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