In the End, Zone  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   September 2002

In the End, Zone   

Change is afoot at the Philadelphia Inquirer after Editor Walker Lundy announces his plan to cover the suburbs.

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      


What to do about the suburbs?

The conundrum has plagued the Philadelphia Inquirer, where circulation has dropped like a rock--5 percent since 2000, 24 percent since 1992. More than 60 percent of the paper's readers reside in the 'burbs. But budgetary seesaws coupled with a fear that trying to out-local the locals would diminish the paper's journalistic strengths (this is the paper that won 17 Pulitzers in 18 years, remember) have resulted in a rather fuzzy mission. Since 1998, suburban coverage has jumped from four zones to five, then, because of money constraints, down to three.

So when former St. Paul Pioneer Press Editor Walker Lundy took over the top post at the paper last November, a weary staff was hoping for a vision (see "Identity Crisis," January/February). Well, they got one. But it's going to require a heck of a lot of change.

Lundy's suburban plan, announced in late July, calls for creating 80 positions, mostly in the suburbs, and eliminating 23 existing city jobs. The paper is hiring 40 new people and moving some of its suburban writers into new positions. But, most likely, there will be more shuffling beyond these initial steps. "We need to see who inside steps up for the posted jobs," Lundy says. "There will be a couple waves of jobs posted and filled, which then open up other jobs."

Those three zones will go back up to five--Pennsylvania's Bucks, Montgomery and Chester counties; South Jersey; and a Philadelphia edition that includes the inner ring of Pennsylvania suburbs. It's all supposed to happen around October 1.

"I love this plan," says Metro Editor Matt Golas, a lead participant of a committee of 13 staffers who drafted the regional-focused strategy. "This is the last one I'm going to do. I've been involved in five different zoning plans, and this one is by far the most well thought-out.... It keeps our core values in place."

Golas says the emphasis will be on chasing big regional stories, not sitting through night meetings. "We've targeted some geographic areas to cover, but essentially it's an enterprise plan." Issues-oriented beats include sprawl, outdoors, poverty and quality of life.

The goal is simple: increase circulation. Daily circulation is now 381,104. There's no specific target for this year, Lundy says, but there will be in the 2003 budget.

The staff took the news with a mixture of some enthusiasm and hope, but also a lot of uncertainty and frustration. "I've been here 19 years, and I have never seen people more angry and more hurt by what they see as insensitivity," says business writer and Guild President Henry J. Holcomb. "The reaction to this suburban plan has sort of been the straw that broke the camel's back."

Lundy says the committee devised the coverage strategy but "the decision on how to allocate the resources was mine." That's one part that Holcomb and others are upset about. The paper is laying off 10 editorial assistants, part-timers who put in almost full-time hours; phasing out the two-year suburban intern program; and reallocating some expense, salary and merit money, Lundy says. The paper will also spend more on production and additional newshole.

The Guild has issued strongly worded memos regarding those layoffs and the way staffers were told that their positions were being nixed. The changes include the merging of the national and international desks, which results in the transfer of two positions (National Editor David Taylor's is one of them); the loss of Larry Eichel's political column; and the transfer of Monica Yant Kinney from a metro columnist to a New Jersey-based columnist.

"Dave Taylor and others like him that were booted out of their jobs were basically called in and told, 'Your job is being eliminated,' " Holcomb says. "It could have been done a lot more gracefully."

Lundy has a different philosophy. "I thought rather than telling a particular staffer that this is their new job," he says, "it would be better to say, 'Here are 80 jobs, which one or ones would you like.' " As for the editorial assistants, Lundy says the cut wasn't to save money, "but because I think we need reporters more than we need editorial assistants."

Some in the main newsroom find it hard to muster excitement for the massive change--particularly one that involves staff cuts--after being so beaten down by what's happened to the paper in the last few years.

"I suppose it could've been worse," says Dale Mezzacappa, an education reporter who's been at the Inquirer 23 years. "At least it talks about having more news people on the ground. Although even when you add them up, it's less than we had two years ago. The idea of boosting our coverage area and the type of journalism they want, it's acceptable, I suppose, but the question is whether it will turn out that way."

The Inquirer lost about 100 people to buyouts and attrition in 2000 and 2001, and then suffered through the departure of Editor Robert J. Rosenthal, Lundy's predecessor. Meanwhile, in August, Deputy Managing Editor Hank Klibanoff, a 20-year Inky veteran, announced that he was taking an ME job at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"It just feels like we've been kicked in the stomach a lot this year," says reporter Tom Ginsberg, "and especially today [when Klibanoff said he was leaving], and it's just hard to keep getting up when you've been kicked in the stomach."

Journalistically, Ginsberg says, "the plan is very laudable." Though he worries about merging the national and foreign desks. "In my opinion it's inevitable that we become more of a wire-service-dependent paper for things happening outside of our region.... It takes away the sense in the newsroom that we have the ability and the right to cover any story anywhere."

However, those in the suburbs, he says, may be able to shed the feeling that they're in the backwater. Montgomery County Editor Paul Jablow, who has worked at the paper for 29 years, says the suburban and Jersey bureaus used to be Siberia. "Frankly, under [Lundy's] predecessor the suburbs were considered exile, and I think that was unfortunate."

Indeed, this is where the enthusiasm for the plan comes in. "I'm thrilled," says Jere Downs. "It's easy to say because I have the best job I've ever had at the paper." Downs, who has worked in the suburbs for all nine years she's been with the Inky, is a transportation writer who will be part of a four-person enterprise team.

"I think what we tried to do before, we tried to lower our standards" to be like some of the small papers that ring the city, Downs says. "And I believe our mandate now is to satisfy that hunger that our readers have out here for depth."

All of the staff movement could mean more pain for the main newsroom, and Lundy acknowledges that it's going to be difficult. "None of us likes change," the editor says. "What I said to the staff is this isn't about us. It's about the readers." (In August, Lundy made one other big move: promoting Deputy Managing Editor Anne Gordon to managing editor, a slot that's been vacant since January.)

Unlike the Inquirer's past suburban policies, it seems like the paper will stick with this. Golas says he told everyone who would listen that they would have to give the plan a three-year commitment. They agreed, he says.

Whether staffers are happy about it or not, they knew a change was coming. "What [Lundy's] trying to do might not succeed, might not guarantee success," says Jablow, "but I think not trying what he's trying to do will guarantee failure."

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