When you think about the city of Philadelphia, it’s hard not to imagine Rocky Balboa, the resilient boxer featured in the 1976 film “Rocky,” running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and throwing his hands to the sky in victory when he makes it up to the top. It’s the perfect metaphor of the Philadelphia Media Network (PMN), home to our 2018 Publisher of the Year Terrance C.Z. “Terry” Egger.
Egger, 61, arrived at PMN in 2015 at a critical point. The parent company of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com had just been purchased by philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest and entrepreneur Lewis Katz a year earlier for $88 million. Less than a week after signing the papers, Katz was killed in a plane crash, leaving Lenfest as the sole owner.
At the time, Egger was retired from journalism after spending three decades working in newspapers. The Rock Island, Ill. native received a bachelor’s degree in speech and drama from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. and a master’s degree in speech communication from San Diego State University. It was during graduate school that a man who worked at the San Diego Union-Tribune encouraged him to consider a career in newspapers. From there, Egger got his start in the business at a small paper in La Jolla, Calif. In 1984, he started working for the Copley Los Angeles Newspapers before moving on to the vice president of advertising position with the Tucson Newspapers in Arizona. In 1996, he joined the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as its publisher and served there until 2006. That same year, he was named president, publisher and CEO of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where he remained until he retired in 2013.
With a resume like that, it should have been a retirement well-deserved. So, what pulled Egger back to the world of newspapers?
It was simple: “Gerry’s vision,” Egger told me.
The 88-year-old Lenfest passed away in August, but not before tasking Egger with an important mission: to keep local news alive in Philadelphia.
“You’re My Guy”
Egger didn’t know Lenfest personally prior to June 2014, when he received a call from Lenfest himself, who was looking for help with running a legacy media company. As the two men spoke, there was an instant connection.
“Gerry was humble and smart, and he had a vision to keep journalism alive in Philly,” Egger said. “He wasn’t in it for himself. He wanted to find ways to sustain journalism and give resources.”
Shortly after that phone call, Egger visited Philadelphia and met with Lenfest for the first time. Lenfest, who was the current publisher, offered him the job, but the timing wasn’t right. Cleveland was a finalist to be the host city of the 2016 Republican National Convention, and Egger had already announced he would help lead the Cleveland Host Committee. In July 2014, Cleveland received the news it had won the bid.
“I had to decline,” Egger said, “but I told Gerry I would help him in any way I could.” He ended up serving as a board member instead.
In September 2014, Egger received another call from Lenfest.
“How long is your assignment?” he asked Egger. It sounded like the owner was still interested in handing over the title of publisher to Egger, and willing to wait until he was finished with his duties on the host committee.
They kept in touch and continued talking on occasion for more than a year. Then, in August 2015, Egger and his wife, Renuka, flew to Philadelphia for another meeting with Lenfest. At that point, Egger still hadn’t made a decision yet on whether or not he was going to take the publisher’s job. But that changed as soon as he met with Lenfest and his wife, Marguerite, and learned how passionate they were about arts and education. Egger said he remembered the exact moment that compelled him to take the job. It was during dinner, and with tears in his eyes, Lenfest reached over to squeeze Egger’s hand.
“There’s nothing I want to do more than to keep journalism alive in the city that I love,” he told Egger. “You’re my guy. Please come help.”
As Egger recounted the story, he said that’s when he realized he had to come to Philadelphia—not for his career—but for Lenfest’s mission.
“This was bigger than me,” he said. “What Gerry wanted to accomplish was so powerful and pure.”
So, on Oct. 1, 2015, Egger came out of retirement and officially started as the newest PMN publisher, in one of the first moves toward rebuilding the embattled media company.
The Right Path
With a new owner and now a new publisher in place, many of the longtime newsroom employees were filled with some healthy skepticism—and rightfully so. Over the course of a decade, the company had gone through seven owners, endured several rounds of layoffs and buyouts, moved to a new location, and filed for bankruptcy protection.
“When Terry arrived, it was during a disruptive time period,” said executive editor Stan Wischnowski. “We were at a crossroads, and the future was up in the air. Gerry had a vision, but he needed to find the right publisher, a change agent to help with the company’s evolution.”
Michelle Bjork, deputy managing editor for operations, said when Egger came in “a lot of hope was pinned on him.”
“After so many years of uncertainty, we started to feel that things might change, and we could finally get on the right path,” she said.
But that path wasn’t going to be simple.
One of the first things Egger did was challenge the newsroom with this question: “If you could build the newsroom of the future from scratch, what would it look like?” The result was to combine the three separate newsrooms of the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com into a single operation.
“It was quite the culture shock for some employees,” Wischnowski said.
During the merger, 200 journalists had to reapply for jobs, and 46 journalists were laid-off, according to reports. The goal was to save the company $5 million over the next three years.
“I was honest with them,” Egger said. “Financially, we were in tough shape. Our reputation was in tough shape. Our relationship with our customers was in tough shape. Our industry was in tough shape.”
But the purpose, said Egger, was to align the fragmented newsrooms and remind them of their purpose—they didn’t work for the Inquirer or the Daily News; they worked for the people of Philadelphia.
Wischnowski, along with editor Gabe Escobar and managing editor Patrick Kerkstra, developed an entirely new structure with new teams and new beats. About 40 new reporting beats were created and nearly every remaining beat was modified with more of a digital first, audience-centered focus, said Wischnowski. He added that about 70 percent of the newsroom employees got the jobs they wanted by the end of the process, and they were able to recruit more women and minorities to better reflect their diverse readership. PMN’s newsroom of the future currently has 250 journalists. Physically, the newsroom layout changed as well to reflect the new digital workflow.
