Casablanca, Content and The Philadelphia Inquirer: How George Norcross Damages Editorial Quality

Posted: February 10, 2014 in Contemporary Commentary

“The key to good content,” Michael Bloomberg told me years ago, before he was mayor, “is the ability to write Casablanca.”

bob frump pic

Frump

“You can aggregate all the data you want about World War II, Northern Africa, gambling and the underground, but you can’t copy Casablanca.”

The context for that long ago meeting was a content exhibition where my employer at the time, a bond rating agency, feared Bloomberg would get into their business. He would not, he said, because the company essentially was the Casablanca of bond raters and did something Bloomberg could never match.

Local and regional newspapers, if they are to succeed, need to be focused on creating the conditions that create Casablanca.  They don’t need to do that on a daily basis, but the readers need to know they can count on it frequently enough.  The newspaper, to add value, must present something that no other local weekly or monthly magazine can.bogie

All of which is a roundabout but necessary way to explain why the fight among owners at The Philadelphia Inquirer is not just about “business” – as most writers have suggested – but about the quality of the paper.

Part-owner George Norcross, a good businessman who is also a self-acknowledged ruthless boss of South Jersey Democrats, has proposed a number of “reforms” to the newspaper that he believes will place it back on a solid financial situation.

He has over the past year closed down the op-ed page, insisted that five top editors be fired and replaced with seven New Jersey reporters, placed his young rookie daughter more or less in charge of a free website, and sought to dismiss the top editor, Bill Marimow, and the city editor, Nancy Phillips.

If only the newspaper follows this good business plan, he has said, then the paper will regain a robust financial standing and serve as a valuable “fourth estate” in the plan by giving the readers what they want.

norcross head

Norcross

In a brilliant bit of sleazy but successful channeling of Karl Rove and Lee Atwater, he also has flipped the debate of the recent controversies by putting Marimow and Phillips in the dock for somehow “meddling” in the newsroom.  Of course, if you are running the newsroom, it’s hard to say how your best editorial judgments comprise “meddling.”

Through leaks and innuendo, though, Norcross has taken his opponents’ strengths and positive motives and turned them into something dark and suspect.  Largely this is because the local media outlets can’t help but swallow the seductive story line without examination or counterbalance.  Largely, it’s been salacious and self-parodying as writers have focused on tangential affairs of an excellent woman journalist whose success and power, apparently, must be consigned to that same dangerous feminine libido of great Tea Party concern.  The local stories, in various forms, all seem to somehow suggest Phillips is a seductive witch who twists men around her little figure.

That’s nonsense of course.  She just sends them to jail when they kill people.  She’s a great investigative reporter.  But I’ve covered that before.

What is not so clear to readers is how exactly Norcross’s businesses plan infringes on editorial quality and presents ethical concerns.

I can help you there. I’ve run newspapers, both editorial and business side.  I’ve published magazines.  I’ve been creating and hawking websites since 1996. Still am. I know a little bit about this.

So let’s go back in time – not far back in time – and see what sort of “Casablancas ” The Inquirer has written.  And not far back in time mind you.  Let’s say March 25, 2012, and the story: “

Powerful Medicine: How George Norcross used his political muscle to pump up once-ailing Cooper Hospital.

 The piece is a classically good piece of investigative and analytical reporting where the two authors take a look at the Norcross machine in motion. Even-handed and fair, the article details how a hospital has fueled Norcross’s political steam roller and it reads a little like a sub-plot of All the King’s Men, where a fictional Huey Long both creates and then distorts institutions of good to his ends.

Born at Cooper, Norcross is unabashed in his enthusiasm for the hospital that he sees as performing vital medical, economic, and social roles. He also sees it as crucial to the rebirth of the city.

He adds: “I’ve come to see that Cooper’s interests and Camden’s are inseparable.”

But there’s something else that is inseparable – Norcross’ political muscle and Cooper’s agenda. In some ways, the hospital has become another piece of his political apparatus, to the mutual benefit of Democrats and Cooper.

In politics-drenched New Jersey, it’s not unusual for hospitals, with their big payrolls, big budgets, and big thirst for government money, to be political players. But few play the game as aggressively or with as much firepower as Cooper.

No other nonprofit hospital in New Jersey spends so much on lobbyists. In fact, it ranks among the top 25 nonprofit hospitals in America for lobbying expenditures according to national data.

With $775 million in annual revenue, Cooper is the largest hospital in South Jersey. And over the years, firms with ties to board members or those with a pattern of donations to Democrats in Norcross’ base of Camden County have won millions of dollars in hospital-related contracts, public records show.

Among those working at Cooper in recent years: Norcross’ insurance business and the law firm of his brother.

None of this is illegal. But the flow of campaign donations from firms doing business with the hospital has helped sustain Norcross’ Democratic organization, which over the last two decades has not only established control in towns and counties in South Jersey but has also become a driving force in the state capital.

To pull off this type of story – informative, insightful, fair – you need experienced editors and reporters.  And when you do it, you gain the eyes and ears of readers, not just in South Jersey but also across that state and Philadelphia as well.

Cut those experienced editors and reporters, or reassign them to the chicken-dinner circuit in South Jersey and you l

grizzly

ose the advantage of Casablanca coverage.  You lose your distinction.


This is so because of the truth of an old adage in marketing strategy:  The deciding factor in a battle between a grizzly and crocodile is terrain.  Or in this case, the battle between one big grizzly and a hundred smaller crocs.

The Inquirer cannot go into the swamps of micro-local coverage and expect to win a battle against the myriad array of local publications and websites, even if it executes wonderfully on its local coverage.

The local publications — the hundreds of little crocs — own this space.  I’ve seen it tried time and time again, by The Philadelphia Bulletin, with its hyper-local editions; by The Inquirer, with its well-done “Neighbors” sections; by The Washington Post most recently as it gave almost block-by-block coverage of its surroundings.

