Monday, December 22, 2008

Brian Tierney Gets Into The Holiday Spirit Drinking From A Half-Full Mug


Parsing Philadelphia Publisher's Propaganda; Saying Ho-Ho-Ho While Staff Makes Do With Lumps of Coal

I'll give Brian Tierney credit for this: As publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, it's hard to put on a happy face every day, even though his column in yesterday's Inky comes pretty damn close.
Still, there's a difference between what he says and what's actually happening, as is often the case whenever Tierney speaks. Let's chew on a few morsels from his missive, shall we?

What makes our Philadelphia newspapers different? First and foremost, we've invested heavily in the quality of our journalism. And we've been rewarded for it with faithful readership, steady growth and profitability.

Faithful readership, huh? According to the latest ABC FAS-FAX numbers, the Inquirer plunged 11 percent in the six-month period ending in September to 300,674 copies. Sunday circulation nosedived 13.7 percent to 556,426. The Daily News circulation free-falled 13.2 percent to 97,694.
Profitability? If you say so. If true, a lot of that's been accomplished by slashing away at the head count, including another 35 bodies as recently as last week.

About 1.2 million people physically pick up and read our papers every day ... And, contrary to conventional wisdom, 30 percent of our readers - more than 300,000 - are young people, between 18 and 34.

Here Tierney engages in the publishing version of wishful thinking. He's not even printing 400,000 copies a day, and he's blithely assuming that three people are reading each one, and that 25 percent of them are in the 18-34 demo. C'mon. It's hard to believe even Tierney believes his papers have that kind of pass-through rate anymore, if they ever did. And any advertisers who buy into that bit of marketing whimsy deserve what they get.

Beyond the newspapers, Philly.com's traffic has exploded to 50 million page views a month and more than 2.3 million unique visitors. That's the direct result of the investment we've made in good journalism, technology and creativity.

No, it's not. It's because those younger readers Tierney so badly craves are getting what they need online for free. And do you really think Philly's online revenue is any more than the 10 percent of total revenues being experienced by most newspapers? As a private company we don't know, and Tierney isn't saying, but it's difficult to fathom how Philly's numbers are any different than, say, The New York Times or Washington Post.

Our original news reporting sets the table for the entire region's news output, much of which derives from the work we do. No other news medium - television, radio or Web - can compare to the daily coverage produced by our approximately 400 journalists.

That's true. And it's the spin that every newspaper likes to make -- even though our staff is desiccated it's still a hell of a lot larger than broadcasters or online. But even if the Philly papers are bigger, it doesn't mean squat in the overall scheme of things if they are but shells of their former selves. Quantity and quality have become mutually exclusive.

The Inquirer's foreign-affairs columnist, Trudy Rubin, was back in Iraq last week for a series of columns on developments there.

All well and good. But remember when the Inquirer had six foreign bureaus? Tierney does. And he had little use for them (granted, most were closed by Knight-Ridder before Tierney bought the paper in 2006). Still, he was quoted in The Washington Post: "We don't need a Jerusalem bureau. What we need are more people in the South Jersey bureau."

Ah, South Jersey. And all the rest.

We grew up in towns like Upper Darby, Elkins Park, Springfield, Flourtown and Deptford Township.
We went to school here.
We care deeply about Philadelphia, its suburbs and South Jersey.

Tierney and his fellow investors may care. But if he keeps cutting away, the Inky won't have many people left to cover all those burgs, not to mention Philly.
As Daily News columnist Sty Bykofsky told the Philadelphia Business Journal when the latest cutbacks were announced: “I don’t think they’re going to get 35 volunteers. I think the low-hanging fruit has been gathered. The medium fruit is gone, too. We’re going to the bone.”

And finally....

"We're not trying to create the next multinational media behemoth. We're rebuilding the kind of world-class hometown papers that used to define cities like Philadelphia. That takes time, and it takes investment....."
Since Tierney took over, there is little tangible evidence of said investment, at least in the print product. It's easy to understand why. He bought the papers, the economy cratered and his bankers are getting antsy, as well they should.
Tierney steered himself into a perfect storm, mostly not of his own making. But he doesn't help his cause when he uses the Inky to bloviate, spin and distort what's happening at Philadelphia Media Holdings and why he's being forced to make the choices he has made. Which would be a very different column from the one he ran yesterday.
As someone who spent most of his working life in PR, Tierney badly needs a reminder that a newspaper is nothing without its credibility. Just because you're the publisher and you write something doesn't make it so.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Not to snipe, but in re: covering the burbs... how would you know whether the level of The Inquirer's coverage is better or worse? Are you a subscriber? Or do you just say "More people means better coverage." At least Tierney's relying on research that says the papers are better; what evidence do you offer?

