Lessons from Philadelphia Media

Philadelphia is shockingly barren of hard-hitting investigative journalism. The dominant newspaper, the Inquirer (locally the “Inky”) prefers to sit back, generally focusing its limited investigative resources on police issues. This is useful in its own way — because local media have a long history of holding the Philadelphia Police Department to the fire, police brutality issues here seem not to be as severe as those in e.g. Baltimore or St. Louis — but at the same time it has cast deep shadows for political corruption. Meanwhile, attempts at creating an alternative to the Inky (often with an investigative focus on political corruption) have not met with sustained success.

Perhaps the longest-lasting, the alternative weekly City Paper, sold to the much less interesting, but more profitable, alt-weekly rag Philly Weekly a few years back and was excised from existence. City Paper had been — by far — the best source for local political news, and its writing pool easily boasted the best journalists in the city. After it went under, attempts at online platforms intensified. Patrick Kerkstra led the charge at Philadelphia magazine, developing a suite of daily blogs that mimicked newspaper sections — the front page, sports, real estate — and poaching the city’s best reporting talent (mostly from the recently-defunct City Paper) to run them. Meanwhile, PlanPhilly‘s erstwhile editor, Matt Golas, got local PBS affiliate WHYY to pick it up, and began reorganizing both it and WHYY’s Northwest Philly-focused outlet, Newsworks, into a journalism platform to rival the Inky’s.

Despite City Paper‘s untimely departure, the future of Philly investigative journalism — at least online — looked fairly bright in mid-2015.

Then — just as his efforts at WHYY were bearing fruit — Golas was forced out in late 2015. Kerkstra would follow a year later, as Philly mag’s showrunners decided to go in a different direction, favoring advertiser-pleasing copy over high-readership stories. That fallout has only just begun. And Philadelphia is left bereft of a high-quality investigative-journalism outlet — again.

Despite generations of reporters trying to change it, Philadelphia’s status quo has never favored investigative journalism. The “corrupt and content” city’s dominant paper, for more than a century, was the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (often shortened to just the “Bulletin”). As its name implies, it never seems to have had much interest in investigative journalism, favoring instead a role as the dominant party machine’s mouthpiece. The Inky was merely a distant #2.

This all changed in the 1970s, when Knight Papers bought the Inky and heavily invested in it, modernizing its facilities and bringing in some of the country’s best investigative journalists. This new, more muckraking Inky quickly began to win Pulitzers — and readers. By the early 1980s, it had forced the staid Bulletin out of business entirely, and became the Philadelphia region’s paper of record. Knight Papers had believed in investigative news, and as the Inky’s editorial board was one of the last they had overhauled before selling to Ridder, it was one of the last that the new combined company would start tinkering with. Thus, the Inky carried on the Knight legacy through the 1980s — a period when it was arguably one of the country’s best papers.

By the early 1990s, however, the replacement of Knight editors with Knight Ridder ones had begun in earnest, and the paper’s quality had begun to suffer. Much like the Bulletin before it, the Inky stopped prioritizing muckraking. Investigative reporters moved on, into the alt-weekly scene or to friendlier paper-of-record locales. Readership and profitability began to suffer — unlike the Bulletin, the Inky did not have an enduring paper-of-record legacy, having only been the city’s dominant for a decade. Spearheaded by powers-that-be at the very top, the Inky turned away from the brand they had successfully built over the previous twenty years, and contented corruption returned to the very top of the local media.

So, by the early 2000s, the paper was treading water when the bottom fell out of its revenue stream. Most people attribute the rise of the Internet to the fall of American newspapers. This is only half-true: it was the rise of Craigslist, in particular, that led to the collapse of the newspaper revenue model — which depended on classified advertising. Easily half, if not more, of that revenue was lost — irrevocably — in every market Craigslist established a beachhead in — and it established a beachhead in every market. Quickly. The Inky’s parent, Knight Ridder, began losing money, shedding staff, and was forced to pivot its revenue model towards retail advertising (the circulars and other junk in the middle, as well as on-page ads) even as competition diversified.

Knight Ridder merged with McClatchy in 2006, and the new owners spun off most of their portfolio of either (a) weaker newspapers or (b) newspapers that did not fit the direction their corporate parent wished to take. The Inky was one of those. Coming under ownership of Philadelphia Media Holdings, its quality continued to worsen, sapping subscribers and readership revenue, in a penny-wise-pound-foolish attempt to trim its way to profitability. Finally, Comcast’s Gerry Lenfest stepped in and assumed control of the bankrupt paper, worried, perhaps, that it would go the way of the Times-Picayune and cease to be a daily affair.

It would be nice if the Inky became a bastion of investigative reporting again, but in all probability it won’t. Newspapers are not the only dominant media voices that tend to avoid investigation in the Philadelphia region. Action News, the dominant local news program, also follows Bulletin-esque editorial guidelines. Ironically enough, the best source for investigative local news is Fox 29, a position that so flagrantly opposes their national showrunners’ that almost every Fox 29-Fox News interaction rapidly becomes painfully awkward to watch.

But there is a strange lesson to be had here. Doubtless, Gilded Age politicians and robber barons disliked muckrakers’ nosing around. The idea of a corrupt and content city with enabling media must have been intoxicating to these people. As the TV replaced papers as the source of most peoples’ news, the trend towards showrunners replicating the ideas implicit in the Bulletin’s editorial guidelines — “the newspaper is the guest in the reader’s house; tell the news, nothing more, nothing less” — began to intensify in the more legitimate circuits. (It gave way to propaganda on Fox News; even liberally-focused MSNBC has yet to go so far down that route.) Corruption rages in the shade, and without muckraking, shadows grow deep.

So how do we monetize muckraking?

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