‘Philadelphia Inquirer’ Changes Direction

By: Lucia Moses

When circulation drops 15% in four years, something has to give. At The Philadelphia Inquirer last week, it was the editor.

The final straw came when daily circulation declined 8.8%, to 365,154 (352,565 under the old Audit Bureau of Circulations rules), in the six months ended Sept. 30. Editor Robert J. Rosenthal, 53, who differed with his bosses over the Knight Ridder paper’s suburban coverage strategy, resigned Nov. 5.

Publisher Robert Hall named Walker Lundy, editor of the Saint Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press, another Knight Ridder paper, to succeed him. Lundy, 58, a respected editor, will become the Inquirer‘s first top editor to come from outside the paper in 30 years.

The 19th-biggest U.S. daily has been under pressure from its parent company, which has ratcheted up the profit margin goals for its papers. Knight Ridder CEO Tony Ridder recently named the Inquirer one of the company’s top trouble spots (along with its papers in Detroit and San Jose, Calif.), but Hall has denied that the company ordered Rosenthal out.

“They’ve just had difficulty cracking the suburban culture,” said Stephan Rosenfeld, a former Philadelphia journalist who now runs a communications consultancy there. “For them to attract circulation and advertising in the suburbs, they had to offer a far superior product.”

In Philadelphia, the profit pressure makes the paper’s costly job of attracting readers in the growing suburbs even tougher. Covering the ‘burbs well can’t be done on the cheap. The Inquirer circulates outside Philadelphia in hundreds of municipalities in seven counties spread over two states that are served by scores of already-entrenched local papers. Coverage efforts over the years were varied and erratic, and failed to stem substantial circulation losses.

In the national and international news arena, the Inquirer also competes with The New York Times, which sells some 30,000 copies in its market.

For Rosenthal, who championed investigative, national, and international reporting, suburban coverage was not as high a priority as his bosses would have liked. “Certainly, Bob Hall had issues with the speed of change,” Rosenthal said. To Hall, the dissension was over “how much and how fast and how can we do that with the resources we have,” he told E&P.

Financial pressures led to tough cuts throughout Rosenthal’s four-year term as top editor. In the past two years, a series of buyouts trimmed the news staff by 23%, to 485, while the number of correspondents — junior reporters who handle the bulk of the suburban coverage — dropped by 34%, to 71, according to The Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia. Cutbacks in telemarketing and circulation promotions also undermined circulation in the last year.

Henry J. Holcomb, an Inquirer reporter who helped launch the paper’s suburban bureaus in the 1980s, said that while the paper could have been more aggressive in covering the suburbs, Rosenthal wasn’t entirely to blame. “I think Rosey was clearly interested in the major issues that affect this market, whether they be local or national,” Holcomb said. “Could he have been more personally involved in dealing with the problems of covering [the suburbs]? Perhaps. But he’s had a full plate throughout his editorship.”

Lundy, who officially takes over Nov. 26, has been soliciting staff for suggestions on how to improve the paper. He expanded the Pioneer Press‘ suburban coverage four years ago, and, he said, “You can’t do zoning inexpensively.”

He also will have to deal with a newsroom culture that isn’t always in sync with the paper’s priorities today. Many still pine for the days of Editor Eugene L. Roberts Jr., who poured resources into investigative projects during the 1970s and ’80s and led the paper to 17 Pulitzer Prizes — and they aren’t jazzed about suburban news. As Tom Ferrick, a metro columnist and 26-year Inquirer veteran put it, “What would you rather cover, City Hall or Tunafish Township?”

Lundy, whose Pioneer Press won a Pulitzer last year for beat reporting, told E&P that a newspaper the size of the Inquirer “has to and can” excel at local as well as global coverage. “I don’t think the era of great journalism is over at the Inquirer.”

The best judge of the Inquirer will be its readers, not the Pulitzer board, he said. “I think if I had a choice of winning 10,000 readers or a Pulitzer, I’d rather have 10,000 readers. And then I’d want a Pulitzer.”

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