Philly.completely Vacuous (Updated)

 

Editor’s Note: This article has been altered from the original.

Screencapture, November 28, 2012, Philly.com

Let me start by saying that I don’t pretend to have an answer–anyone who tells you they know how to make daily newspaper journalism both profitable and rigorous is lying. (At Hidden City, a non-profit, we are attempting to create a model of on-line journalism that relies on a broad range of funding sources–including you!–but our model is only nascent and still developing.)

Let me say also that I receive the “print version” of the Inquirer, a paper I had the privilege to contribute to a year ago, every morning. It always arrives late, but yet it arrives, along with the New York Times, and I read it every day.

For years, I have kept up a web browsing habit to keep myself informed as the day goes on: NYTimes.com then Guardiannews.com then Philly.com. For many of those years, as the Times and Guardian websites improved substantially–though truth be told the Guardian has slipped of late, relying too much on bloggers–Philly.com remained stuck in both format and delivery. In the last few years, the difference between Philly.com and the other sites only amplified, and like many people I complained ritually about its organization, architecture, and content. (I complained only more so last year, when I couldn’t even find my own articles.)

Any resent conversation about journalism and media in Philadelphia has led ultimately to the terrible state of Philly.com. News content has often been buried under an archaic organizational structure; there has been too much stock photography; image quality, anyway, has been below standard and the photo plug-in clunky; reader comments have trended overtly racist; and titillation always has too often been given priority.

In October, I met the Inquirer’s editor Bill Marimow (Marimow is the paper’s editor, but he has no management role at Philly.com). He had come in to History Making Productions to be interviewed for the fourth episode of our film series, “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.” (As a young news reporter in the 1970s, the period of the episode, he was part of the cadre of aggressive writers and editors who transformed the paper into one of the nation’s most honest and thorough media outlets.) While he was sitting in the interview chair between takes, we chatted about the state of the business. The conversation left me hopeful that management at Interstate General Media, the company that owns the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com, was sincerely focused on improving the website.

When finally, some weeks ago, a newly overhauled Philly.com appeared on my screen, I was, like many colleagues, enthused. The page was clean and the various sections and hierarchies of content seemed well articulated.

But since then, my visits to the site have dwindled. Why should I check in? There is almost no real news being presented on the homepage. Instead: relentless gossip, sex, sports gossip (not sports), shopping, and worse, an embrace of fake news (e.g., “Bynum merchandise not moving off the shelves,” “Family learns of daughter’s death on Facebook”). Switch back to NYT.com from Philly.com and catapult to a different universe. Philly and New York aren’t that different, are they?

Screen capture from Philly.com November 26, 2012

Only about 20 percent of the Inquirer’s readership live in the city and some 20 percent live in South Jersey, figures that explain the Inquirer’s recently renewed push to cover suburban towns. But are 75 percent idiots? That’s about the portion of the content presented on the homepage that is fundamentally vacuous and often aggressively dumb.

That’s how this city is being portrayed, consciously or unconsciously, every day on Philly.com.

A week or so after Marimow came in for his film interview, his editor during the hey day, Gene Roberts, did too. Roberts is one of the most highly respected figures in print journalism. Here is what he had to say in the interview recorded by History Making Productions:

In my opinion, people and not just in Philadelphia, but I include Philadelphia in it, are under the illusion that with hand-held devices and computers and 24 hour news television, that they’re getting more news than ever before. And this is an illusion. They are getting considerably less news than ever before. They’re getting it from more sources, but the boots on the ground that are actually out there interviewing people and writing stories is greatly diminished in the United States from what it was 20 years ago.

Screen capture from Philly.com November 26, 2012

Nevertheless, a newspaper website is really an ingenious thing, for it potentially allows a static document to grow dynamically as they day goes on. That’s why I read NYTimes.com–and by the end of the day I have a good sense of the major stories developing for the next day. But at Philly.com, there is little sign of that connection to the journalists of the Inquirer and Daily News and the hundreds of stories they are following. Much of the content reads as vague–headlines are often indecipherable–and meaningless.

And because news is so rarely presented, the website is creating a disincentive to checking in throughout the day. There must be a real cost to this in reduced per-click advertising revenue.

