Monday, December 31, 2012

Reversing a slide into irrelevance.

I used to not read the Philadelphia Inquirer because I didn't have the time or patience to have the paper edition delivered to my door. For years, that option wasn't even available to me because I lived elsewhere. And until recently, its website was too difficult (and later impossible!) to navigate for digital-native newsreading. So I simply didn't read my hometown paper.'s desktop and mobile web editions have relaunched with a somewhat cleaner look and more comprehensive content offering, and that's great. But the company's decision to improve its mobile app, keep it un-gated (for now) and make it free -- perplexingly and counter to every peer paper in the U.S., it wasn't before -- has made it much easier for me to share content from the Inquirer (and occasionally, Daily News).

One thing I've noticed working in the media industry is that the Inquirer -- and thus Philadelphia -- didn't really have a seat at the table where the national conversation takes place. This is partly due to the paper's insistence on ceding its national and international coverage to the Associated Press and focusing on its home region, and it's also because of Philadelphia's place in the modern pecking order of national importance. But it's also because of a fundamental technological oversight: its online presence was so poor that you couldn't share the paper's articles with others.

The problem: online is precisely where much of the conversation now takes place. What good is a newspaper without a platform?

That's changing. I find myself sharing Inga Saffron's architecture columns and Craig LaBan's restaurant reviews with a lot less friction these days -- a nice touch for local friends on social networks who may have missed the stories, but far more valuable for friends in other places, particularly if they're part of the Philadelphian diaspora. Now, my New York friends can see what's going on 100 miles south of them (or Washington friends 140 miles north of them) and perhaps be interested in what the city has to offer. Similarly, former Philadelphians across the pond can now keep up with a region in which they already have an interest.

Before this, it took enormous patience and desire to read, much less share, a Philadelphia news story online.

This is something New York has done magnificently well, of course, thanks to the Times and the myriad global-local media outlets headquartered there: the nation and world cares about New York, even though it doesn't live there. (I don't mean to downplay the importance of that city's position in finance, media, fashion and other industries, only to emphasize that you can't engage an audience without distribution to them. Until recently, Philadelphia has stumbled here.)

It will be interesting to see how social sharing impacts the way newspapers distribute -- and eventually create -- their content. Faced with falling revenues over the last decade and a half, city newspapers refocused on their core audiences; now, with a relatively even playing field online, it will be interesting to see how these publications rethink their readers: not as a group bound only by geography, but common interest. (See: college newspapers.) It's a subtle difference in many cases, but the opportunity for incremental revenue is enormous. Because it's hard to believe that a Philadelphia newspaper would have half the number of paying readers it did in 1968 when the population of its metropolitan area -- the area in which it has a virtual monopoly over coverage -- has only grown.

The first step in reversing the trend? A simple, sharing-equipped mobile app.

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