Inquirer Newspaper Owners Need to Fix Their Failing Web Strategy

Posted: December 1, 2013 in Contemporary Commentary
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Warring Philadelphia Newspaper Owners Urged to Fix Glaring Website Strategic Flaw

Philadelphia, PA, Dec. 6, 2013 — The President of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News Alumni Society today called on the warring owners of the newspapers to collaborate on fixing a major flaw in the company’s business strategy – its broken and embarrassing business model for the web.

“Perhaps the two sides can find some peaceful common ground on this very large, very public problem that is absolutely core to the survival and prosperity of the newspapers,” said Robert R. Frump, who founded and manages the 587-member alumni society on LinkedIn.

“The spectacle of a dysfunctional web strategy with competing sites confusing both readers and advertisers should be a rallying call for the owners to put their differences aside – and just fix it,” Mr. Frump said.  “We are nearly twenty years into the era of the Internet but the company’s web site and strategy seems to date from 1998.”

Factions within the ownership group of The Inquirer have battled in court over whether Editor Bill Marimow, a nationally respected journalist, could be fired by the publisher, Bob Hall.  A court reinstated Mr. Marimow late last month.  The newsroom welcomed Mr. Marimow back with applause while the pro-Hall ownership faction led by businessman and South New Jersey political power George Norcross vowed to appeal the decision.

Lost in the scuffle is the confused state of the Inquirer’s web strategy – an element considered vital to the survival of any modern newspaper.

Today, the newspapers are represented by three different public websites with no clear coordination or apparent strategy.

Philly.com, a free site run partly by the daughter of owner George Norcross, competes with the paid Inquirer.com run by the Inquirer newsroom and the paid PhillyDailyNews.com.  Additionally, both newspapers present a “digital replica edition.”

While it has been common for newspapers to experiment with free and paid versions of websites, only the Philadelphia franchise has created dueling versions at apparent war with each other owned by the same company aimed at the same potential readers and advertisers.

Even more unique, is that the company seems to be doubling down on a “free” model at the worst possible time for such sites.  Digital ad revenues essential for the “free” model have dropped sharply this year because of increased commodity ad placement strategies driven by algorithms.

In fact, the amping up of Philly.com comes as the rest of the newspaper world is strongly moving from free to paid digital subscriptions.  Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have reported strong earnings from paid models.

While the web sites were not directly involved in the court battles, most observers believe the web confusion contributed to editorial quality issues that contributed to Mr. Marimow’s initial firing.

The City Paper, a Philadelphia alternative weekly, reported in October:

Reporters question Philly.com’s editorial decisions, which include writing headlines like “Company gives away vibrators to keep you busy during the government shutdown” and allowing former Flyers goaltender Bernie Parent to advise readers to “stay horny.”

In May, reporters were infuriated when the site announced that Tom Corbett, who is also employed as the Republican governor of Pennsylvania, would write a column for Philly.com. Marimow assigned a story on the decision, which described Hall as calling Philly.com “not bound by traditional newspaper conventions.” Lexie Norcross was quoted as saying, “Considering that the Inquirer and Daily News slam him every day, I think it’s actually equal, giving him a chance to speak.” 

“Missed in the coverage of the court case and all its allegations are the real shortfalls on the business side,” Mr. Frump said. “The company does not seem to have steady business leadership or a modern strategic sense of direction – let alone any real feeling for the necessity of editorial quality in the product.

(Robert R. Frump is speaking here as the founder and president of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News Alumni Society, and his remarks represent his opinions only.  Mr. Frump, a former reporter for The Inquirer, has served as publisher of Knight Ridder, Inc., and McGraw Hill publications as well as heading up advertising sales departments.  He was a co-founder of Medialink, a successful venture capital startup. He has led electronic publishing and major web implementations at Standard & Poor’s and served as Editor in Chief of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. He has received the Gerald Loeb Award and, with Tim Dwyer, the George Polk Award.  He served as a member of an Inquirer Pulitzer Prize-winning task force and has written three books.)

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