Philly Newspapers Under Knight-Ridder: Beyond the Numbers
Posted by chanders on August 21, 2008
A couple of good questions about my previous post in the comments. A Cassel argues “KR’s managers were hardly geniuses, but blaming them for the disaster that’s overtaken their former empire is like blaming the lifeguards on Sri Lankan beaches for the tsunami deaths. What happened was, and is, bigger than all of us.” Paul B adds that “Your argument that the decline of the Philadelphia newspapers was due in large part to chain ownership is unconvincing. There are enough non-chain newspapers out there (Washington DC, St Petersburg, Buffalo come to mind) that would make it possible to analyze if being part of a major chain affected financial performance during the past few years.”
Let me say first off: I’m not an expert on newspaper finances or ownership economics. Nor am I an expert on Philly newspapers under the Knight-Ridder regime. Probably a lot of people reading this post know a lot more about this than I do (especially ex-PNI employees) so if you have insights, please continue to share them! If I’m an expert in anything, it’s in journalistic work and the relationship between the work of institutionalized (read: ‘professional’) and non-institutionalized (read: ‘blogger’) journalists.
That said — my fieldwork this summer and some basic poking around has convinced me that there were two aspects to the end of the K-R tenure that were particularly disastrous in Philly, and probably elsewhere. The first problematic aspect of the public / chain ownership model? The relentless focus on the quarterly bottom-line to the exclusion of a long term plan. In October 2000 the New York Times wrote this:
“By almost any business measure, the Knight Ridder newspapers in Philadelphia would be deemed a success. Since 1995, profit margins at The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News have more than doubled, reaching close to 19 percent after years of single-digit doldrums. Good? Absolutely. Good enough? Not for long. For 2001, the target margin is 21 percent. And now there is talk about 5 percent budget cuts at the papers, if not more. Anxiety is as plentiful as oxygen in The Inquirer’s newsroom.”
And regardless of the merits of those strategies, they just didn’t seem to me to promote a long-term plan for dealing with profound and fundamental change.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism 2007 report on the “State of the Media” summed it up this way:
Now, there has been a new turn in the debates over ownership. Starting in 2005 and accelerating in 2006, there have begun to be questions not only from journalists but now from corporate managers and investors about whether the dominant model of media ownership, the public corporation, is still preferred. And the questions are no longer simply moral ones … The one thing that can be said with certainty — to a much greater degree than was true a few years ago — is that the notion that a diverse public corporation is best suited to have the wherewithal, resources and experience to manage the future of media is no longer gospel. The concept of the media conglomerate, in that sense, has been put into play.
Second problematic aspect? I have two words for you. Or maybe four. Market Leader. Doesn’t ring a bell? How about this one– Real Cities. Now, I really don’t have an interest in revisiting the Knight Ridder Digital battles of 2002, and from what I can tell there was a lot of ink spilled on this in the professional press at the time (they’re still fighting about it on Romensko!) But from everything I’ve seen this summer, the move to standardize the local web site design and management in San Jose, while there may have been a business logic to it, was an absolute disaster in terms of promoting and encouraging the kind of journalistic work that newspapers needed to do to make the transition online. Without going into a lot of detail here, I have pretty good ethnographic evidence that the Philly.com, Inquirer, and even the very small Daily News online staff were doing things on the web in 1999 that they are just now starting to do again in 2008. In an online journalism world where the local initiative is king and where you need a small, flexible staff that can operate quickly, with a high degree of independence … well, the years 2001-2005 are lost years as best as I can tell.