There is a real cost to all of us in the race to the bottom Philly.com represents (and it’s unsettling to observe it happening): an informed and analytic public capable of reasoned discourse; a civic framework that privileges thoughtful interchange over foolish reaction; a reading public that can manage to digest and respond to careful writing and reporting. Without those things, we can expect more abuse and corruption, more violation of rights, and far less honest leadership. Those are all the things the Inquirer rose up against in its hey day.

The Inquirer is still capable of producing exemplary journalism and fulfilling its role as a watchdog, despite the vast reduction in the size of the news room. And often the daily print version of the paper, even in its present eviscerated state, plays that role. Why then not use Philly.com as a dynamic medium to amplify that extraordinary machinery instead of burying it in trash?

The city, in this rising moment, could only benefit.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is also senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine.



13 Comments


  1. I read it every day… for about 20 seconds. But it generally seems like nothing happens in Philly to report on!

  2. For the past five years or so I have been saddened by the decline of my hometown’s newspaper. And I am constantly looking for signs that things are beginning to turn around for the Inquirer. However, Philly.com is destroying the newspaper. Even after the upgrade, compared to other websites newspapers from major cities around the country, Philly.com looks completely unprofessional. It’s content is jumbled, and looks nothing like the newspaper’s print edition, which I think is the one of the aesthetic strengths of the websites for the Washington Post or the New York Times.

    I think the root of Philly.com’s overall weakness stems from the decision to launch a digital edition rather than establish a digital pay wall, like Nytimes.com, to gain revenue from online content. Using a digital edition effectively divorces visitors from much of the content in the print edition, because there would be no way to gain a profit. That is why much of content on Philly.com is of little relevance. One of the strengths of the pay wall is that allows non-subscribers to consume some amount of relevant news, which entices them to become subscribers. Right now, there is absolutely nothing on Philly.com to make them want to pay for news from the Inquirer.

    While critics of the New York Times pay wall will point to the ease in which non-subscribers can still access content, they cannot argue with the fact that in the first year the Times has charged for online content, over half a million people have become subscribers. I don’t have the subscription statistics for the Inquirer’s digital editions, but I am willing to bet that growth as been at best negligible.

    As a recent journalism graduate from Penn State and native of Philadelphia, I would love nothing more than to see the Philadelphia Inquirer begin to take steps toward becoming what once was (or what newspapers can become in the digital age). While I know that the lack of a foreign desk or even a D.C. bureau significantly detract from the Inquirer’s overall quality, compared to the New York Times or Boston Globe, as an expatriate living in London, I wish there was a better online source for Philadelphia sports and politics.

  3. Oh, enough stuff HAPPENS. (They could probably get three months’ worth of exposés out of Kenyatta Johnson alone.) They just choose not to report on it.

  4. I’m a former magazine journalist in a similar position – I subscribe to nytimes.com and read it every day, and did the same with SFgate.com when I lived in San Francisco. After moving to Philly two years ago, I was confused by the lack of a solid online news source for the city. Everything Nathaniel writes here is spot on. After some en masse naked bike ride through Philly, the gallery of photos was prominently on the front page of Philly.com for months. MONTHS.

    If anyone has a suggestion for a better site to be reading for Philly news (other than this one, of course!), I would love to hear it.

  5. Clearly the sorry nature of Philly.com means that Philadelphia is inferior to New York. Whatever….waaa, waaa, waaa….it never ends.

  6. I totally agree with Nathaniel and Milton. I am an Inquirer newspaper reader, for 40 years, and am totally disappointed with Philly.com. I used to try to peruse it, but it drives me crazy, to the point where I dont bother any more. If I hear about an article, I Google it, and just read that article so I dont have to navigate Philly.com.

  7. As a newcomer to Philly from the UK, it’s been interesting to scope out local news outlets, while also seeing what’s happening to news outlets back home (big day in UK journalism with release of Leveson today).

    I know you mention the differences between NYT and The Guardian (which is full of Editorial and US focus now) and The Philly. I wonder if the UK’s Daily Mail might be a good explanation for what’s happening to Philly.com.

    The Daily Mail is known as a right wing tabloid-broadsheet hybrid in the UK, but the website is full of click-bait celeb gossip and is a hugely grossing global news website. The website and the paper are, I believe, run separately, and contain very different content. It’s a different business model to that being explored by NYT, and again by The Guardian.

