Editorial: The 32% Theory

lockfistThe 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

  • John Lightstone

    You forgot the comics, just saying.

    And it’s not that newspapers can’t make money online, they just can’t make enough to support the printing and distribution of hard copies.

    And when people have shown an overwhelming preference to get their news online, why is your friend at the Inky imploring us to read the hard copy to get the good stuff. If it’s worth reading, figure out a way to communicate that online.

    And whoever at the Inquirer signed off on the split Obama/McCain endorsement forced by Tierney deserves whatever the paper gets. Spineless. I would have been far less offended by an endorsement of McCain.

  • Mezzanine

    @lightstone -Actually no, newspapers can’t make enough money to report the news adequately on line. It’s not simply about the distribution. Ask Joey how many people he would have to hire to do that without cutandpasting. Real reporting by real journalists takes money.

    The web site (Philly.com) sucks and is not in the control of the editors of the Inquirer. Hard to get a handle on what the mix and approach of the paper is from the website.

  • http://bhiladelphia.blogspot.com/ bhiladelphia

    cutting and pasting is fun!

  • ResIpsaLoquitur

    This is a very reasonable and coherent piece. Thank you.

    I think Josh Marshall at TalkingPointsMemo has put together the best model for online journalism going forward. It’s a model that’s fairly easy to employ when covering national politics, but gets a bit more tricky when ported over to local journalism. Here in DC, the local Gothamist site (DCist) seems to be doing things properly and has put together a model that I can see supplanting the city papers’ metro coverage. On the other hand, Phillyist always struck me as a pretty useless website, so this may be more about the people than the model.

  • amye

    that’s a good question. joey, how many people would you have to hire to report the news adequately without cutandpasting?

    and also, i admire your vow to stay independent, but isn’t your site already supported by an investor/developer in your neighborhood, or is that no longer the case?

  • tips

    @Amy: That was actually never the case. We had a relationship a few years back with Tower Investments that included some marketing, advertising and programming work for them. They were never investors or backers in Philebrity – merely clients.

    As for how many hires would it take? I think we could do a hell of a lot with 8. We would not be able to lay claim on all or even most of the city’s news, but like I say, I think we could do a lot.

  • John Lightstone

    If everybody agrees that the online site sucks, how do you know that you couldn’t make any money online?

    An example, my wife gets a daily e-mail from each of the Washington Post and the NY Times with headlines and links to stories. She tried to get the same thing from the Inquirer site when we cancelled our subscription, and couldn’t figure out how to get that. So, she then pretty much stopped reading the Inquirer, because she couldn’t figure out how to navigate around the website and find a easy way to get the news.

  • amandainphilly

    The point that newspapers need to adapt is a good one. We need somewhere to easily find unbiased, objective local news online. Philly dot com should fill that niche and should work to fix how they do this.

    I enjoy reading Philebrity – it clearly has entertaining opinions and a unique point of view. However, because of that it can’t fill the same role as an objective news outlet.
    Are you saying that news doesn’t need to be objective anymore?

  • http://www.webkist.com/ MikeWebkist

    As much as I would hate to actually have to try and maintain my third of the conversation around the Inky-less breakfast table, their extended death throes have kept any interesting replacements from appearing. Clearly, it makes no sense in an Inky & DN Philly, for something like Philebrity to actually start gathering hard news. But without them, suddenly it’s imaginable.

    This is what creative destruction is all about. Allowing the weak, expired institutions to die so they don’t continue to hold back the new and viable.

  • t-train

    Did anyone else see Tierney interviewed on BBC America’s nightly news last night? It was funny to watch him squirm about the “whopping” raise he had to give back.

  • t-train
  • goldsounds

    @t-train: I mean, it’s ridiculous how far Tierney’s head is up his own ass in that interview. Charge people for online content? Really?