The big grizzlies emerge from the swamp with a dozen crocs hanging from their ears, noses and mouths, their tails between their legs and and nothing else to show for it.

At weeklies and “Patch-like” web sites, low rate ads and free subscriptions support a low-paid staff of stringers and hobbyists.  Small weeklies are inherently adapted to that biosphere. But big metros can’t run in that terrain.  Even if they are changed in how they gather and present news, they never will obtain that level of local readerships imitating their smaller adversar

baby crocs

The past thirty years gives the lie to any such strategy.

So if hyper-local journalism for metros has been thoroughly disproved, why is Norcross so vigorously following it?  Is he actively attempting to undermine good investigative reporting, or just dumb about the business history of newspapers?

My guess is the latter, but the former comes hand-in-hand by his mere presence.  His reputation for succeeding at all costs, makes me think he thinks he is actually steering the business in the right direction.  He is also acting with the impulse of a politician who has run some masterful campaigns using regional marketing.

But many of those campaigns have been negative attack ads, aimed at a short-term goal of turnout on one Election Day.  Every day is election day when you are in the newspaper business and readers vote you up and down each day.  He does not seem to grasp that, having not run positive campaigns for a real product or service, just “rip your face off” framing of politicians.

Through his misunderstanding of the business of publishing, then, he is demoting quality Casablanca coverage to chicken-dinner coverage in South Jersey.

But beyond that business shortcoming is the political advantage of demoting such coverage:  No more stories on Norcross.  No more stories on his political allies.  And no more stories like that on his nominal political opponents, who he also needs to deal with. (Norcross was thought to have made a general cease-fire political deal with Republican Chris Christie; at the very least, Norcross did not oppose him vigorously during the last election.)

That is the biggest conflict here, one touched gently upon (but admirably enough) by a Philadelphia Magazine story by Steve Volk.

Norcross is the conflict, because he is one of the biggest stories in the region.  He can’t possibly run the business (through factotum publishers) without placing the paper in conflict.

But he is.

And the manner in which he is running that business will only drive The Inquirer more deeply into the ground.

We’ve covered the trap of hyper-local journalism, where you jettison Casablanca coverage for a vague promise of local ads and readers already owned outright by established local papers.

Then surely, as he has promised, Norcross’s reinvented plan for the web will save the day – and allow a strong editorial presence.

Again, his inexperience in the business stands out.

Two newspapers seem to have found the right formula for online: The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Both do it through this formula:

  • They know and respect the fact that Casablanca type coverage is essential and core to their business.
  • They allow free browsing of their websites.
  • But the “free” goes only so far and is “metered” so that at five or ten stories a flag pops up for the month and says please subscribe.

This has popped revenues for the two publications, but the results also pose a serious warning to others.  The “pay wall” works but only to a point.  It does not come close to repeating the old magic formula where ads paid the freight for the whole enterprise.

nancy phillips

Nancy Phillips

New types of “native advertising” are needed, as are events and memberships. And most importantly:  a very strong print product.

Compare the Norcross strategy, which is an inferior version of an already failed and disastrous plan by The Boston Globe:  Run two websites, one free and one pay-walled and present two distinct faces of your product to the public.

Marimow

Bill Marimow

In the real world, this means that Philly.com exists as the free “link-bait” driven, tarted-up face of The Inquirer and Daily News, while the real websites of the two publications, with more suitable demeanors, lay behind a formidable pay wall, without any sort of metered introduction, and no promotions.

The result?

Today’s Philadelphia Inquirer home page – the real Inquirer – gave an update on the 16,000 still without power in its region.

Philly.com told you about an app that allowed you to hook up with fellow fliers and have sex in the bathroom.

The strategy there is based on long ago tactics of pumping up page hits.  The airplane sex blog is a quick redo of what is trending on search engines or Twitter and repeated on Philly.com in hopes that more search engines will find Philly.com and present more pages so that automatic web ad placement services will through a few micro-cents toward Philly.com. (766,361 other mentions of this app were present on Google at this writing, to give you a feel for the near infinite pit of competition Philly.com casts itself into.)

The problem with that should be self-evident to any marketer or economist.  When you commoditize your news in such a manner, you remove your value proposition.  You’ll always be running in tenth or twentieth place in rankings, drain your local value, and be assigned low-rent “belly fat” ads.

Worse, such web ad rates have plunged into the basement and below in recent months, as algorithms grow crueler and crueler to such pretenders.

And thus does the Norcross strategy consume itself.

He wants to fire Bogey and Bergman– and hire a few more extras.  His strategy decreases the chances that the Inquirer will write its local versions of Casablanca, lowers the editorial quality, and undermines the revenue base in one deft and utterly complete misunderstanding of the business.

My guess is this will be a shock to him.bogie 2

He is used to being the smartest guy in the room.  And perhaps he has been.

But it’s never been this big a room. Or this type of room.  And he’s never had this spotlight.

He’s put himself in a place where he can’t be the victor, even if he succeeds in winning the court battle.

George Norcross, the ultimate ‘can do’ guy, has put himself in a can’t win situation.

One hopes The Inquirer will write a big Casablanca of a story about that someday.  That is, if Norcross does not succeed in turning a once grand newspaper into a South Jersey shopper.

Comments
  1. Jim Asher says:

    One might also ask why since Norcross’ purchase of the papers there have been no stories about the hefty payment he got for recommending an insurance broker to the Delaware river port authority.
    And since I covered both Norcross and Mr. Katz in the old days, I fear whoever wins sadly will put self interest above the public interest. Thanks for the piece.

    Like

  2. Jim Asher says:

    Yes, Paul, please send.

    Like

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