The evolution of newspapers: Nasty, brutish, and unfortunately not that short either

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Given the collapse of their existing business model of print-based advertising, and the lack of anything that promises to fill that void — including paywalls — it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of pressure on the newspaper industry. For the most part, we only see signs of the obvious stress fractures when papers go bankrupt or have massive layoffs, but now and again it spills out into the open in a more obvious way, as it seems to have done at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Inquirer was bought by a group of businessmen last year, and they made the usual kinds of promises about how they wanted to preserve and improve the paper’s reputation for excellent local and regional journalism. As a gesture of their commitment to that ideal, they brought back a former editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Bill Marimow. On Tuesday, Marimow was fired by the publisher and the board of directors for what was referred to as “a difference in philosophical vision.”

Evolutionary change vs. revolutionary change

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In reality, according to internal memos and emails seen by Philadelphia magazine, it seems to have been a case of the board and the publisher wanting to move forward with some dramatic changes to the content and staff of the paper, and Marimow resisting those efforts — particularly demands that he fire several senior staffers at the Inquirer. In other words (to use a phrase the former editor apparently used in meetings), a conflict between evolutionary change and revolutionary change.

“The changes [the publisher] sought include: expanded local coverage, with less focus on ‘police blotter’ material; major improvement to business coverage; a more collaborative relationship with; an employee performance review system; and, finally, multiple personnel changes.”

The picture that emerges — from the publisher and board’s point of view, at least — is of an editor who is too stuck in his old ways to change, and who is going to protect veteran editors because they are friends. From this point of view, the most important task is to somehow turn around the Inquirer and its sister paper, the Daily News, which were acquired for just $55 million (plus the assumption of various liabilities) in 2012, or about 90 percent less than the group sold for in 2006.

The newsroom’s point of view is likely quite different, however: according to at least one report, when the news hit, Marimow got a standing ovation from the assembled writers and editors — many of whom no doubt see him as the last line of defence against a rapacious band of business owners who don’t know anything about quality journalism or the Inquirer‘s storied history. The underlying questions are: How much change is too much? How do we get from here to there?

The death of the aggregation model

The Inquirer is far from the only one suffering these kinds of tensions: in Canada, the country’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail (where I used to work) has been struggling financially for some time and recently erected a paywall in an attempt to bolster its revenue. For the first time, the paper’s publisher has talked about how many digital-only subscribers the Globe has — roughly one third of the overall digital subscriber number, he said, which is 100,000.

That’s after some fairly aggressive promotion, and even a somewhat controversial system that rewards members of the online team for creating or posting content that leads to more subscription signups (Update: According to several sources, this system doesn’t involve bonuses, but merely performance targets).

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Publisher Philip Crawley also reported another number that might have taken some by surprise: he said more than 40 percent of the newspaper’s content is seen by just 1,000 people. While that may not be surprising for anyone who has seen how most people read a newspaper — flipping through pages and throwing away irrelevant sections — it is one thing to suspect that most of your content goes unread, and another thing to see it revealed in black and white.

Some of that low readership is likely the result of having a paywall, but much of it is a result of the gradual death of the newspaper’s central role as an aggregator of radically different kinds of content, from classifieds and obituaries to comics and lifestyle news. The internet does a radically superior job of serving almost all of those niche interests, and it does it for virtually nothing. And unfortunately for the Globe and other papers, a paywall isn’t going to change that.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Feng Yu and Shutterstock / Julius Kielaitis

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