  • http://www.jugglelove.blogspot.com mc_squared

    It’s sad for Philadelphia that the state of newspaper is basically, at this point, more a case of “it is what it is”. There are still people that will read. There are still people that will cut their coupons and mainly I think that we can all agree that it will never be what it once was. What is a beacon of hope and changing tides for Philebrity, and many others, can be a dim light for those who have worked years in this industry.

    I think the important thing for any business model is evolution and adaptation to changing times and changing habits of its clientele. The keyword here is interactive.

    When Philly.com becomes more interactive and in tune with what its readers need it can then begin to evolve. People are flocking to social networking sites, streaming their radio, looking to the blogs and groups, like Philebrity, to keep it refreshing and interesting. I think we are an editorialized culture now and hard news doesn’t stimulate us the way it did 30 years ago.

    New blood, new ideas and new life could bring a new day to the “Inkys” – if only it would stop thinking of itself as solely newspaper entity. Other industries are doing it, radio specifically, is branching out in ways that it never has before and is pioneering the interactive elements of the internet and bringing its listeners closer to what is happening on-air, creating for itself, a community which drives its listener base.

    Philly.com doesn’t twitter,(neither do I, but it seems all the rage right now) facebook, or social networking in any way from what I could gather. Perhaps because they are stuck in a time that doesn’t exist. Maybe still grasping onto the hope that by staying the same and weathering the storm, they can get by.

    My only problem with anything I’ve witnessed on Philebrity, is maybe the severe tone taken towards the papers and its employees, but I think it is all a matter of personal preference. And I’m not going to lie, I love this site and I love what they continue to do for this city and its inhabitants.

    Philly.com needs to bring us a real picture of the things we love: music, food, nightlife, politics, arts, culture, entertainment and allow us to access, interact and converse over that material in a clear and concise manner.

    I won’t hold my breath waiting for Philly.com to change. I’ll just go somewhere else, like a large majority of people do after visiting the page a few times.

  • amye

    first of all, philly.com twitters in seven different ways. as ckrewson, as phillyinquirer, as phillydotcom, as well an individuals like myantkinney, annettejh and danielrubin and many others. we’re all over twitter and facebook, for that matter. indivudal writers have exgtensive followings on facebook and twitter. every writer at the paper worth reading has developed a blog of some sort and many of them are really really good. getting them decent play on philly.com is a work in progress.
    in any case, while i am part rolling my eyes/part amused/part dismayed/part intrigued by joey’s i’m taking over the world tone in his editorial this morning, i also agree that if you imagine a city without its daily newspapers, it’s perfectly logical to expect that philebrity would expand itself into the news gathering arena, hopefully with the same success that it has had so far.

  • amye

    i left out my favorite: the great @inqwriter.

  • http://www.jugglelove.blogspot.com mc_squared

    Ayme – Thanks for the info. Like I said, I’m totally out of the twitter loop – do they reference links on Philly.com?

  • http://bostodelphia.blogspot.com C. The Impaler

    “in any case, while i am part rolling my eyes/part amused/part dismayed/part intrigued by joey’s i’m taking over the world tone in his editorial this morning, i also agree that if you imagine a city without its daily newspapers, it’s perfectly logical to expect that philebrity would expand itself into the news gathering arena, hopefully with the same success that it has had so far.”

    I’m sorry, when she was exchanging “fuck you”s with Lighthouse earlier this week, I assumed amye was somehow affiliated with Philadelphia Media Holdings’s news ops or something to that effect. Just the first half of this “sentence” made me reconsider that; but it also may explain why I am part rolling my eyes/part amused/part dismayed/part intrigued by Joey’s “I’m taking over the world” tone this morning and wouldn’t be sorry to see the journalistic maelstrom thunderdome-ing it out in a possible post DiNqy vacuum. I don’t know whether Philebrity would go into such a whirlwind with any particular edge over anyone else. I enjoy the writing as a light “analysis” site, but from what I’ve read and remember it’s mostly based on “feeds” and hasn’t proven it has the ability to source and require raw feeds for its own work.

