Thursday, August 10, 2006

An Open Letter to Philadelphia

There's no one watching the Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News more closely than I am. Why? As a Philadelphia native, I've been born and bred to root for underdog Philadelphia teams - even if that team is a newsroom. Now, owner Brian Tierney is being singled out to put his ($515 million worth of) money where his mouth is and turnaround the declining path of some once-heralded (especially the Inquirer) papers.

However, the debate for private vs. public ownership presses on (pun, sadly, intended). While neither Tierney nor his co-owners can sell their stake for 5 years, that doesn't mean they can't push the paper to make a difference. Will the investors suddenly decide to add "Editor-in-Chief" to their titles, too?

I hope not.

For all their good intentions, it would be best that the investors realize their positions as owners, and not as managers or editors, and choose to uphold their end of the deal (That means you too, Bruce Toll - you can suggest the paper to have a society page but you can't force it to. Nor should you make your suggestions public.)

With this in mind, I've compiled a "wish list" for the fallen newspapers and their new owners.

  • Find a voice: Identity is a perpetual fight for anything in Philadelphia, with NYC and DC always vying for locals' attention. Establish an editorial voice - that means writing style, visual design, editorial attitude (read: staff editorials) and cohesiveness. That includes unique Philly stories, too - I can't tell you how many times I've read about a "Philly phenomenon" like cheap real-estate and a new hipster colony in a New York paper first. We're not the sixth borough. We're Philadelphia, and our skyline is pretty damn good, too.

  • Compete: Don't try to be The New York Times or the New York Daily News and end up publishing a watered-down version of both. Find what you're good at (hint hint: Philadelphia, the fifth largest city in the country) and start from there. If NYT has the best coverage in the Middle East, find some part of the Middle East they haven't covered and do it. It's a much more interesting read.

  • Hire the best, fire the rest: With new ownership of course comes staff changes, and I urge you to can the reporters that skipped Reporting 101 and the columnists that no one remembers. Professionalism in writing structure, fabulous photographs, and marquee names will let the rest of the paper catch up with the logo at the top. But remember: a proud sense of "team" and high staff morale helps the stories write themselves.

  • Market, market, market: So few people get the Inquirer where I live, much less the Daily News (in fact, most don't even know it exists). Get those papers out there, market aggressively, and reclaim your own region (that includes recognizing Camden/Cherry Hill/the rest of South Jersey). It's okay to incur losses the first few years. Don't be afraid to do that to build your bottom line.

  • Digitize: Get rid of that silly portal and make your own, wonderfully-designed website (you may look to the NYT for this). While I appreciate the attempts to associate with the rest of the city, they'll always refer/link to you as the voice of Philly anyway. It's the little things that count - the city will get it's own publicity the more popular you are. Oh, and one more thing: monitor your hits and find out who reads from what so you can reach farther and cut what doesn't work.

  • Change the (press) world: This is your big chance to start over, Philly papers. I once read that top executives have recommended that new college graduates do something unthinkably risky career-wise when they're young and don't have the responsibilities of someone older to restrict them. Your new ownership turned back the clock; take advantage of it.

As the papers begin to (hopefully) grow under Tierney and Co., I'll be watching closely. Here's hoping that this big media experiment - that includes the business AND the press sides - invents something the industry has yet to see.

No comments: