Sinking Ship

Once a Pulitzer-winning machine that dominated the region, the Inquirer today is losing readers faster than any major paper in the country. What went wrong?

Whenever he reaches the point of looking back on his time as editor and executive vice president of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Robert J. Rosenthal probably will not count Sept. 30, 1999, among his better days. That day and the next were spent in the Center City offices of Beasley, Casey and Erbstein, where Rosenthal was deposed by attorney James Beasley, who represents the plaintiff in the matter of Cipriano v. Rosenthal, et al.

One newspaper staffer who saw Rosenthal on the morning of Sept. 30, before the deposition began, told colleagues that Rosenthal looked “scared shitless.” And who can blame him? He was on his way to his first of what could be a series of toe-to-toe matches with Beasley, the same lawyer who tagged the Inquirer for two libel verdicts — one for $6 million, the other a record-setting $34 million — in the early 1990s. And as if that weren’t enough, this is no ordinary libel case. It was brought by a man who was an Inquirer reporter at the time, Ralph Cipriano, and has turned into something of a spectacle in the industry.

Some details about the deposition have leaked out. For example, Rosenthal supposedly revealed that Katherine Hatton, in-house counsel for Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News parent company Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. (PNI), was the primary author of a letter Rosenthal sent to the Washington Post in July 1998, as pressure mounted to explain the biting remarks about Cipriano he’d made a few weeks before to Post media writer Howard Kurtz — the remarks that would later become the basis of Cipriano’s lawsuit.

It’s a small point, in the scheme of things; prudence dictates that an attorney should be consulted before making public statements on matters that could lead to litigation. But to an increasingly bitter element within the Inquirer, it’s just further evidence that Rosey, as most call him, is not in control, and hasn’t been for a long time.

He brought this on himself, they contend, by stubbornly refusing to apologize when it was clear to everyone, himself included, that he’d unfairly and unwisely questioned the integrity of one of his own reporters in a major national newspaper. And so they can’t forgive him for being absorbed at times by this embarrassing, potentially career-crippling case when there is so much more to worry about.

Because when viewed from a distance, the Cipriano affair is not at the top of the paper’s list of problems. Of greater import is the fact that the Inquirer is losing readers faster than any newspaper of comparable size in the country. A report released last spring by the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), the largest independent verifier of newspapers’ circulation figures, showed that the Inquirer’s daily circulation had dipped to just under 402,000 — a 7.2 percent decrease from the same six-month period the previous year. Sunday circulation dropped 7.9 percent, to about 802,000. (In March 1990, Sunday circulation stood at 996,000, and daily was more than 511,000.)

No other newspaper among the nation’s top 25 (based on average daily circulation) even came close to the Inquirer’s losses this year. In fact, some papers showed small to moderate gains.

Early word on the figures from the six-month period that ended on Sept. 30 is almost as dismal. According to an informed source, “rough” estimates show the Inky’s Sunday and daily circulation stood at about 820,000 and 400,000, respectively, during the March-September reporting period — another decline of about 7 percent from the same period in 1998. (PNI spokeswoman Pamela Browner confirmed that the decline was “6 to 7 percent.”) And remember, this period included a hotly contested and important mayoral primary and the sudden death of John F. Kennedy Jr., both of which the paper covered quite well.

Meanwhile, veteran journalists — folks who have written or edited for the Inquirer for 10, 15, 20 years — are leaving at a steady rate. To be fair, whether this represents serious loss or an overdue shake-up depends on whom you ask; even some current and former reporters concede that there is dead wood in the newsroom. But it’s worth noting that most of those who have departed in the 1990s — particularly the years in which Rosenthal’s predecessor, Max King, was editor — did not make lateral moves or step down; the Washington Post and the New York Times have been the greatest beneficiaries of the Inquirer’s revolving door, suggesting that an incalculable amount of journalistic talent has been lost to papers with better reputations and higher salaries.

“The Inquirer used to be a destination paper,” argues one former staffer. “Now it’s a stepping stone.”

