Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Is it a crazy idea to launch a new daily newspaper in Philadelphia? Yes, if profit is your motive; otherwise, no

Late last week Bart Blatstein, a local Philadelphia developer, complained that the owners of the Philadelphia newspapers was ignoring his inquiries into buying the papers. The Philadelphia newspapers themselves first reported, then censored, their own stories on Blatstein – eventually reversing course and apologizing for pulling the original story.

"We remain perplexed as to why the out-of-town hedge funds which own the assets of PMN seem uninterested in hearing our ideas, or those of Raymond Perelman, concerning ways to grow the value of the print and digital content to the public as well as our ideas on valuation of the assets of PMN,” wrote Blatstein in a press release. "The startling and unprecedented events of the last few days at the Inquirer and Daily News relating to censorship of coverage of our offer has caused distrust and anger among journalists locally and nationwide.”

“We hope to be invited to join a discussion of a consensual transaction with the sellers of the PMN assets. However, the events of the last few days have dictated our course of action, regardless of whether that process is made available to us or not. We have been heartened by the support and encouragement we have received from dozens of present and former PMN reporters, management and staff. They believe, as do we, that the damage that PMN has inflicted on itself may be permanent," Blatstein wrote.

"Accordingly, today we are announcing our intention, should we not be successful in acquiring the PMN assets, to explore the development of a new and competing digital and print publication.”

Is this crazy? Can someone go ahead and launch a competing daily newspaper in a town as large as Philadelphia. Blatstein seems to be suggesting that his company, Philly Hometown Media, can do it.

“The dozens of highly skilled and experienced journalists who have been forced into early retirement by PMN and its predecessors along with those talented and motivated professionals who no longer see a future at PMN provide an immediately available source of reporting and editorial talent. It may well be that Philadelphia has been a one company newspaper town for too long. Our preliminary modeling indicates that this venture would be successful. Prior attempts at competition have been frustrated by a lack of committed long term capital. Philly Hometown Media suffers from no such disability,” Blatstein wrote.

Well, good luck to that. He's crazy, no?

The traditional view of newspapering has been that owning a daily newspaper in any town was a legal way to print money. Local and national advertising, classifieds, would bring in boat loads of cash and the owners would rake in profits. Ah, the good old days.

In Europe, for many years, the model has been that many newspapers are published as much for their ability to sway politics as for any profit motive. News Corp.'s papers are beginning to fit this model: total profit from publishing was $218 million last quarter, but that was down 43 percent. That is why speculation has begun that Murdoch might spin out his print business. I find that hard to believe simply because they continue to serve his political agenda.

If Blatstein really does launch a competing daily I doubt profits will be his motivation. (Revenge works.)

"Our current timeline suggests that our digital publication would be available within five months with print following three months later. Journalists all over the region are demanding an alternative venue for themselves and their readers, a venue whose credibility is not impacted by political considerations”, Blatstein said.
As Murdoch's The Daily has shown, it is not hard, technologically, to launch a digital daily. Murdoch's team did it using a decidedly old fashion approach of hiring a fairly large team. As many independent iPad publishers can tell you (yeah, I'm referring to you, Mr. English) it can be done with a bare boned approach.

For Blatstein, launching a digital newspaper, one that is available online and one mobile and tablet devices, is not a difficult endeavor. But we're still not at the moment in publishing history where it can be a profitable venture.

My guess is that launching a digital daily, followed by a free, print newspaper is the model that makes the most sense today. In this regard, building a strong local ad team would be just as important as building out the newsroom. For the first few months of digital publishing the editorial team can work out the kinks of their product while the ad team is being built and start making calls.

Such a launch would be loads of fun, but those that join better be assured that profit isn't the sole reason for the launch, otherwise they should keep their resumes up-to-date.