Web Special:<BR>Black Tuesday  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    * WEB ONLY    
From AJR,   October/November 2005

Web Special:
Black Tuesday   

The axman cometh to Philadelphia’s newspapers.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

It's just so sad.

Another round of punishing cuts at the Philadelphia Inquirer will leave the paper with 75 fewer newsroom staffers. That will bring the total to 425 — about 300 fewer than it had in 1989, according to the Newspaper Guild.

The paper's Rome bureau will be axed. In the 1990s the paper had four foreign bureaus. Now it will have one.

The relentless dismantling of the once-great Inquirer has been one of journalism's truly distressing stories of the last decade.

The whatever-it-takes ethos of the Pulitzer-machine years is a distant memory.

Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crow maintain that the first cut is the deepest, but I'm not so sure. This latest slash, another in a series, seemed particularly painful.

As my friend Don McDonough would say, how much can the human body endure?

A teary Amanda Bennett, the Inquirer's editor, said she had felt the worst of the cuts were behind the paper when she took over two years ago. Maybe not.

Of course the Inky had plenty of company on Black Tuesday. Its sister paper, the Daily News, its newsroom staff already grievously shrunken by previous reductions, will lose 25 of its 130 positions. And even the New York Times Co. was wielding the budget ax, eliminating 45 jobs in the Times newsroom and 35 editorial slots at the Boston Globe.

There's never a good time for this kind of news, but the timing couldn't have been worse, coming just after the splendid Katrina coverage reminded us how important newspapers can be.

The carnage at the Inky has particular resonance for me. I got into the business there as a summer police reporter and, after college, worked at the paper as a suburban and City Hall reporter. This was in the 1960s, when the Inquirer was one of the worst metro dailies in the country. (It was owned by the fabulously wealthy Walter Annenberg, a vivid reminder that local, independent ownership is not necessarily nirvana.)

Later, when I was at the Philadelphia Bulletin, I competed against the Inquirer after it was acquired by Knight Newspapers (now Knight Ridder) and watched with a mix of frustration and awe as Gene Roberts, with a major assist from John McMullan, turned the once-wretched daily into one of the nation's absolutely best newspapers.

The Inquirer of those days had many terrific qualities. The most notable was the towering ambition, the sense that greatness was not only possible but mandatory. It thought and played huge.

There's not much of that spirit left in the newspaper business. Thanks, Wall Street.

The battering of the Daily News hits me hard too. I've always loved the paper. In fact, in the awful pre-Internet days, I twice had out-of-town subscriptions to the paper.

Back in the 1960s its sports section under Larry Merchant published some of the most literary newspapering I've ever seen. More important, for years the News has had an unrivaled sense of place, perfectly reflecting the magnificently quirky city it covers.

It now will endeavor to do that with a staff less than half the size it was 20 years ago. The Inquirer quoted Daily News veteran Bob Warner as saying, "They're taking the institution I work for and destroying it."

So why the slash-and-burn? Are the Philly papers on the verge of bankruptcy?

Not so much. Joe Natoli, head of the entity that publishes the papers, says their profits are in the "low double digits," a margin most industries would kill for. In 1995, in fact, that's where the margins were of Knight Ridder, McClatchy and Dow Jones (the New York Times Co. was in single digits at 9.6 percent).

But in today's Wall Street-dominated newspaper world, that's chump change.

Sure circulation is down, and the ad climate isn't robust. But putting out an inferior product — and that's what cuts of this magnitude mean — doesn't seem like a brilliant strategy for turning things around.



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