For Philly's durable Daily News, it looks like the beginning of the end
Updated to include comment from Philadelphia Media Network and other new information.
Newsroom cuts at the Philadelphia Media Network's Inquirer and Daily News, announced at a staff meeting Friday, look at first to be just one more chapter in the decade-old opus of the industry's deteriorating finances and reduced news capacity.
Publisher Terry Egger announced that the Inquirer, Daily News and digital Philly.com will merge news operations, but also said the Daily News will continue to publish separately.
For right now, yes. However a check with a few insiders reinforced my view that time is running out for the 90-year-old tabloid. Most second papers under common ownership disappeared in the 80s and 90s. So the reasons for the longevity of the Daily News merit a look along with its worsening problems.
Those problems include:
- Sharp circulation losses. In the late 2000s, the six-day a week Daily News was still selling an average of more than 90,000 copies. When the last Alliance of Audited Media six-month average numbers were released a year ago that had fallen to below 50,000.
- The Daily News has long relied on single-copy sales with home delivery a fraction of its total. Single-copy sales (of magazines as well as newspapers) have been particular victims of the swing to digital/mobile. Commuters, like longer-distance travelers, no longer need paper in hand to have something to read.
- Advertising woes are worst at big-city metros. Second papers tend to get a declining share of what's left. So 2015 and 2016 figure to be especially tough years for ad revenue at the Daily News. (Egger said that Philadelphia Media has lost $90 million in revenue since 2010)
There is one more one more dicey challenge. A merged newsroom will need to put extra effort into producing papers and websites with two distinctive voices. And it has been that distinctive voice -- plus some a chip-on-the-shoulder competitiveness -- that has kept the Daily News in business for so long.
Going back to my days at the Inquirer 35 years ago, there was talk that the Daily News would sooner or later fold, clearing the way for news staff and business growth at the Inquirer. But it didn't happen.
A succession of talented editors -- Gil Spencer, Zack Stalberg and currently Michael Days -- kept a feisty underdog tone well-tuned to an audience that tilted working class -- while committing some serious journalism along the way (including a 2010 Pultizer for investigative reporting).
Through multiple ownership since 2005, the business case for the Daily News has been straightforward: If the Daily News folded, the Inquirer would probably not pick up a significant share its audience. Other options on sale in Philadelphia like the New York Post and Delaware County Daily Times would be the beneficiaries.
But for all that logic, a separate Daily News may now have become simply too expensive to continue -- especially as the Inquirer and Philadelphia Media's not especially successful digital operations have financial and competitive pressures of their own.
Management went silent after the Friday announcement. But speculation among the news staff is that a list has already been prepared of those being let go or reassigned. The process may drag out over weeks or month because of union work rules.
One current editor summed up the mood this way in an e-mail I obtained: The end is close, whatever the spin. And even if not, the merged operation will be an unpleasant place to work.
What's next for the Philadelphia Media may not be all bad, though. Owner Gerry Lenfest, after first acting as publisher himself, in August brought in the well-regarded Egger, whose last tough assignment was at Advance's Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
Though Lenfest is not an owner looking for big profits -- the action Friday -- like the Boston Globe's newsroom layoffs and buyouts in mid-October suggest that even benevolent local owners see the need to match resources to revenues to stay viable.
Also, the Billy Penn website reported a month ago that Lenfest, in his mid-80s, has explored the option of converting the properties to non-profit status in cooperation with Temple University or by some other arrangement. At least he is prudently thinking about succession and the future.
The Philadelphia Media properties were chosen along with the Miami Herald and Knight Foundation for a $1.3 million grant to Temple, to assist with experimentation in accelerating digital transformation.
As a loyal Inquirer alum and hopeful kind of guy, I don't think that the window of opportunity for Philadelphia Media has closed. But the realist in me says that with today's lifeboat ethics, the Daily News is unlikely to be around for whatever future materializes.
I heard Monday morning from Amy Buckman, spokeswoman for Philadelphia Media Network, which has issued this statement on the changes:
In an open meeting with our employees...Publisher Terry Egger gave an update on the state of our business and some of the key components of our strategic plan, with special emphasis on enhancing content, products and delivery methods, and revenue streams. We had a candid discussion about our plans to move toward a more unified newsroom, while also maintaining the individual products (Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com) and keeping an eye on serving audiences where, when and how they want our award-winning news reports.
We touched upon the need to reduce expenses, which unfortunately will mean some lost jobs. We are not unique to this economic reality, as evidenced by similar moves in recent weeks by media companies ranging from ESPN, Twitter and multiple newspaper companies. Out of respect for our employees, and in compliance with our contractual obligations, we are not prepared to release additional details at this time.
Conversation Monday with two other informed sources indicated that the Daily News circulation is now down to 40,000 and falling -- from a peak of 275,000 in the 1980s. But both thought the commitment to keep the Daily News as a separate publication will extend through 2016 -- barring drastic reversals.
A probable scenario will be to keep the tabloid's stable of columnists and continue its strong coverage of the African-American community while doing less original reporting on more general city news.
I'll stick with my formulation that this is the beginning of the end for the Daily News -- but the end may extend for some time with a diminished report in the meanwhile.
CORRECTION: The original version of this post misspelled Zack Stalberg's name.