Philly Vets Stalberg and Roberts Lament Buyouts, Disagree Over Impact

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By: Joe Strupp

With a combined 38 years of running newsrooms in Philadelphia, former editors Zack Stalberg and Gene Roberts are well-positioned to assess the impact of Tuesday’s announced buyout plan at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News.

But when E&P asked the former newsroom bosses what they thought of the buyouts, which could mean 75 editorial job losses at the Inquirer and 25 at the Daily News, the veteran editors offered sharply different reactions.

While both were surprised that the proposed cuts ran so deep, and were not happy to hear about them, Stalberg expressed optimism that the news staffs could overcome the reductions with a new approach, while Roberts saw them as a kind of death knell.

“I did not expect a crisis of this proportion this year, [so] it surprises me a little bit,” said Stalberg, who edited the Daily News for 20 years before retiring in February 2005 to run a local non-profit. “But the future will depend on what [the editors] can do to re-invent their newspapers. How creative they are in dealing with this.”

Stalberg, who had a total of 34 years at the Daily News, noted that nearly every newspaper in the country is having to contend with staff cuts. “The old days of having enough to cover everything are over,” he said. “Not trying to do the same thing with fewer people, but figuring out what matters and do something different.”

Stalberg said he would focus both newspapers on more enterprise stories and aim to give readers something different from competitors. “Something that will make the product necessary to the reader,” he said. “It is not pleasant, but it is not isolated to Philly. The economic pressures are everywhere.”

Roberts, who ran the Inquirer from 1972 to 1990 — during which the paper won 17 Pulitzer Prizes — saw things differently. He called today’s plan “suicidal.”

“Long range, it will hurt both papers and cause immediate problems at the Daily News,” he told E&P. “They are staffed at rock-bottom already.”

The Inquirer has about 500 editorial employees, while the Daily News staff is at 130.

“I feel very sad,” added Roberts, who teaches at the University of Maryland. “Every time you cut, some level of readership disappears. Other competitors can move into the vacuum. Philadelphia has one of the most complicated coverage areas in the U.S. You have to cover 200 school districts and that is manpower-intensive. Families rely on newspapers to cover their schools, the same with police coverage.

“It makes me feel very distressed. The financial health of the Inquirer depends on maintaining coverage.” The suburban base, which Roberts said generates most of the paper’s advertising, could be damaged.

Roberts agreed that such cutbacks were not unique to Philadelphia. But, he said the cuts were based mainly on meeting Wall Street projections, not reversing crippling budgetary losses. “It is not a question of losing money,” he said. “It is a question of operating margins.”

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