The Philadelphia Inquirer: winning by losing

April 29, 2010

The loss of The Philadelphia Inquirer to its investors could set the stage for an entirely new way of news gathering and storytelling in the digital age. A call to wipe away all expectations and start anew …

I tend not to talk local when blogging because so much of our business is national in scope. But I am obliged to reference yesterday’s news about the purchase of the bankrupt Philadelphia Inquirer by its creditors. The move marks the end of a long-fought battle by its current ownership and management to keep the paper in local hands, headed by former PR guy and publisher Brian Tierney.

How the Inquirer fell into bankruptcy underscores the plight of traditional media. Pages are falling (8 percent in the past quarter), ad revenue is drying up, and subscribers are turning to free online news services — everything from Newser to Twitter — to stay abreast of the day’s events.

Personally, I was pulling hard for Brian Tierney, to whom I owe much in my own career for cultivating a local PR market and then moving on. That opened a lot of opportunity for my firm to emerge as the largest public relations company in our region. But alas, the Inquirer is now in the hands of investors, destined to be stripped down and resold to a media conglomerate or private equity play.

It’s unfortunate, because so much could have been done to save the paper. To no one’s fault, the Inquirer was too deeply in debt and too deeply steeped in legacy thinking and business practices.

That’s a hard juxtaposition against what The New York Times or USA Today is doing to be in front of their audiences, “regardless of where they are,” as Jennifer Preston, social media editor at The New York Times, told us only two weeks ago at a national media panel we sponsored here in Philadelphia.

Laden with debt, struggling with labor issues, the Inquirer simply couldn’t turn fast enough in the water. But all is not lost. As they say, for every door closed …

If I were Brian Tierney (which, confidentially I have sometimes wished I were), I would go back to my cadre of local partners and present an alternative. The Inquirer sold for $139 million, many more millions than what was expected for this aging brand. While current ownership didn’t win the auction, it does have some valuable assets.

First and foremost, it knows the legacy issues that prevented the paper from changing fast enough to save its own skin. At the same time, the new owners have suggested that they will fire most employees and rehire them under new terms, overcoming any non-compete issues in luring the best of the best to a new media property.

So why not take another run at the Inky? Raise a fraction of the $650 million to $700 million that has been invested by the last two owners of the Inquirer, and start a fresh online property focused on Philadelphia news.

Start over from scratch, unencumbered by printing presses, employment contracts, home delivery, and oh so much other 1990s thinking. Cherry pick the best reporters. Assign them extremely focused beats that appeal to upscale, wired consumers. Get them blogging and conversing with audiences. Increase their output from daily to real time. Celebritize them. Brand them. Think of big, box-busting ideas.

How about an online forum about the Philly mob, fueled by anonymous comments from South Philly readers? A gossip blog about Eagles and Sixers cheerleaders? A discount shoppers blog where readers can download time-sensitive coupons, along with real reporting about great deals readers uncover?

Instead of bemoaning Craigslist and how it ravaged classified sales, ape it. Create a free local flea market online to build traffic and win back readers from eBay, C-list, and others. Or how about this: Conduct regular online real estate auctions to help the city move its backlog of foreclosed and vacant condos and apartments? How many of us would be interested in that?

Then, set your reporters loose to report the news through every possible channel, including blogs, websites, smartphone apps, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. Do smart deals to build distribution. At the airport, make your site the landing page for free WiFi. Pound anyone landing in Philadelphia with stories, news, offers, and ads from local hotels and restaurants, real estate brokers, and car dealers.

Win over local G4 providers, like Clear, and subsidize their offering in exchange for content. Go to Comcast. Urge it to junk its feeble online news service, and replace it with the best reporters and best reporting. Give it content under a private label.

In short, engage, engage, engage. At every gas station, have your reporters giving video updates, centered on breaking news, traffic, sports, weather, and the market. Reach deep into the psychology of readers and transform them into citizen journalists, covering everything from fantasy football, to spring gardening, to the best burger joints in the Delaware Valley. Light up the city and its audiences. Make them part of the renaissance from the beginning.

And then use this new platform to build revenue and out-flank any new owner of the Inky as they try to do something similar. With a clean slate, you can move quicker and win the most attractive segment of the audience, leaving the aging and shrinking legacy audience to the new owners.

Let them print it, truck it, consign it, and collect nickels and dimes for their effort, while you own the audience most coveted by marketers. Give these marketers a way to connect directly with your readers. Monetize the experience and provide real ROI based on real response.

Sure, a door closed yesterday. But the rest of the world is moving on. We need some creative thinking to help legacy media bridge the digital divide. If not here, then where? If not now, then when?

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9 years 16 days ago

I think the Inq will be dumping a bunch of the columnists that write touchy feely articles shortly. If it doesn't become more "real" it will be another dinosaur left in the dustbin of history.

Brian McDermott
9 years 14 days ago

I’ve been a Inquirer subscriber for over ten years. I need my local news. And I still love the feel of the paper in my hands. But if someone in Philly were to start a competing, online-only news service with ‘hyperlocal’ coverage, in-depth reporting, and an engaging mobile app, I would have to seriously reconsider home delivery of the Inky.