PHILADELPHIA — He wrote and rewrote the memo.

Stan Wischnowski, executive editor of the Philadelphia Media Network, knew he had to get the tone right.

His managers and editors already went through two phases of reapplications for their jobs. Now, it was the rest of the newsroom’s turn. The idea of posting more than 200 jobs felt daunting.

At 4:16 p.m. on May 4, Wischnowski hit “send.”

In the newsroom, everyone knew it was coming.

Still, when that email landed in the inboxes of 201 Philadelphia journalists, there were mixed feelings.

It wasn’t the first major change to hit the company. There’s been years of ownership drama, a move and a consolidation that came with hundreds of layoffs. The company is now profitable, but that’s come at a cost.

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Often, newspapers working to become digital have to overcome their legacy identities. Here, there were three identities. So, it didn't begin with starting over.

First, three separate newsrooms had to learn how to work like one.

'There’s been a lot of peaks and valleys.'

Today, the Philadelphia Media Network — the company that owns The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com — employs about 250 journalists, 217 of which are unionized.

Last year, the company joined a program aimed at helping legacy news organizations reinvent themselves. It’s now known as the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative. (Disclosure: My current job was funded by that same program. See the editor’s note at the end of this story for more.)

Last year focused on bringing the newsrooms together and developing a digital mindset. This year focuses on keeping the business alive.

And, unlike many other newspapers across the U.S., it is still alive. Last year, circulation performance and several profitable premium print products helped offset print and ad declines, Wischnowski said.

“For the first time in a long time, our employees received profit-sharing checks, which was unthinkable only a few years ago,” Wischnowski said. “We’re aiming to build on that momentum in 2017 with the launch of the (metered paywall), a big expansion in native advertising and more premium print magazines.”

He declined to provide specific revenue figures but said the company is now profitable.

That improved financial situation has come with a lot of changes.

The ongoing reorganization outlines 36 new beats with 10 coverage teams. It reassigns copy editors to become multiplatform editors and establishes a bigger investigative team capable of rapid work. There's an experimental desk for trying out new things, from software to storytelling. A physical reorganization of the newsroom has also begun.

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When Wischnowski started at the Inquirer in 17 years ago, the newsroom at 400 North Broad Street was a cavernous, majestic palace. Then, more than 600 journalists worked for the Inquirer. It was a major metropolitan newsroom, one that felt the importance of the work it did, one still remembered as legendary.

The Daily News, the Inquirer's tabloid sibling and “the people paper,” was housed in the same building. Philly.com launched in 1995. All three eventually became neighbors, but they were separate publications with different audiences.

In 2006, the moves that would eventually join them began.

In 11 years, the Philadelphia newsrooms had seven owners. The back-and-forth often came with drama worthy of a soap opera.

The newsrooms went through layoffs in 2006, 2008 and 2012. In 2012, the newsrooms left the “Tower of Truth” (its old headquarters) for the third floor of an old department store on Market Street. In November 2015, more major layoffs hit the company.

Months later, in January 2016, owner Gerry Lenfest made a radical decision. He gave the Philadelphia Media Network to the Lenfest Institute, a nonprofit journalism institute, in a move similar to the way Poynter was founded.

By then, all three newsrooms were shells with empty gray cubicles scattered throughout. In 2016, Philly.com and the Daily News moved across the long bank of elevators known as the “DMZ” to the Inquirer's side.

But putting three newsrooms into one space wasn't as easy as just crossing the hall and rearranging desks. Neither was changing how they approached the news.

Much of what the company's attempting is similar to what’s been tried by other newsrooms that participated in the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative: The Dallas Morning News, The Miami Herald and The Minneapolis Star Tribune.

“This wouldn’t work in every newsroom,” Wischnowski said. “This is a newsroom that has been through hedge fund ownership, local owners that didn’t get along, corporate owners and now the first-of-its-kind nonprofit ownership structure. So there’s been a lot of peaks and valleys.”

But in a newsroom nearly a quarter of the size it once was, many employees view this as their big chance to make lasting change.

'This newsroom was incredibly successful for generations'

The day Wischnowski sent out his email asking employees to reapply for new jobs, Gabriel Escobar had just finished reviewing the new listings.

A lot of work went into getting the newsroom to that point. And he knew a lot of work still lay ahead.

Escobar started his career at the Daily News before moving to The Washington Post. He returned to Philadelphia 10 years ago. In 2014, he became managing editor of news and digital. Earlier this year, he became editor.

Escobar appreciates the history here, he said, and the reasons it’s been hard for people to pivot.

“In newsrooms like this, there’s resistance to change,” he said. “The reason there’s resistance to change is because this newsroom was incredibly successful for generations, and a lot of the people here remember that and experienced it firsthand.”

The Inquirer has won 20 Pulitzer Prizes, the last in 2014. The Daily News has won three. But so much here has been out of the control of people in the newsroom.

Last year, as the team involved with the reinvention project took on the big-picture reorganization, two journalists at the company started a transformation process among the rank-and-filers.

