Josh Kopelman

Josh Kopelman

Philadelphia Media Network

Josh Kopelman hopes to bring innovation to Philly’s biggest newspapers (Q&A)

The newly-named chairman of the board at the Philadelphia Media Network on why he took the role, the biggest problem the organization faces, and why there’s cause for hope.

Josh Kopelman runs First Round Capital. The venture capitalist has founded companies, and invested in many more (including Uber, which you’ve probably used, and LinkedIn, which you probably can’t avoid).

Now he’s the chairman of the board of the Philadelphia Media Network, taking the reins from former owner H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest for the company that oversees the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, Philly.com and the new nonprofit Institute for Journalism in New Media.

Disclosure: I’m the former Executive Online Editor at the Inquirer. But I felt that gave me enough of an excuse to ask Kopelman for a few minutes of his time to explain what he has in mind for the largest media company in the area.

This interview has been condensed for brevity and clarity.

Walk me through the timeline. When did you get asked to chair this board?

It was relatively recent. I’ve been on the board now for about a year, and I’ve seen a fair amount of positive progress. The company was able to attract Terry [as publisher)] The company consolidated its newsrooms. The company transitioned from for-profit to nonprofit. It’s been a pretty busy year for a company that’s been around as long as the Inquirer has. That’s a lot of change.

In April, Gerry made it clear he was looking to step down in order to allow new leadership to come in. When he donated the Inquirer he also said there should be a new chairman. The governance committee met, and I got a call about three or four weeks ago (to take over as board chairman). I spent a fair amount of time thinking about it, probably two weeks. And I decided it was… as I said in the tweet, there was some karma to it.

I’m not an orchestra guy or an opera guy or an Art Museum guy. Those haven’t been areas where I’ve been able to or inclined to focus my attention. But this is a company that serves a vital civic purpose and also is under threat like all publications, newspapers, from massive disruption. And that is something where I might be able to be a little bit helpful. This might be an area where I can give back to the city.

How do you get your news?

The vast majority of it is online. On a daily basis I get the Inquirer, New York Times and Wall Street Journal online. And then I am very active on Twitter, and on social media. And that’s where I find things like … a story of [Billy Penn’s], just the other day, about how much City Councilmen are getting paid. I’ll find stories on social media. I’m pretty typical of how the connected generation gets news. I’ll listen to NPR on the radio on the way to work.

How would you describe yourself as a board member? Activist? Supporter of management generally?

Part of the reason I said ‘yes’ here is because of my appreciation for Terry and his leadership of the company. So for me, I clearly believe my role as board chair is to run the board and Terry’s role as CEO is to run the company.

I don’t think a board member can come in having much less context than the CEO, who’s in it every day, and say “This is the plan, the execution.” The role of a board member is to ask the right questions rather than provide the right answers. … You’re betting on the team’s ability to come up with the right answers.

What do you think is the biggest problem facing PMN right now?

I think this organization is in a very similar situation to many other newspapers in the country in many cities. A growing portion of its readership is consuming the news digitally yet the revenue makeup, doesn’t yet reflect that shift.

How long do you think printed newspapers have?

I don’t know. I don’t know the answer. I’ve been the chair now for less than 9 hours officially… nor do I wanna guess. I would say that I believe in the accuracy of one of Bill Gates’ quotes: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”

The Boston Globe has experimented with a bunch of new products, one of which (Crux) was seen as a failure. Are you thinking along those lines, with introducing new products?

I think the company has to consider a number of things, including that. The company has to innovate. In the face of a changing industry, it would be dangerous if it didn’t.

If it was the organizations’ plan to stay still, and not innovate, I probably would have been the wrong chairman to appoint. If you look at the companies and the industries i’ve chosen to get involved in over the course of my career, they’ve all been disruptive innovation.

When you’re innovating and experimenting, there’s going to be successes and failures. As I tell all my startup CEOs… if all of you are always succeeding, you’re not being aggressive enough. That’s the same advice I’d give to Terry, as well.

You’ve spent time as a board member for a major media company. But you’re also a venture capitalist. So how do you feel about the case of Peter Thiel funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker?

If there was a way to say they’re both wrong, that would be ideal. I don’t advocate for doing what Peter has done, nor do I believe that sex videos … should be the case study for a First Amendment case.

What’s the first thing you’re planning on doing as board chair?

The answer is I don’t know yet. It’s Day One. I’m excited for what lies ahead. But I’d be misleading you if I said I was walking in with a clear roadmap.

You’ve been bullish on Lenfest’s decision to convert the company (essentially) to a nonprofit. Why was that a good move?

The switch to a nonprofit has the potential to be transformational to the paper. When you see someone invest 80-some-odd million dollars in a newspaper and turn around and donate it to a nonprofit… What Gerry’s done was an amazingly generous act that enables people like myself to get involved, where I probably wouldn’t have gotten involved at this level if it was a for-profit company. It enables people who care enough to donate to a locally operated newsroom like the Inquirer to focus time, attention and resources there as part of sort of giving back to the community.

If you look at the turmoil that the papers have gone through over the last 8-10 years… and the changes at the top, one of the gifts Gerry made … was the ability to think longer-term. To not have to worry about what happens when an owner loses interest or passes away or any of that stuff. It enables the organization, for the first time in a decade, to maybe think longer-term and not have to deal with the whipsaw of constant change.

The ability to not have to worry about who your next donor is going to be over the next 18 months, to not have to focus on short-term quarterly numbers to justify something for bankers or lenders… gives you actually the comfort and flexibility to experiment, to think longer-term, rather than “what do we have to do to get this thing sold again.”

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