Egger said another turning point was when a group of editors and non-managers created a 30-page report titled “A Call to Arms,” detailing recommendations that would help the company reach their audiences and engage with readers. The company’s leadership took the report seriously, and all of the recommendations have already been implemented except for the branding shift, which is set to be finished in the first quarter of 2019, according to Wischnowski.
In addition, Egger was instrumental during the negotiations with the Newspaper Guild. According to Bjork, “PMN needed contracts that allowed for new job categories to meet the digital challenges ahead and more flexibility in shifting work assignments. In return, the Guild could have a lower cost structure for healthcare and benefits. Then, (Egger) never wavered. And despite several tense months, he eventually got exactly what he asked for.”
Wischnowski said, “Both newsroom management and the union unified behind this mission to chart a new course for our future, and Terry deserves tremendous credit for giving us the resources, confidence and clarity to make it happen.”
Not long after the merger, another curve in the road appeared.
In January 2016, just a few months after Egger came onboard as publisher, Lenfest announced he was donating PMN to the nonprofit Institute for Journalism in New Media (now called the Lenfest Institute for Journalism), along with a $20 million endowment. The editorial and news coverage would remain independent from the institute and PMN could still operate as a for-profit business.
This was good news for Egger. To him, that meant their journalism wasn’t going to “serve someone else.”
“We don’t have a Wall Street investor or a hedge fund to answer to,” he said. “One hundred percent of our funds stay right here in Philadelphia.”
Catching Up with the Industry
Coming into the position, Egger knew he had to inject some digital DNA into the legacy media company. Seeing other news organizations struggle with going digital-first or holding on to print too strongly showed Egger they couldn’t be either/or—they had to be both.
Digital, Egger said, was just a new language they had to learn. As part of Egger’s plan, a digital subscription model was launched in September 2017. In just one year, Philly.com generated more than 25,000 digital-only subscribers, surpassing the one-year goal of 20,000, according to Bjork.
But Egger still believes in their print product. For example, he sent 24 PMN journalists to Minneapolis to cover Super Bowl LII as the Philadelphia Eagles faced the New England Patriots (the Eagles won).
“He had so much faith in our coverage that the Monday after, we raised the price of the paper from $2 to $4 and ordered more than 500,000 copies at the newsstand,” Wischnowski said.
After creating the newsroom of the future, changes also came to the advertising department.
“Like with any legacy product, we were dealing with declining revenue in a competitive digital market,” said Jackie Monturano, director of client strategy.
As soon as Egger joined PMN, Monturano said he went on sales calls with advertising reps, attended chamber events, and essentially became the company’s spokesperson. He even “rolled up his sleeves” and jumped headfirst into the interim role of ad director, said Monturano.
Egger also quickly decided to shift the mindset of the advertising department and gave the department a new brand. Now known as Inquirer Solutions, the department’s new mission is to not just sell ads to customers, but to sell solutions. By recently hiring Bob Geiger in the newly-created role of vice president of Inquirer Solutions and Michael Zimbalist as the company’s chief strategy and innovation officer, Egger showed how invested he was in the department’s new direction.
Another new revenue stream was the creation of Inquirer Events. Jennifer Wolf was hired 2.5 years ago as director of special events. She described the department as a “startup with a legacy corporation.” What attracted her to the position was the company’s brand and the opportunity to build revenue and audience engagement.
“In a short amount of time, Terry helped build 15 to 20 events within a year,” Wolf said. “With Terry’s leadership and support, I was able to expand my team from one to five…he has allowed us to take ownership of the department and given us a lot of autonomy.”
Events range from an opioid forum, a 55+ lifestyle conference, a corporate philanthropy conference and awards, and a craft beer competition. Egger is a familiar face at these events, greeting guests when they arrive, giving welcoming remarks, shaking hands with sponsors, and even serving as a moderator or emcee if needed.
Monturano said the new name, hires and products have made a positive impact to the sales team. “There used to be a lot of walls and barriers with the newsroom, but now we’re very open, and we work better together.”
Before Egger’s arrival, the company was “treading water,” said Andy Harrison, chief financial officer and chief operating officer. But with Egger at the helm now, Harrison said he feels the company is now able to “catch up with the industry.”
“Terry understood we needed to pivot digitally,” he said. “He understood we had a very loyal readership and that required good services and good products. That’s a part of what’s going to help us.”
“Why Are We Doing This?”
As Egger reflects on his career, he said there are three pillars he rests on: his family (he and his wife have three children, Anthony, Ali, and Danny); his great mentors; and the colleagues he’s made along the way. Coming to Philadelphia is just another milestone on his long list of accomplishments.
But what began as a vision for Gerry Lenfest has now become a reality. Journalism is certainly thriving in Philadelphia thanks to Egger’s leadership and the commitment of those who work at PMN.
Egger admits there is pressure to get it right, but he’s not in it to impress anyone. “We still have a long way to go, but we need to make sure we’re doing the right things for the right reasons. We have to ask ourselves, ‘Why are we doing this?’”
For Egger, it all goes back to when Lenfest took his hand and invited him to become a part of the story of saving journalism in Philadelphia. After three years, he’s even more determined to continue the important work Lenfest envisioned. It’s a lesson Egger relays to his 1,100 employees.
“Never underestimate the power of your mission, and share that powerful sense of purpose,” he said.