How New Philly Publisher Plans to Get ’100 Percent More Audience’

Technically Greg Osberg will not become publisher and CEO of Philadelphia Newspapers for another month to six weeks. But with final details of the sale agreement of April 28 falling into place, Osberg is charging ahead with transition planning so that he can move fast once he takes office.
 
Since he works for financial guys — the group of secured lenders who outbid Brian Tierney’s locals for the property – you might assume the Osberg regime will be all about cuts, possibly combined with pumping up ad sales. 
 
But you would be wrong, Osberg told me in a half-hour phone interview earlier this week. The lenders group wanted in because they believe the right growth strategies can boost the performance and raise the value of the Inquirer and Daily News. His top focus initially, Osberg said, will be on building audience, especially online.   
 
“This is the fourth largest media market in the country,” he said, “but we aren’t anywhere close to being in the top four” in Web audience. While conceding the point that small growth in unique visitors and other measures may not greatly impact ad sales, he added, “I think we can get 100 percent more audience, and that would make a difference.”
 
To do that, Osberg wants to borrow from the playbook he used running Newsweek digital for much of the last decade. The key move was content sharing with MSNBC and related sites that drove a big traffic increase. (Newsweek is still fourth in audience among magazines, trailing only People, Time and the AARP’s Modern Maturity).
 
Osberg’s adaptation in Philadelphia would involve some partnering with national and international sites for “a smart aggregation play.” More important would be finding local collaborators, especially in the suburbs, to flesh out coverage that has suffered (in Philly and nearly all metros) in the waves of newsroom layoffs of the last several years.
 
In his years at Newsweek, Osberg said, “no one turned us down in concept,” though once potential partners dig into details such strategic alliances work for some and not for others.
 
Osberg left Newsweek as president and publisher two years ago. His departure predates both the deep, recession-related advertising losses and a radical redesign and new editoral strategy by Editor Jon Meacham. Those have left the venerable magazine for sale by parent Washington Post Co., with few suitors as bids were submitted this week.
 
Osberg is warm to the idea of paid content as a revenue stream, especially in developing formats like mobile, e-readers and the iPad. He does not anticipate putting the Inquirer and Daily News behind a pay wall, though he said he would like to experiment with premium-level “experiences that people might pay for.”
 
Osberg said he “has ideas of where to go” with the Daily News but was reluctant to discuss details yet. Folding the tabloid is not on his radar; it too can be part of a growth strategy.   
 
None of this should be read as an indicator that free spending is on the way. While Osberg did not indicate further staff cuts were in the offing, he said that he is seeking concessions from the newspapers’ many unions and that he hoped to complete collective bargaining with most before the formal takeover.
 
Osberg will report to a new board of directors not yet named. ”It’s yet to be determined who will be on board,” he said. “Some of the lenders will cash out, and others will stay on.” 
 
Brad Patelli, who has been the lead banker for Angelo Gordon in its several newspaper ventures and announced Osberg’s appointment, has since left the firm. But that is not an indication of major realignment in the ownership group, Osberg said. ”Angelo Gordon will still be a substantial owner … Brad got the media bug” and wants to start a new business of his own.
 
Before accepting the Philadelphia job, Osberg spent two years as CEO of Buzzwire, a start-up in mobile video, that stalled out and is now being reorganized for a relaunch.
 
In retrospect, maybe starting in the teeth of a terrible recession was not a hot idea, Osberg said, but he remains an enthusiast for the potential of mobile, especially location-based technology and the related ad opportunity. 
 
“Commerce-related content” will probably emerge as the main use, he said, and for newspaper organizations “that could be an answer to the loss of classified.”
 
More generally, Osberg said no one has yet figured out the digital media business model, so “why not invent it in Philly? It’s a large enough market to work.”
 
I see Osberg as representative of a new wave of newspaper CEOs coming into power as bankruptcies run their course and secured lenders groups take over. His counterpart at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Mike Klingensmith, also comes from a magazine background after a long career at Time Inc. And John Paton, who is cranking up a fast-paced digital-first strategy at Journal Register, is fresh from putting together a Spanish-language conglomerate at impreMedia (though he does not himself speak Spanish). 
 
Execs from more traditional newspaper backgrounds are universally talking the talk of digital transformation these days. This trend among the new lender-owners will give us a real-time test of whether publishers from a different and broader media context will help get done what that transformation requires.

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