Time for new management at Philly’s big dailies

By | February 17, 2012

After a year and a half running Philly.com, the Inquirer and Daily News, Greg Osberg and co. have made some impressive contributions to the canon of Deadly Sins in Journalism. Every week brings another teaching moment. Philadelphia has become a mad scientist’s laboratory of experiments in how not to run a newspaper. This needs to stop, and that means Osberg has to go.

I had high hopes for the dailies and their website when the new publisher took over. Osberg had the right credentials to shepherd Philly’s strong reporting into the online world. The experiment with the news tablet, despite its evident flaws, seemed to me like a risk worth taking. But my hopes faded, month after month, as it became clear that the new leadership wasn’t serious about addressing its biggest online problem.

The website. It’s the storefront to your business, the landing pad for your Twitter followers and Facebook fans, and the best place to engage (and measure the engagement of) your readers. While the site design looks like a museum of everything that was wrong with the web in the 1990s, that’s not the first thing that needs fixing. The comment sections are.

A web visitor reads to the bottom of a well-written news report and lands in a comment section straight from 4chan’s /b/ board. Moderating comment sections is a duty to your readers. It is no different than editing the Letters to the Editor page. There are no shortcuts, there is no Bayesian moderation algorithm and requiring commentators to log in through Facebook is nothing but a fancy Captcha test. (Anyone who thinks that people will think twice about what they say when their identity is attached to it hasn’t spent much time reading YouTube comments.) Comment moderation requires paying human beings to make qualitative decisions based on clear rules of conduct. There are no shortcuts.

Buyouts, layoffs and synergy will add to this problem, not solve it. Just as having fewer copy editors means more typos, and fewer reporters and editors lead to fewer stories and less fact-checking, the staff reductions announced this week leave me with no hope that Philly.com will ever have an engaged online community.

I’m guessing that the new management’s inability to bring its content more fully into the online world played a part in Alden Global Capital’s decision to pull out of the Philadelphia experiment. Alden has invested in newspapers that are taking bold steps in social media, most recently with its purchase of Journal Register Co. and creating Digital First Media, which has attracted the support of some big thinkers on the future of journalism.What the Philly papers have done in the past year doesn’t seem to fit in with Alden’s vision.

This halting approach to online news, combined with the feckless downsizing, an appearance of editorial interference that has chilled the newsroom (and lying about it to The New York Times) ought to be reason enough to bring in a new publishing team to lead Philadelphia’s major dailies.

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Time for new management at Philly’s big dailies by Dale Wilcox, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.