For three months, Enterprise Editor Daniel Rubin and Jessica Parks, a breaking news editor, worked with Empirical Media (now the Lenfest Institute) and non-managers around the newsroom to identify where changes had to be made.

The 29-page final report includes five detailed recommendations. The report, called "A Call to Arms," begins with this:

This report is a wake­up call to everyone at the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com. We will not survive unless we make major changes to the way we tell and share stories. We are now in danger of losing what we’ve spent 187 years building — our audience. Our readers are increasingly moving online, and we are failing to capture their attention. We need to do a much better job of engaging readers in the digital realm — particularly younger readers, minorities, and new immigrant communities. We are simply not reaching them.

The recommendations, summed up:

  • Clarify the mission and the brands.
  • Find the balance between journalism that's important, connects with readers and makes money.
  • Make the workflows digital.
  • Get the technology, including the content management system, right.
  • Get people around the room talking to each other.

The company’s leadership responded quickly with a list of 10 strategies and a timeline for them.

Employees in the newsroom have set up committees around several issues, including improving workflow and the necessity of getting newsroom demographics to actually reflect the community.

Erica Palan, senior editor for audience and social, started here just after Philly.com went through management changes and lost people in 2014. The current changes have caused anxiety, but that's getting better as the plan becomes clearer to people.

And there's a sense that it's time, and it's allowed, to push at their old boundaries, she said.

"Terry Egger, our publisher, has said for a long time, 'we need to break the plates.'"

By Rob Tornoe/Philadelphia Media Network
By Rob Tornoe/Philadelphia Media Network

'We were all built toward a single moment'

Emily Babay worked her early shift on the breaking news desk the Thursday when the reapplication email went out. Then she headed home. Babay, who started on staff at Philly.com in 2012, was anxious all week.

That afternoon, just as she was preparing for a run, the email arrived.

She was a few minutes late for her running group that day.

One sentiment here isn't that the changes are bad, she said, but will they be enough?

Some of those changes include:

  • The newsroom has started rebuilding its audience team, which now has five members, as well as the three-person analytics team and the three-person data visualization team.
  • A separate print hub has just been set up by the empty space across the elevator bank.
  • The physical reorganization will include a hub that brings together a digitally focused team from across the newsroom.
  • The beat reorganization brings together people who covered similar things for different desks, so they're not duplicating efforts.
  • With the help of the guild, rank-and-filers have signed a new collective bargaining agreement with leadership that creates a uniform seniority structure across the united newsroom.
  • They're letting go of small, incremental commodity news and focusing more on enterprise, explanatory and investigative stories.
  • They're starting to partner with other news organizations, including BillyPenn, WURD, WHYY and the Solutions Journalism Network, to reach new audiences.
  • They've transformed their morning news meetings to think first about their digital audiences (there's even a list of words, including “weekender” and “Sunday story” that are no longer allowed).
  • A new authoring tool is being rolled out that replaces the old, print-centered one.

"I think one of the shifts is that we are breaking down the elements of what we do in much more minute ways," said Sandy Shea, managing editor of opinion. Shea started at the Daily News in 1990. "Back in the olden days, we were all built toward a single moment, and that is when the button gets pushed and the presses start rolling. All we thought about was, ‘How do we get to that moment?’"

Leaders in the newsroom have been clear that all these changes can’t just be new beats and rearranged desks.

“That’s incredibly important,” said Molly Eichel, assistant features editor who started at the Daily News in 2010.

When the newsroom talked about how they’d cover a decision from the city council on a tax on soft drinks back in June of 2016, Escobar put a halt to their print planning.

“Gabe was like, ‘stop, stop, stop. We need to get all this stuff ready now. What’s our digital plan before our print plan?’”

That was the moment, Eichel said, that she knew this place wasn’t going down in total flames.

'Now’s our chance to get this right'

Diane Mastrull left an assignment and headed for one of the company’s suburban printing plants for a meeting on the day the reapplication email went out.

That's when it hit her inbox.

This reinvention feels enormous to the business reporter and guild officer who started at the Inquirer in 1997.

But it’s also critical.

"Now’s our chance to get this right," she thought when she opened the email.

One of the most important things they have to get right is their business model. Philly.com is planning to launch its metered paywall in the third or fourth quarter of the year. All of the changes, including the reorganization, have been aimed at creating journalism that people will pay for.

A lot will change when that metered paywall goes up, said Kim Fox, managing editor of audience development. Fox came to the newsroom just five months ago.

The staff will have to double down on the kind of journalism that gets readers into that place newsrooms are now buzzing about — the funnel from casual reader to intentional reader to subscriber.

Fox's biggest goal is developing an audience-first mentality in a legacy news organization. What are they covering? When are they publishing? How are people consuming it?

