Has there been a more depressing week for Philadelphia media in recent memory?
In the last few days, we’ve learned that A) the separate identities of the Inquirer and Daily News are slowly but surely disappearing; B) that a large number of hardworking journalists are going to lose their jobs; C) that the front man for current ownership believes he can get away with lying to the New York Times; and D) the next ownership group, led by Ed Rendell, is so loaded-up with conflicts of interests that Philadelphians can never entirely trust the papers they propose to run.
Daily newspaper journalism in Philadelphia isn’t quite dying—but it is being slowly smothered into irrelevance and untrustworthiness. Is there anybody who can save us?
Yes. The New York Times. And maybe ESPN.
Philadelphia is far from the only city to see its newspapers slowly collapse under waves of mass layoffs. Journalists in some of those locations have responded by forming non-profit news cooperatives—The Bay Citizen in San Francisco, the Chicago News Cooperative, and The Texas Tribune. All three outlets are filled with smart commentary and top-notch accountability journalism.
And all three produce twice-a-week print sections for the New York Times, giving that paper a local presence in each of those markets. So why not Philadelphia?
Here’s why it would work:
There’s clearly a growing population of underutilized journalistic talent in our city. The 37 journalists being laid off at 400 N. Broad St. are just the latest wave of refugees—but as one local observer noted last week, that number is “enough to start a new newspaper.”
The Times already loves Philadelphia. Territorially, its “local” coverage stretches far into New Jersey, and our city regularly appears in the paper’s news and arts coverage—that is, after all, how we got details of editorial interference at the Inquirer and Daily News. Why not formalize that relationship?
And here’s why it might not work:
Somebody local is going to have to do the hard work of actually creating a Philadelphia news cooperative—raising financing and hiring journalists—and demonstrate that it can succeed before the Times jumps on board. That’s how it worked in the other cities. Who will take the lead here? Bart Blatstein?
The Times’ presence here might be a problem. The paper already has a significant readership in Philadelphia; would it actually be able to increase circulation and profits meaningfully by providing more local journalism here? If not, would the partnership with a news cooperative be worth it?
These operations can fall prey to the same short-sightedness and ugly market forces that are killing established newspapers: Chicago News Cooperative is closing down at the end of the month. Even with leadership and financial backing, the fact is that it’s really hard to sustain a good news operation these days.
The Times isn’t the only national news organization with local outposts. ESPN has local websites—staffed by local journalists!—in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York. Philadelphia is an obvious candidate to be the next location, especially since the Inquirer and Daily News are jointly paring back their sports coverage in this sports-crazy town. There is a model for all of this.
A Philadelphia edition of the New York Times, printing twice a week, obviously wouldn’t replace the local daily papers. We’d still probably get our crime news, weather, and Stu Bykofsky rants from the original sources. But the local newspapers are becoming less robust in their offerings, and there is no foreseeable path to that trend reversing itself.
So instead of hoping that the Inquirer and Daily News can be revived, our best hope is that Philadelphia’s entire media ecosystem become more robust. Local journalists, in partnership with national news organizations, could provide another, critical voice in the city’s chorus of news. Help us, Arthur Sulzberger! You’re our only hope!