Updated July 17
After nearly two centuries in the news business, The Philadelphia Inquirer has just five years left — unless it makes major changes to turn things around.
That’s the official view from the top of Philly’s paper of record, laid out in a strategic memo last month that references the state of the American newspaper industry. Collectively, revenue has plummeted more than 70% since peaking in 2005. Since then, more than 1,800 U.S. local and metro outlets have shut down completely, while others are limping along with decimated staff.
So the “five years” assessment, while harsh, is not necessarily unrealistic. How the turnaround should be effected is a separate issue, one that has led to tumult and unrest in the Delaware Valley’s largest newsroom.
Over the past few weeks, the Inquirer has undergone a restructuring that saw it shed nearly 40 employees out of a total of around 1,000. While a couple of those departures were voluntary, the majority were buyouts, and another handful were outright layoffs. A few other staffers have been moved to new positions within the company.
In a letter to staff on Monday, Inquirer management acknowledged the difficulty of the process, while putting an optimistic spin on the organization’s future.
“The good news is that a lot of work has been done already and we’ll be able to move relatively quickly,” said the letter. “We think the changes ahead will make our journalism even stronger, and better position us to dramatically expand our audience and our subscriber base.”
The union that represents Inquirer workers pushed back hard against the recent tactics.
NewsGuild leaders wrote earlier this month that “this process of cutting employees … undermines morale in a workplace that needs all the fight it can muster to survive in this brutally competitive environment.”
Thirty of the jobs eliminated were via buyouts. Framed as “voluntary separation packages,” the offers provided 24 weeks of pay, plus transitional medical coverage, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal. While fewer than 30 people opted in at first, management was able to convince additional staffers last week, achieving what they insisted was an unflinching target.
One of the highest-profile buyout adopters was controversial columnist Stu Bykofsky, who penned his final column last week. He left after 47 years, most of them at the Philadelphia Daily News, which was merged with the Inquirer.
Another six people in non-union positions were laid off directly when their jobs were eliminated because of restructuring, said Inquirer Director of Editorial Marketing Evan Benn.
That restructuring, as part of a strategy that puts the focus on growing digital revenue, also led to a handful of reassignments. Approximately five or fewer employees accepted a move to a different position in order to keep their jobs, according to Benn.
Keeping people quiet
Even if those who were reassigned or bought out are angry or frustrated about the hand they were dealt, you’re unlikely to hear much griping.
Though management would not confirm, citing legal restrictions around contracts, there’s reportedly strict non-disparagement language in the separation agreements. According to one person affected, if people want to keep their buyout benefits, they not only must refrain from complaining, but must also go back and scrub their social media accounts of statements framing the Inquirer in a negative light.
The 300-plus-member NewsGuild that represents all non-management newsroom staff plus employees in other departments has been loud, however. Union representatives have not responded to Billy Penn’s requests for comment.
In mid-June, union members marched through the newsroom and physically handed management a petition decrying the job reduction plan. Later that month, hundreds of NewsGuild members attended a public picketing rally outside the Inquirer office at 8th and Market streets.
One of the union’s main points of contention relates to the salaries of top brass, both at the Inquirer itself and the nonprofit that runs it under the unique ownership structure set up by philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest before his death last year.
According to the nonprofit’s 2017 IRS filings, a host of officers, consultants, and upper management continue to be paid big bucks. At least half a dozen pulled in more than $250,000, per a report from Big Trial — even as the company sounded a dire alarm and pushed back against the union’s pleas for fewer staff cuts.
A strategy built around reader engagement
The cuts were more about strategic focus than specific monetary amounts, if one reads into the Inquirer’s carefully worded public statements on the matter.
“Listening to our readers and understanding what they respond to means that we have to make continuous adjustments to what we cover, while also confronting the economic realities facing our industry,” Benn, the Inquirer spokesperson, told Billy Penn.
Benn has pointed out that there have also been several dozen hires over the past year. That’s all part of the company’s rejiggering to focus on growing digital revenue and strengthening its online position — which was also the thinking behind the rebranding of Philly.com to Inquirer.com earlier this year.
The newsroom restructuring is happening in conjunction with newsroom editors, he said, who have been “collaborating on ways to best match our outstanding journalism with the audiences we serve.”
In determining which coverage and stories best serve those audiences, management looks at several engagement factors, including:
- The number of people who subscribe directly after reading a story
- How much time readers spend on a post
- How often readers click through to other parts of the site
- Also considered: social shares, search results, and other undisclosed metrics
Some older journalists, speaking on background, expressed skepticism that online engagement could lead to financial stability. But building a business around digital subscriptions has been working for several other news outlets, including The New York Times and The Boston Globe.
In its strategy memo last month, the Inquirer targeted a “North Star” figure of $95 million in digital revenue, which it said would make up the majority of its income.