  • Sonny

    When another long-entrenched, party-machine politician is siphoning off millions of taxpayer dollars in a more well-dressed, well-connected version of parasites like La Cosa Nostra, who will begin the poking around that leads to what are now the closing arguments of Vince Machiavelli (or Buddy Cianfrani or Leland Beloff or Jimmy Tayoun — pick a name)?

    Phawker?

    When systemic corruption inside the Philadelphia Homicide unit in the late 1970s resulted in the beatings and torture and coerced confessions of innocent people — including one cop in a fucking bunny suit — how did our society learn about that and correct itself?

    When innocent people are framed up by a process that is driven by “metrics” such as clearance rates for police officers, who, then, digs and reports and researches and works 20 hours in a day when it becomes increasingly obvious that this person or persons are in cells or on death rows for crimes they didn’t commit (as we saw in the past week at the DN)?

    One of the new staff of eight at Philebrity?

    It’s not about coupons or “the things we love: music, food, nightlife, politics, arts, culture, entertainment.” It’s about fighting the good fight, speaking the truth to power and holding a mirror to our slice of humanity and saying, “You really — really — want to look like this?”

    Maybe the packaging and production is flawed, but the essence of what the Inquirer and Daily News, and the poor old Rocky Mountain News, did for civilization — spreading outward from our shores in the past 250 years — cannot be reinvented by a blog.

    When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d
    The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
    When sometime lofty towers I see down-raz’d,
    And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
    When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
    Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
    And the firm soil win of the watery main,
    Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
    When I have seen such interchange of state,
    Or state itself confounded to decay;
    Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate
    That Time will come and take my love away.
    This thought is as a death which cannot choose
    But weep to have that which it fears to lose.
    - Shakespeare, Sonnet 64

  • sweaver13

    It concerns me that nobody has mentioned Broad Street Publishing yet, the group of three smaller newspapers owned by the Inquirer. BSP runs the NE Times, the Star, and the Trend, all small, community newspapers.
    I’m an editor w/ Broad Street Publishing and even though it is not looking good for the two big boys, these three little newspapers are still pulling their weight for the company. Nobody has mentioned the fact that MANY people still do READ NEWSPAPERS – COMMUNITY NEWSPAPERS. Where else can a person get all of the info (be it political, economic, recreational, etc.) that is happening in their specific region other than a newspaper?
    BSP is a very dedicated, tight knit team of hard workers, as are a lot of the people over at the Inquirer and the Daily News.
    I do not know what the Inquirer intends to do with Broad Street Publishing. I don’t know if they are going to sell us or keep us. It just saddens me that the writers of Philebrity harp and make fun of the Inquirer so much. These are very distressing jobs for my company. A lot of people’s and THEIR FAMILIES’ lives are at stake. It is not fair to post childish, antagonizing”articles” about an entire company’s (and their 800 employees’) future.
    Why don’t you come down off of your stupid blogging soapbox and think about the actual people that work for this company. The people that put in well over the regular 9-5 hours. Seriously, how dare you.

  • http://mrthursday.com TC

    #8: I’d argue that the newspaper industry has never, truly, been objective, and certainly, the facade of objectivity has never been useful. As long as the source of information isn’t lying, I can stand that every story is likely to be incomplete, biased, and (even slightly) editorialized.

    #19: I’m sympathetic to the job security concerns that you and the people you work with have, but it seems unfeasible to continue to pay for a service that is, rapidly, being replaced by free, thorough, and easily accessed alternatives. Why pay a telegraph operator to send a message quickly, when we’ve got cell phones? On the production side of things, it’s all terror: your livelihoods are at stake, potentially, and with the economy in the crapper, it might be tough to replace that income. On the consumer side, though, it doesn’t make much sense to keep paying for newspapers.

  • A Feculent Rainbow

    I’m late to the party.

    “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.”

    Nice metaphor… I find that dog dicks don’t serve me as well as they used to. Future of journalism here, huh?

    I second the endorsement of Marshall’s TPM.

  • amye

    @c.the impaler. well, you would not be the first one to suggest that my sentences are better described as “sentences.”