The process is very much ongoing, she said, but visits from regular readers (those who read 10 or more articles a month) are up by 6.8 percent, with pageviews up 3.3 percent from January to the present, compared with the six months prior. Social referrals are up 30 percent in that same time, she said

Other challenges still ahead:

  • Bridging the tension between what journalists think is news and what the audience thinks is news, said Amanda Baker, a product manager.
  • Rethinking their newsletters, which are currently oriented around automation.
  • Working to be data-informed and data literate, said Daniel McNichol, a member of the analytics team. It’s great that people are paying attention to the numbers now, but they need to understand them, too.
  • Buyouts are ongoing. To date, one person has accepted a buyout. Employees 55 and older with at least 15 years with the company have until the end of the month to take them.
  • Continuing the work of being one newsroom. "Everyone is trying to steer the same ship rather than being on three different boats going in three entirely different directions," Babay said. "I don’t know that everyone’s exactly rowing it the same direction, even though we’re all on the same boat at the moment."
A rendering of the newsroom's new design. (Courtesy PMN)
A rendering of the newsroom's new design. (Courtesy PMN)

'All of this is just figuring out the plumbing'

From the outside, Chris Krewson is heartened by the changes he sees his old newsroom making.

“I think they’re trying really hard to focus less on print, which is good,” said Krewson, editor of BillyPenn.com and the former online executive editor of the Inquirer, where he worked from 2007 to 2010.

“Their challenge now is finding out how to build new products that reach the audience that they very clearly don’t in the city and the suburbs, and that product-driven thinking is just something that’s never really been a strength, in my experience, over there,” he said.

That’s not the fault of the people there, he added, but simply the weight of legacy issues.

It looks like the newsroom is spending a lot of time figuring out beats, restructuring and rearranging, which he worries is the solution to a 2007 problem in 2017.

“All of this is just figuring out the plumbing,” Krewson said. That’s important, he added, but it’s focused inwardly.

When David Boardman came to Philadelphia, it seemed to him that the company still had a great reservoir of talent. But their processes and structure were five years behind other regional newspapers, he said.

“From what I’ve seen, they’ve made tremendous progress in a short period of time,” said Boardman, dean of the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University.

Boardman now has a bit more of an insider’s view as vice-chair of the Lenfest Institute.

What’s happening now at the company isn’t enough, by itself, to solve all its problems, but no one expects them to, Boardman said. He’s encouraged by the partnerships he sees and by what the institute can offer the newsroom. It’s also created some room to breathe.

They still have an imperative to be a viable business, Boardman said. But only just.

“They still have to make a buck, but they only have to make a buck,” he said. “That’s incredibly liberating.”

Greg Osberg was CEO and publisher at the company from 2010 to 2012. He thinks the newsroom now has a fighting chance at success.

But one of the things they had to do first, he said, was stabilize things.

Krewson is hopeful that the Lenfest Institute is helping the newsroom think about research and development, audience and building products. But he’s yet to see a newsroom figure this out yet.

It’s not just the Philadelphia Media Network.

“I don’t know of places you can point to and say they’ve done this,” he said. “No one has made the mythical jump across the gorge and they’re on the road to sustainability. What newspaper has done that? I hope they can do it. But I’m working on another challenge.”

'When you’re all things to everyone, you’re nothing.'

The week the reapplication email came out, Ray Boyd hit refresh on his inbox. A lot.

The lead social media producer joined the newsroom in March. At first, he thought he wouldn't have to reapply for his job. But, like everyone else here, he did.

So, he waited for that email.

Even after people get their new jobs, after the newsroom’s rearranged and new tools put in place, one of the biggest challenges still awaits.

This newsroom might know who it is internally, but how do they communicate that identity with three separate public-facing brands? Email extensions are still different. People answer the phone with "Philly.com," "Daily News," "Inquirer," and even the mouthful "Philadelphia Media Network."

Does the audience know who this place is?

"I think we’ve diluted our brands a bit by moving to one newsroom, and we need to better define what those different voices are or decide what our singular voice ought to be," said Ben Turk Tolub, director of product.

Everyone Poynter talked with agreed.

The mission might be clear now, as well as the direction, but the messenger still has many faces.

"When you’re all things to everyone,” Fox said, “you’re nothing.”

This newsroom has worked hard to put aside historical identities and competitiveness alongside a print identity. Now, the company has to settle on a public identity, which everyone agrees will be hard. And when they do, Mastrull said, they'll have to put some money into marketing it to the community.

That Thursday afternoon, when the reorganization email hit everyone’s inboxes, Boyd was packing up and preparing to head home for the day. He hit refresh one last time.

Finally, he saw the email.

He felt a relieved rush.

Boyd grew up in Philly, and he grew up coming here for news. Watching the newsroom shift from print to digital is one of the things that made him want to work at the company. Being part of that shift is one of the reasons he plans to stay.

That Thursday, Boyd stopped packing.

He clicked the link to the application.

And he immediately reapplied.


Editor’s note: Kristen Hare’s position covering local innovation was funded by the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative. In addition to regular coverage, teaching and a newsletter, the grant calls for Hare to revisit the newsrooms in last year’s group and visit the newsrooms in this year’s group to report on what’s working, what’s not and lessons learned. We maintain complete editorial independence in the process.

Correction: An earlier version of this story noted social traffic was up 30 percent year over year. That's incorrect, it was from January to May, compared with the previous six months. We apologize for the error. It has been corrected.