The events of the last six days surrounding Philadelphia Newspaper‘s filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection have been a whirlwind ride — and one that, frankly, this writer thought he wouldn’t see for another few years. Which is to say that anyone close to the newspaper business, whether they’re actually in it or merely write about it, as I do, saw this coming. But everyone speculating (myself included) seems to have gotten the exact timing wrong. When Brian Tierney and a group of investors purchased the Inquirer and the Daily News a few years back, they were heralded as heroes — albeit heroes, in Tierney’s case, of a certain self-serving stripe. What we couldn’t have known then, and what Tierney and his men probably wish to hell they knew then, is that the daily newspaper as we know it is hard-wired to self-destruct completely at any moment now a la Inspector Gadget. The newspaper, as it stands now, is a message from the past that tells us something about the future. In this, as someone who’s been in the media for over a decade, I see tremendous triumph and crushing, awful failure, all at once.
So pardon us if we came off expressing a certain joie de vivre the Monday after the news broke. So much of the media focus on the death of the newspaper (and these Philadelphia newspapers in particular) has carried the grisly tenor of a coroner’s report. But where others see death, we see new life. And that is why, whether it turns out to be foolish or not, we’re so fucking psyched right now.
However, it’s a given that this will sound offensive to those in and around the DN and the Inky. Yesterday, after we admittedly rather flippantly wished death upon the Inquirer and unemployment benefits for Stu Bykofsky and Dan Gross, we got the following email, from a friend with loyalties to both this site and the Inky. His words gave us pause. He wrote, in part:
Please lay off the Inquirer. Brian Tierney is fair game. It is very painful to me to read you stereotype the paper in a way that reminds me of reading Republicans characterize all Obama supporters as shiftless do-nothings waiting for a handout. Your characterization of the paper and the people I know who work there is really not accurate. There is a lot of very good writing in the paper from incredibly hard working people every day. I know because I read it. I don’t know if you do, but it does strike me that you don’t read it (the paper, not philly.com) because I think if you did, you would note the improvement in both the A section and Metro section under [Bill] Marimow. I think it is disingenuous for you not to see that most of what we know about our city’s news stems from the work of reporters at the paper.
We hear where you are coming from: The Inquirer is not without its talent. But if we can table the human element for just a second — and then we’ll get right back to it, I swear — let’s parse the Inquirer‘s contents. In yesterday’s print edition of the Inquirer, we counted the following: 69 in-house generated articles and columns, 30 AP stories, and 11 pieces of junk that just has no place in a newspaper at all. In reporting and features, we were generous: We counted obits and high school sports stories, some of which did not even enjoy a byline, as well as Tirdad Derakhshani‘s “Sideshow,” which is mostly rewrites of whatever is on Access Hollywood that night. The AP stuff was obvious, and junk included things like Rick Santorum‘s column (an ideological plant from Tierney that would be laughable were it not so howlingly obnoxious), obvious AP rewrites as found on B2, weather, TV listings and so on. When you break down the percentages, that means a full 37% percent of what was in the paper was either shit you could get anywhere or shit you’d never want at all. And among the remaining 63%, let’s charitably assume that half of that news had been available prior via TV, radio, or Internet. That leaves you with a daily newspaper that is — again, charitably — 32% relevant. That’s not good.
Now, let’s plug the human element back in. The fact of it is simple: Print media is fast becoming a boutique medium — it will always be around, but will never again employ the number of people it does today, and certainly never again the number that it did thirty years ago. Some — many, even — of these people are talented, and all of them, as human beings, deserve jobs. What will become of them? Some will hang on until the house burns down completely, some will find other fields of employ, others will strike upon a new model, one that is desperately needed as news itself continues to dumb itself down throughout all media. Currently, as far as the Inquirer and Daily News go, the Newspaper Guild Local 38010 protects them all. Couple the medium’s natural flameout with the Guild’s unwillingness to see the writing on the wall — evidenced by strongarming the papers’ management into antiquated (though noble) protections and a general sense of entitlement that you will find in no other industry on Earth save for the fields of politics and finance — and you have a recipe for disaster.
The newspaper field as we know it, as our parents and our grandparents had known it, is more than broken. It is a dead dog’s dick on the side of the road. It served us well once, but for too long, it has served only itself. What public interest, really, do newspapers serve today that any other media does not before the newspaper can get around to it? Like many of you, we love the physical act of reading the newspaper — the feel of it, the leisurely pace, even the smell of it — but this is a first world comfort. And media today is a third-world, jacked-up banana republic if ever we’ve seen one.
One of the Daily News‘ most dogged, dyed-in-the-wool reporters is a guy named Will Bunch. We razz Bunch on this site from time to time: He can be bone-dry, he can be obvious, he can be… unfun. But as a reporter — and perhaps more importantly, as a media thinker — it’s guys like Bunch that are increasingly the obvious prayer for this city’s media. In 2005, Bunch authored the concept of the Norg — the idea that, as print declines, it’s imperative that newsgathering re-invent itself in a responsible and forward-thinking fashion. Even just a few years ago, it was easy to smirk at the Norg for its Star Trek grok, but time can do funny things to an idea. Norgland is where both this site, as well as every newspaper you currently read (or, more apt, don’t read), are going. You can read the principles of the Norg here, but ultimately, what the Norg says is: With the technology available to us today, a Norg with a staff of twelve could do everything a city newspaper does, and a lot of stuff it doesn’t do, and, most importantly, very possibly, it can do these things better.
In this growing idea, and with the obvious failures of print, the seeds of the future are already being sown. But is the Guild putting real thought and action into what will have to be its eventual transition? Are present staffers at the Inky and DN preparing for the moment in the not-too-distant future when they’ve all been laid off and pondering what it would really take to do this? For that matter, are we? Here’s hoping that the answer to all is a resounding “Yes.” It had better be.
As the editor of this site, I have come to deplore the stock “cut-and-paste” style of blogging that characterizes sites like Phawker. It is lazy; it often adds nothing to the dialogue; and it makes the rest of us look bad, too; when it’s done with a brusque hand, it’s only inches from plagiarism. And it’s been the main challenge of editing Philebrity over the last year or so to move away from that. I think we’ve been successful in this regard, but also, sometimes, not; cut-and-paste is often the nature of the blogging beast. To that end, and in the interest of full disclosure, we here at Philebrity are aggressively pursuing ways to bear a more responsible role as an admittedly rogue newsgathering organization. Real reporting ultimately costs money, so we’re either going to have to sell a shitload more advertising across our sites or find investors to help us grow. Ideally, we prefer the former: Philebrity’s independence is something to be cherished, and in today’s economy, well, good luck finding an investor to aid you in advancing the noble cause of journalism, which by all accounts, is Kryptonite to money.
Though you’ll often hear us say on this site that we’re not to be held to the same high journalistic standards as newspaper and broadcast reporters, the fact is, those of us in the new media tribe — be they bloggers, citizen journalists, unemployed real journalists, photographers, podcasters and so on — will simply have to begin to bear those responsibilities. It’d be crazy, and wholly irresponsible, to think otherwise. Just as our children and our children’s children will have to assume our environmental and political debts, so too will the denizens of new media have to pick up the tenets of real-deal journalism where old media failed or died trying. And you know what? We can hardly wait.
– Joey Sweeney