Anonymous said...

Steve, I agree with much of this but I don't get your point on the foreign bureaus -- most of us who are passionately committed to saving newsroom jobs think that exclusive local coverage -- as opposed to re-inventing the foreign bureaus of bigger papers like the NY Times or Wash. Post, is the only strategy that makes sense in the Internet age. When I started reading the Inq. around 1989, they also had 7 or 8 domestic bureaus, including reporters in Atlanta, New Orleans (I know, I know, Katrina, but still) and Denver. Does it really make sense to have people there instead of (gulp) South Jersey?

Steve Gosset said...

Regarding the first comment, when you say "At least Tierney's relying on research that says the papers are better..," he doesn't offer any backup for that statement. Like other things in the column we're supposed to take that at face value. Problem is, as I show, not everything he writes is correct.
I do not subscribe to the Inky, only read it on Philly.com. So, while I do not have empirical evidence or in-depth qualitative evidence of better or worse coverage, the fact is there are fewer reporters covering the 'burbs. Things are going to inevitably fall through the cracks that wouldn't have even a few years ago.
It's understandable, to a point, given the dire straits newspapers find themselves in. But too many publishers and editors, Tierney included, assume they can still provide a robust, credible product without having the seams show. As I see from papers every day in the New York area, that simply isn't so.
As for the second comment regarding the foreign bureaus, I guess I must plead guilty to a certain level of nostalgia for the Inky that was in the Gene Roberts era. I agree that when push comes to shove, local must take precedence over national or foreign, if a choice must be made.
But what I would have liked to have seen more evidence of the Inky having more control of news outside of the Philly area -- perhaps using stringers and freelancers, with the occasional foray of a staffer, rather than basically ceding virtually everything to the wires.
So, yes, Cherry Hill before the Gaza Strip. It's too bad a choice has to be made. I think what I object to most is Tierney's seeming disdain for foreign coverage rather than lamenting the expense of it and simply explaining why that money could be better spent closer to home.

Rick said...

Sure, Tierney's column is bald-faced PR, but that's part of his job, isn't it? You also don't seem to have any counter-proposal or suggestion for what the papers ought to be doing. And if you did have one and I missed it, I don't see you backing up how you'd pay for it.

Steve Gosset said...

Rick: I've never disputed that Tierney and his partners are facing some formidable challenges, and that there are no easy answers for him or any other publisher.
What I have a problem with is not telling the truth. You sacrifice your own newspaper's credibility by doing that. That was the main problem I had with his column.
As for what he should do, it's what every newspaper shouldn't do, and that's continue slashing away at the product in visible ways and give remaining readers even less reason to read the paper than they do now.
--So, if that means publishing a digital-only edition one day a week, do that.
--If that means charging another dime or quarter on the newsstand, most readers will be able to deal with that.
--Combine with other newspapers in the region to form a consortium and bulk buy newsprint and other supplies.
--Follow the lead of other major newspapers and engage in some degree of content sharing; combine bureaus with other newspapers in state capitals, like the St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald did.
There are ways to maintain a viable, compelling news product in a challenging environment.
It's not easy, no matter what you do. But the undisputable wrong way is to keep slashing away at the staff and pretend that people won't notice or the product won't suffer.

Anonymous said...

Steve,
All good points except it is Tierney's own making. He and the investors weren't rich enough to buy the two papers, and he has been doing it on the cheap ever since he laid off the 68 reporters two years ago, including the entire suburban staff of senior writers and photographers. Bye to suburban coverage, bye to the readers. Look at the paper, in print, on any given day and you will see why it is called the "morning yawn" or the "inqwaster." It's over pretty quick. And their website is a joke. But the staff is also to blame. They let it happen. They allowed this local PR guy to come in and destroy their paper. Their demise is in front of them and they, and the guild, do nothing.