At greatest risk are newspapers in between—the mid-sized regional metropolitan dailies, like The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. For example, when McClatchy bought the hugely profitable Star Tribune from the Cowles family in 1998, the paper was one of the Internet pioneers. The family had invested heavily in startribune.com. But when the dot-com bubble burst, and profit margins fell from over 30 percent to under 20 percent, McClatchy began disinvesting. To make matters worse, the innovative startribune.com was ordered to convert to the technology of McClatchy Interactive, which was based on the successful site of another McClatchy paper, the Raleigh News & Observer. “We lost at least a year,” says one reporter. And not long after the technical overhaul was complete, the paper was sold again; the Web staff is now scrambling to disengage from an alien technology that it never liked. Sources at the paper say that Web traffic and Web advertising revenue were close to flat in 2006, while they rose sharply at most newspapers.
In January, The Philadelphia Inquirer laid off sixty-eight people from the newsroom—and then turned around and hired five of them back for its Web site. That doesn’t sound like much, but the move increased the Web staff from eight to thirteen. “What happened here was a disaster, but they managed to salvage something good out of it,” says the reporter Daniel Rubin. For instance, Kristen Graham, who was laid off from her job as the paper’s education reporter, now does audio, video, and print reports on idiosyncratic, newsworthy events in the city schools. The Inquirer, through Philly.com, is able to offer an annual report card on city schools with interactive features.
Rubin, fifty, epitomizes the old-school print reporter who has found the leap to Web journalism intoxicating. A nineteen-year veteran of the Inquirer, he writes a very popular, link-rich, and witty blog called Blinq.com and also covers the business of entertainment for print and Web—everything from auto shows to sports and popular culture. Rubin’s home page says, “It was a wise man who said news is a conversation. Let’s talk.” He says Web journalism is “a shot of adrenaline. It makes me superproductive. The feedback is immediate. I know almost instantly what’s working. It’s like I’m back in my father’s hardware store, deciding what to put in the front window to bring in customers.”
The Inquirer’s editor, Bill Marimow, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, sees Web journalism as a lifeline. On the afternoon that we talked, the big breaking local story was the indictment of State Senator Vincent J. Fumo, a longtime South Philadelphia powerbroker. Within a couple of hours the Inquirer had posted many multimedia items—among them a PDF of the full text of the indictment, dueling press releases, Fumo’s floor speech, audio of the U.S. Attorney’s press conference, a special blog from Harrisburg, archives of related stories, photos, comments by other officials, and five features on other facets of the story. It was the perfect vindication of the idea that old media can use the tools of the new to do journalism better than anyone else. Marimow has several print reporters doubling as bloggers. But can a newspaper that made deep cuts in its newsroom maintain its quality even if it adds a few more people to the Web? In February, Rubin was pressed into service as a metro print columnist, and he and his editors will decide whether he can spare the time to keep his blog going. It’s a pity that the Inquirer, now owned by Philadelphia Media Holdings, has to be creative with such dwindling resources.
There are some encouraging exceptions to this picture of the squeezed midsize daily. Several strategists are promoting a blend of the civic journalism movement with a business strategy that builds on the local paper’s brand awareness to create the most comprehensive and interactive Web site in town. In principle, this strategy invigorates the journalism, engages the community in new ways, and increases Web traffic that can bring in ad revenue.
For example, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has been developing satellite suburban Web sites since July 2006 through its NOW Project. The Journal Sentinel, unlike the elite dailies, is doing it almost entirely with a slightly dazed print staff. Click on the paper’s Web site, JSonline.com, and a drop-down menu steers you to a local site, one of twenty-six suburban towns. The parent company, Journal Communications, used to serve these towns with print weeklies. Now the print weekly is a targeted section of the Journal Sentinel, complemented by a NOW Web site.