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Under Gene Roberts, who resigned as editor in 1990 after 18 years, the Inquirer bested the vaunted Bulletin in a nasty old-time newspaper war, won 17 Pulitzer Prizes and was widely seen as worthy of mention in the same breath as the Post and Times.

And yet here we are, just nine years later, with more people deciding every day that the Inquirer is not vital to their lives; with longtime staffers so angry and disillusioned that they practically spit as they recount their myriad gripes. (Not one of the 10 current Inquirer staffers interviewed for this story would speak on the record.)

Every daily newspaper in the country is struggling to figure out how to hold on to the readers it has, and win back some of those it’s lost to 24-hour cable news stations, weekly papers, the Internet and societal shifts in priorities; to serve their communities in the ways tradition dictates, and satisfy the demands of ownership for profit. In this regard, the Inquirer is no different from any other major daily.

Except that here, for many reasons, it’s much, much worse. Rosenthal, who was widely perceived in the newsroom as the right choice to succeed King, inherited many of the problems with which he contends, but he has created others. And while details about his dealings with owner Knight Ridder are scarce, the pressure must be intense. In addition to losing readers (the Daily News’ circulation has been dropping too, though not as rapidly), PNI lags far behind other Knight Ridder entities in revenue growth.

Internal matters inevitably affect the quality of the coverage, and throughout the ’90s, it seems, just about everything that could go wrong at the Inquirer has.

On Oct. 13, Bob Rosenthal agreed to an interview with City Paper on two conditions: that it be conducted in person rather than on the phone, and that the reporter agree to spend at least two hours with him. In addition to answering questions that had been faxed to him, Rosenthal said he wanted to go through the paper, page by page, as he explained his views on its coverage.

Two days later, the plan changed. Rosenthal called to say “the lawyers” had advised him against talking, due to the unresolved Cipriano suit. (For the record, only one of the 17 questions faxed to Rosenthal pertained to that matter, and even that allowed plenty of room to avoid sensitive details: “To what extent, if any, has the ongoing suit brought by Ralph Cipriano been a distraction?”)

So responsibility for speaking on behalf of the Inquirer fell to assistant managing editor for readership, Arlene Notoro Morgan. And in Morgan’s assessment, the Inquirer isn’t necessarily struggling more than other major papers. In fact, there is reason for hope, and an expectation of improvement.

“We are dealing with circulation probably differently than we have in the past, so it looks like we’re struggling more so with it,” she explains. “In the past we used a lot of circulation programs — selling [papers] at events, the NIE stuff — which is Newspapers in Education [a program through which newspapers donate copies to schools but count them as circulation] — giveaways, discounts and all that. That was short-term strategy, and I think we’ve all worked in strategic initiatives over the past couple of years, to try to really take the paper into a much more long-term view.… And I think part of what Bob [Hall, publisher of the Inquirer and Daily News] decided to do was to let all those gimmicks, all those things go by the boards and really look at circulation as a long-term issue.

“He thinks that the strategies we’re using now — [a new service called] Paper Within a Paper, the advertising campaign, the marketing campaign… that we are going to turn it around and that in the fourth quarter he expects gains. And we can see already, certainly in New Jersey, where we have stopped the losses, especially in home subscription.”

While reasonable and accurate, this explanation raises two points: One, that for the period in which promotional “gimmicks” were employed — four to six years, according to Morgan — the Inquirer’s circulation figures were misleadingly large. And two, that while circulation has been declining steadily throughout the ’90s, only this year have serious efforts been made to reverse that by improving the way the paper covers the region.

    • Josh Kruger is an award-winning writer and editor-in-chief of Philadelphia Weekly. His past work includes years as a journalist with Philadelphia Weekly, his PW column “The Uncomfortable Whole” winning multiple awards, including the Society of Professional Journalists’ First Place award for newspaper commentary in both 2014 and 2015. Josh has written for a variety of local and national publications, and his work often includes his perspective as someone with lived experience with HIV, homelessness, poverty, trauma, and addiction along with expert analysis from years of experience in journalism and public service following a five year stint in local government communications. He is a member of Philly’s local LGBTQ community, a parishioner at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, a militant bicyclist, and resident of the Point Breeze section of the city with his cat, a senior tom named Mason.

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