Out of Its Rocky Recent Past, Philly.com Seeks to Be ‘Indispensable’

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Philadelphia was the home of the first daily newspaper in America — the Pennsylvania Packet and the General Advertiser, founded in 1784 (but not as famous as Benjamin Franklin’s weekly Pennsylvania Gazette). Two centuries and a couple of decades later, the city made another kind of newspaper history — as the scene of possibly the most tumultuous period of newspaper ownership in America.

Between 2006 and 2016, the city’s Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News and their joint website Philly.com were sold, flipped, reorganized out of bankruptcy, auctioned, sold again, auctioned again, donated to a specially created nonprofit entitiy and, finally, set up as a unique for-profit carve-out by their new nonprofit guardian angel  the Lenfest Institute for Journalism

The tumult of the past decade has apparently been laid to rest under the current business setup – helped in large part by a $20 million sweetener from local philanthropist Gerry Lenfest, who, after acquiring the three properties, donated them to the institute that now bears his name.

The for-profit Philadelphia Media Network (PMN) – which legally owns the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com but is itself owned by the Lenfest Institute – is structured as a “public benefit corporation” which can accept financial help from individuals, foundations and corporations. But while PMN welcomes contributions and grants, it is busy building its future around a reorganized and united news operation that aims to produce more engaging editorial content with fewer editors and reporters and sell the value-added package to readers of Philly.com for $2.99 a week after 10 free views.

In this Q & A, PMN Editor and VP Gabriel Escobar, who came to the U.S. in the mid-1960s as the 8-year-old son of his widowed mother from Bogota, Colombia, and speaking no English, talks about how Philly.com seeks to meet its formidable challenges as the digital center of  gravity of the new three-part network:   

Philly.com has to extend its reach — “It’s just not there,” you said at the onset of your newsroom’s reorganization in 2017. Do you see progress?
The reorganization of the newsroom is not even six months old, but the ambition behind it – talking about stories and content overall — is not only to appeal to the audience in our region but to become indispensable. That is essentially our space – to be authoritative in all things local, extending from the city to the metropolitan area. We really do have to be indispensable, we have to be consistently good to be consistently indispensable for our readers, and we’re not there yet. If you measure our audience by the number of people who are daily users of the Internet – the subscription base – we’re nowhere near where we should be. We have to carve our space and be really good at it.

How do you produce the quality news that’s going to lead to engagement – taking users from the top of the funnel to the bottom? Does everyone in your newsroom have a clear idea of what kind of news they have to generate to get the high level of engagement that will lead to more subscriptions?
If you look at it as a journalist sitting in the middle of the newsroom, you could cast your eye around and you’ll see areas of coverage that you’ve designated and you’ll see people in those areas of coverage. That is the source of the quality news.

The first step is defining what people in the newsroom do. The second step is news you deliver and the quality therein. If we were only reporting on government, and doing an excellent job at it, that wouldn’t be enough. We do sports, we do lifestyles, we do investigations, we do this-is-your-life kind of things.

We aim to write so that over time people see themselves in the stories that we publish. They learn from what we do. It’s a complicated mission. It is not like producing eggs, where you begin with the chicken and you end with the carton and you hope that each egg looks the same.

Are you comfortable with where your reorganized newsroom is today?
I have full confidence in what we’re doing. The most important change is that the people in this newsroom – the professional journalists — recognize they must change. They also recognize that change is a constant going forward. We have to examine what we’re doing. We have to ask ourselves – it’s our daily mission – what are we doing and how should we do it?

At the beginning of the digital age, there was a lot of optimism about integrating the community into the news process in ways that weren’t done, because it was impossible to do, in the print era. But that didn’t go very well. What is happening to the new Philly.com in its relationship with the community?
It’s really important that journalism not be a top-down conversation. Listening is really important, and we’re not quite there yet. Listening is not opening up comments on a story – that environment doesn’t work. We’re about to do something on comments that we hope will improve the dialogue.

There’s also Hearken, which is a tool that allows you to listen much more effectively to your audience with the aim of identifying areas of interest – really stories. There’s also CrowdTangle, where you can journalistically scrub social media to see what people are talking about.

Thee tools help our newsroom respond more to what our audience is thinking, worrying about, aspiring to – all of the qualities that, at the end of the day, make for good stories.

What about minorities, which are a majority of the city’s population, but which Philly.com doesn’t have that much reach with. Will that be changing?
That’s the goal and that’s the ambition.  

Facebook is changing its News Feed, once again. It will de-emphasize publishers’ content because it considers much of it too passive and emphasize more interaction between its subscribers and their family and friends because that’s considered more active and meaningful. It will also ask subscribers to rate their trust in news sources, which will also effect those sources in the New Feed. Your thoughts?
There’s concern among news media companies because Facebook is their primary source of distribution. If anything change in this distribution – what’s included and what’s excluded – is a concern.

Can Philly.com produce content that’s more active rather than passive to meet Facebook’s new mission?
That would easily fit into the definition of what news is, what a story is.

Among the 10 most populous cities, Philadelphia has the highest rate of poverty – 25.7%, Philly.com reported last fall. That’s well above the poverty rate of the next city, Houston, at 21.8%. What are your journalists doing to shine more light on that issue and surface possible solutions?
That’s part of the essential mission of what we do every day. The newsroom has areas of coverage that that are specifically designed to explore these social issues. If we succeed in our daily mission, then we will illuminate challenges like this one.

Gabriel Escobar, VP and Editor of Philadelphia Media Network

So are you’re presenting possible solutions to Philadelphia’s high poverty rate?
When we reorganized the newsroom, we created areas of coverage designed to do that. We have a report who covers class, who focuses on poverty, the middle class, social issues. We have a report who covers neighborhoods with an eye toward gentrification. So we have areas of coverage designed to accomplish that mission [shine a light on poverty]. We really are trying to do that, and I can point to successes.

The former president of the major William Penn Foundation, Jeremy Nowak, was quoted in Philly.com saying only a quarter of Philadelphia residents are college graduates, while in Atlanta the number is 47% and in Seattle, 70%. He said this disparity together with the city’s high level of poverty formed a “built-in limit to growth.” Will Philly.com be focusing on that issue?
Our journalism is focused on the state of Philadelphia schools, and there have been some significant improvements. But there are many changes, and we have highlighted them, from the infrastructure of aging public schools to the funding of charter schools.

Are you be looking at why some schools in the city with mostly poor, predominantly black enrollments have turned around and are succeeding academically while others continue to fail?
We have three education reporters and we have written precisely about that issue. If, at the end of the school year, we look back and we have not illuminated this issue, then we have not succeeded.

Philly.com’s subscription program, launched last September, kicks in after 10 free views. It got off to a strong start, PMN reported. How is it doing after five months?
It continues to be strong. It’s reaffirming that people are not only reinvesting in what we do, but it shows that people are willing to pay for news.

In this new year, what is Philly.com resolving to do that’s most important?
We’re always tweaking. There’s always information coming in that makes us more intelligent about how our content is resonating with our audience or not. It’s foolish for us to think that what we have in place is the model going forward, that nothing needs to change. The overriding goal for 2018 is to do everything possible to become indispensable.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.