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Retrograde progressivism at the Philly papers

The Philly spirit that embodied the Philly papers as I came to love them—typified by a pugnacious progressiveness and ceaseless city desks—is at risk as the Philadelphia Media Network arches towards business models, still unproven, in hopes the papers and their people can outlive dead tree editions.

While sustainability is a fundamental good for any enterprise, this shift towards a paywall embeds assumptions about who should have access to the news and what it should cost them. There is a robust argument that the paywall itself is itself a regressive business model, with additional ramifications possible down the line if journalists become attenuated to servicing paying customers and their needs over non-paying readers. This theory of change would be especially ironic if it transpired at the Inquirer, given the paper’s Jeffersonian roots in reaching all classes.

On Philly Twitter this week, it’s been hard to miss PMN staff promoting the latest in a never-ending shuffle of “limited time” deals for their new paywall product. Focused on football, these newsroom-prompted promos brag about the scale and scope of PMN’s Eagles coverage, and include a special Super Bowl book as added bonus.

These tweets deployed as coordinated blasts are indicative of how the leadership values of the papers have begun to change, as men of money direct unionized staff to sell a product with no more glamour than a streetside sandwich board. Only a few people realized capital gains as the Philadelphia Media Network became owned by a non-profit, and these same people tend to be chief influencors of corporate strategy.

The promotion comes as Philadelphia cools off its most dangerous month for gun violence in the past two years. Go to the Philly.com homepage and tell me if you can deduce the trauma our city children encounter.

This isn’t the newsroom that birthed a Daily News I fell in love with. Smarm threatens. Ironies abound. Leadership matters.

I’m honestly surprised the Daily News still exists. PMN has been re-establishing the Inquirer as the dominant brand, as evidenced by the change in logo priority on Philly.com (where Philly.com used to rule king). As the paper known as the Daily News becomes an outlet in name only, the newsroom has lost the natural progressive pushback from the Daily News contingent, now scattered among myriad desks rather than existing as a contiguous newsroom.

Having been a publisher, I know how easy it is to influence the news. Rarely does it happen as overtly as you might think. No, influence comes with power, power comes with money, and money comes with metrics. The choice display or obfuscation of relevant metrics will determine how your team values their output. Subscribers and clicks have distracted from less tangible and less easily calculated measures like impact and agency.

At an article level, PMN journalists continue to excel, and there has been experimentation in form and tone as younger/browner/less male staff has come aboard. The paper needs a comprehensive moral matrix in which to operate (ideally progressivism), one that puts PMN into the story of Philadelphia as opposed to merely its stenographer.

History won’t care how many reporters we had at the Super Bowl. History is alive today, getting ready for school somewhere in North Philly. We need to focus our media on the progressive issues that have defined Philly’s rise thus far, the birthplace of the labor movement and the home of American democracy. Focusing on football does the work disservice, and it’s indicative of a larger trend that threatens the progressive legacy of the Philly papers 1970 onwards.

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