Publisher: Stalberg Wasn’t Forced Out, and Paper Won’t Soon Go Free

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By: Joe Strupp

As rumors swirled about why longtime editor Zack Stalberg chose earlier this week to suddenly leave The Philadelphia Daily News, Publisher Joseph Natoli made clear Wednesday that Stalberg left on his own and for his own reasons.

“He’s 57, and he has been thinking about doing something else before he’s done, and he decided the time was now,” Natoli, who has served as publisher for almost a year, told E&P. “The timing was all his. He wants to leave quickly, and that is just his style.”

But Natoli, who serves as chairman and publisher of Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. and is responsible for the Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer, said changes are likely for the tabloid, including a remote chance of a switch to free distribution. “I wouldn’t rule it out,” he said. “But the likelihood of it converting to a free newspaper is unlikely.”

Natoli stressed that the PNI, owned by Knight Ridder, is looking at “many, many things and lots of ways to grow the business.” He said the papers, especially the Daily News, need to grow small retail advertising, pre-press publications, and readership. “How do we bring more advertising revenue in and put more eyeballs on the advertising? We are looking at whatever options are out there.”

Speculation about the future of the Daily News heightened on Monday when Stalberg, who had been at the paper for 34 years — including 20 as editor — announced his last day would be Feb. 11. Stalberg and Natoli also quickly chose Managing Editor Michael Days as the new editor, bypassing any chance for a lengthy search.

Stalberg’s decision to make the announcement during the hectic week before the Philadelphia Eagles play in Super Bowl XXXIX, and with such a quick departure date, raised eyebrows among staff. Some outsiders claim he was forced out as the first step toward merging the paper with the Inquirer or making it a free publication.

But according to several newsroom employees, Stalberg had commented on thinking about retirement as far back as two years ago.

In a lengthy story in Tuesday’s Daily News, Stalberg said the final decision came after he attended the Jan. 6 funeral of former reporter Leon “Fly” Taylor, who had left the paper years earlier wanting to do something else. “I thought to myself, Fly had a plan here. He knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life,” the paper quoted Stalberg as saying.

Stalberg could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Several staffers who have known Stalberg for years contend that the stated reasons appear to be genuine. “What he has said is what he told me; there is nothing going on in the background,” said longtime columnist Stu Bykofsky. “I take him at his word.”

Veteran reporter Kitty Caparelli, a former Newpaper Guild leader, also believed Stalberg just wanted to leave. “We have poked and prodded and we have asked if this is the closing of the paper and everyone has said no,” she told E&P.

Natoli said Stalberg sought a quick departure because he did not want to be looking for his next job activity while still serving as editor. “He wanted to be able to consider options and for him to run around town and do that, he did not want to while he was in this job,” the publisher said. “Once it was clear, I wanted to do what was best for him.”

Stalberg’s departure comes at a time when the Daily News has seen a daily circulation slide to 135,000 for the six months ending September 2004, compared to 143,000 for the same period a year earlier, according to the last Audit Bureau of Circulations FAS-FAX report. In addition, the paper last fall had to pay an undisclosed amount to settle a lawsuit by former reporter Kevin Haney, who sued in 2002 after the paper allegedly failed to give him proper family leave to care for his disabled son.

“I suspect it might have been a factor, but not the only factor,” Haney said Wednesday.

Natoli dismissed either development as a reason for Stalberg’s leaving. “They are unrelated,” he said.

Stalberg plans to stay in Philadelphia and will remain with the paper as a paid consultant, Natoli added. “Zack has been an excellent partner to me, and I will miss his in-depth knowledge of this place and the community.”

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