Killing the cash cow and other acts of media indecency

You can find any number of similar stories about how the Internet forced media to fragment and change. So why does <i>The Philadelphia Inquirer</i> think it can defy history?

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read

And I was feeling so good today--that is until I read this memo from The Philadelphia Inquirer's managing editor Mike Leary to his staff, essentially establishing guidelines on how the newspaper intends to commit ritual hara-kiri.

"Colleagues--Beginning today, we are adopting an Inquirer first policy for our signature investigative reporting, enterprise, trend stories, news features, and reviews of all sorts. What that means is that we won't post those stories online until they're in print. We'll cooperate with Philly.com, as we do now, in preparing extensive online packages to accompany our enterprising work. But we'll make the decision to press the button on the online packages only when readers are able to pick up the Inquirer on their doorstep or on the newsstand."

"For our bloggers, especially, this may require a bit of an adjustment. Some of you like to try out ideas that end up as subjects of stories or columns in print first. If in doubt, consult your editor. Or me or Chris Krewson."

(Here's a follow-up interview Ryan Sholin conducted with Chris Krewson, the executive editor for online/news at the Inquirer.)

Luckily, I don't work for the Philly Inquirer and I don't have to consult with Leary, Krewson or any other editor who signed off on this disastrous policy in order to understand that it's doomed to fail. The Inquirer believes this policy will make its paper a more relevant read. I beg to differ.

What's profoundly depressing is that this mindset still infects the newsroom of a top city daily, as if the last decade's worth of media transformation never took place. If I did find myself in the employ of Messrs. Leary, Krewson et al, I would argue in a counter-memo that the Inquirer was long past the point where newspapers can force readers to use a certain medium. If readers want to read a publication online, at least they're reading us. It's a tough business and making the jump from one business model to another is hard. Still, the prescription offered up is redolent of how people in the media business thought about the Internet in the mid-1990s.

I can tell you a story about those times. Back then, I worked at PC Week, which then was a $100 million-plus property and widely considered to be the preeminent news property covering technology. My job was to help get PC Week online. In the beginning, that largely consisted of repurposing "middle of the book" pieces which closed earlier in the week. These were basically filler pieces and totally uninteresting to more than a fraction of the readership. We held the good stuff for print.

Then one day Lisa DiCarlo (who later moved on to Forbes) came to me with a minor scoop about a Hewlett-Packard printer price cut. The news was not going to hold so why not run it online? And so we did. Within the hour, Lisa received a phone call from a Wall Street analyst asking if she could share any more details. Obviously, somebody was reading this stuff.

Unfortunately for me, so was the publisher, who came storming down the hall after finding out we were posting original content. "Are you crazy?" he asked. "We can't do that. We'll kill the cash cow!"

I don't want to embarrass the man so I'll refer to him as P. He knew the technology business inside out and was as good a space salesman as they came. To be fair, I can't really dun him for not being clairvoyant. How many among us were? (If I were so smart, I would have started Amazon before Jeff Bezos.) But P was so much a prisoner of his previous success that he could not envision dispensing with a business model that had worked so splendidly for him until then.

We know what subsequently happened to PC Week as well as the rest of tech publishing's star properties. These "weeklies" either migrated online, where they published in real time, or they become irrelevant to the conversation. These days you can find any number of similar stories about how the Internet forced media to fragment and change. But now the braintrust in charge at the Inquirer believes it can prove itself the exception to that rule simply by "saving the good stuff" for the a.m. edition delivered to subscribers by the paperboy.

On his blog, the always excellent Jeff Jarvis titled his post, "A stake through the heart of the has-been Inquirer."

Sadly, that's spot on.