient is going to have to come from us. You know, my all-time favorite line from my all-time favorite old movie is when Jimmy Stewart, as Jefferson Smith, declares in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" that lost causes "are the only causes worth fighting for." But I don't believe the Daily News is a lost cause. I believe the Daily News will survive, and if enough of us believe that, we can work together to make it happen. But we can't depend on anyone else, especially not a banker or a lawyer or some guy in a pinstriped suit. It's going to have to come from us.
UPDATE: In a sad irony, as I was writing this post, the intrepid journalist who wrote the above-mentioned Roosevelt Boulevard stories, Myung Oak Kim, lost her job today. She worked Denver's Rocky Mountain News, which will publish its last edition tomorrow. Here's to hoping she lands on her feet, along with her colleagues.
Meanwhile, in a major industry development, Newsday (my former employer) will begin charging for online news. Most people, myself included, are dubious this will work. On the other hand, I'm glad to see someone trying this experiment, because it's also possible that most people are wrong.
UPDATE II: Young Philly Politics is on the case!
UPDATE III: Philebrity, of all places, shows some love for the Norg.