Q&A: Greg Osberg, Publisher and CEO, Philadelphia Newspapers

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By: Shawn Moynihan

In late April, when the group led by former Philadelphia Newspapers CEO Brian Tierney lost in a bankruptcy auction to the senior creditors of The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, the new owners called on Greg Osberg to run the operation. The former president and publisher of Newsweek has also been president/CEO of Buzzwire, a Denver-based company that was ahead of the curve in providing news, data and streaming media over mobile phones. Osberg spoke with E&P Managing Editor Shawn Moynihan about his plans for the two newspapers, including the digital opportunities that lay within.

Q: What’s your first task going to be, as you begin to guide these two newspapers? Do you feel there’s a sense of circling the wagons that has to be done, rally the troops under one banner as you start?

A: The past year has been a difficult one for the employees, with all the uncertainty surrounding the bankruptcy period. They have done a remarkable job of staying focused on their jobs and the tasks at hand. Now that the ownership auction is over I am trying to meet with as many people as possible to learn about their business and attempt to relieve any of the anxiety and fear that may have built up over the past 15 months. We have a challenging and exciting future ahead of us, as we begin building the first successful local media model, and I want everyone to know that this is our goal.

The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News have a long legacy in print, and you’ve said that the strategy going forward is going to be digital-first. How much of a role will that play in these papers’ futures, as opposed to the print product?

We are very fortunate to have the excellent content provided by the Inquirer and The Daily News. They are Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers that will provide the foundation for the digital strategy of Philly.com going forward. What I would like to see in the future is a company that places its digital strategy on equal footing with the print strategy as we begin to explore our options. In the past, most magazine and newspaper companies have allowed digital to take a back seat to print in their planning due to the size of its revenue and profit contributions. We’ll be considering both simultaneously as we begin planning and executing our new strategy.

Can you detail how much emphasis might be put on delivery for mobile content, which some would argue is a more pressing issue than presenting content for e-tablets?

Both technologies are important to our future. I believe the market for mobile has already arrived, and it won’t be long before more people are browsing the Web via their cell phones versus their computers. We recently switched over to Verve, a new mobile publishing platform, and our traffic as grown dramatically. There are many applications for smartphones and location-based technologies that I want us to explore so that we can offer consumers in the Philadelphia area content and commerce opportunities that are targeted to who they are, where they are and what they want. E-tablets are new to the scene, but it’s an exciting technology that will allow us to test various paid subscription models for content. I believe it will be a fast-growing market but it will trail the mobile audience significantly.

You told the Daily News in April that one of your goals is to encourage and reward innovation throughout the company. Can you expound on that a bit?

Relevancy of Content, Innovation and Profitability are the three guiding principles for this company going forward. When I refer to Innovation, it means that I want to encourage innovative thinking among the entire staff … whether you’re working in the printing plant, the Circulation Department or the digital group. Last week, the national ad sales team announced a 3-D experience that will be launched in the Inquirer on June 13 (Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in late May). It will be sponsored by Best Buy and it’s the first time this 3-D paper technology will be utilized in a major city paper. This is an example of what I’m talking about with respect to Innovation and how I’d like our readers, viewers and advertisers to think about us in the future.

What will you take from your experience running Buzzwire, that might improve the ways in which content is delivered by these two newspapers?

My experiences at CNET and Buzzwire have shown me how critical it is for content publishers to embrace the newest technologies and be willing to adjust your business model as consumers and advertisers alter their expectations.

Talks are under way with the company’s 14 unions on a new labor agreement — I know it’s early days, but how do you see those negotiations proceeding? Is there hope for resolution there?

Our discussions with the unions are under way, and there is an understanding of the economic and industry challenges that we all are facing. I am hopeful that we’ll be able to arrive at agreements that will allow us to move forward with the financial stability necessary to begin building the most successful local media company in the country.

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