    I am a big fan of phillynewsfeeds.com for an overview.

  8. Re: The number of Inquirer readers living in South Jersey, don’t be too surprised. The paper (under Knight-Ridder) spent millions back in the 1990s aggressively building readership there with what is now cutely called “hyperlocal journalism” but back then was just consistent local beat reporting. I was privileged to begin my career there.

    Many South Jersey residents work, play or have lived in the city, they see the Inquirer as the better of the many papers serving the SJ region, have brand loyalty, etc. etc. Recent recommitment to South Jersey staffing and coverage are a smart move on the Inquirer’s part, in my opinion.

    • Amy, I agree. It also must be easier to assign reporters to South Jersey than to the four PA suburban counties, which are massive and diverse–and far flung. I left out a part of Gene Roberts’ statement talking about the reduced newsroom staff. He said that in his day there were about 750 in the newsroom plus dozens and dozens (so he said) freelancers and stringers covering the suburbs. It gave me the feeling that the paper in 1970s and 80s already had the capacity to cover the suburbs. But maybe not so much then in South Jersey.

  9. I think what’s going on here is that Philly.com are running their website assuming that people will know that the site for their paper is actually http://www.philly.com/philly/news If you look at that page as the homepage for the Inquirer, it’s not nearly as bad.

    That said, most people don’t realize that and they’re going to think that the home page represents the newspaper. It doesn’t. The homepage represents the lowest common denominator (the most shared stories, etc). It actually reflects more on the people who visit the site than it does on the paper. Sadly, though, we all lose because people from the rest of the world go to Philly.com and think that’s our news site, which is embarrassing.

  10. Thank you, Mr. Popkin, for summarizing my feelings about the site so completely and eloquently.
    I rarely get beyond base obscenity when describing it myself.

  11. I think it’s just another symptom of a much wider phenomenon. The Learning Channel, a cable network created by NASA and dedicated to documentary programming now boasts Here Comes Honey Booboo as one of its top productions. Ratings soared and production costs plummeted when TV execs realized that a huge portion of the American public would rather watch obnoxious, shallow, silicone enhanced morons act trashy in public and hold screaming matches over the most pointless things. “Reality TV” is the side show of our age. Viewing deformed people in carnivals went out of style. We don’t have public hangings. We don’t’ throw people to the lions in the arena. So instead people gawk at the horrific behavior of a collection of morons the same way they slow down to gawk at a bad car accident. And it makes money. Lots of money! Pandering to the lowest common denominator is bad for the culture but great for the bottom line.

    So why report on the news? First of all, many economic issues and political situations are too complicated to put into monosyllabic prose. Secondly, people don’t care. People don’t want to learn. They want to be entertained and sex and gossip and celebrity down falls entertain. A council meeting to discuss new zoning laws does not.

    I spent (or wasted) too much time before the election debating with some Libertarian friends who insist that if we privatize everything we will fix our economic woes. But I think this is a perfect example of why making everything in our society about profit will not improve our lot. More people want to eat hot dogs and ice cream then want to eat tofu and brown rice. So stores tend to offer more hot dogs and ice cream. More people want simplistic, entertaining trash journalism than want hard news, so publishers offer more fluff and filler. You said the key word in the beginning. For profit. It comes down to giving the masses what they want and cashing the check.

  12. Philly.com is one of three properties owned by Interstate General Media. It is NOT the website of the Inquirer, though it often picks up stories FROM the Inquirer.
    The relaunch of the website is a work in progress and it’s only a month in.
    Gene Roberts has every right to reminisce about the old days. But back then, the Inquirer had a relative monopoly on news. Additionally, it was making profits upwards of 20 and 25 percent. With that much money, he could afford a massive staff and a five-part series on the white rhino. Let’s just say profits are not anywhere near 20% any longer.
    If it’s any consolation, an all-Inquirer website is in the works. And a digital edition of the paper has been available for several years. It can be found here: http://philly.newspaperdirect.com/epaper/viewer.aspx
    If you have an idea how to make Philly.com better, or what you’d like to see on an Inquirer-only website, email online@phillynews.com. Thanks!

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