18th Century Technology: The Philadelphia Inquirer is on Borrowed Time

A few days ago, my darling bride — of 41 years, 4 months and 21 days — were sitting in the O’Charley’s restaurant on ByPass Road in Richmond, and she mentioned how much she missed print newspapers. There’s just something satisfying about holding the newspaper and reading it. I kept my mouth shut about newsprint-stained fingers, but yeah, I agreed with her.

So, I pulled out my iPhone and checked about home delivery of the only thing resembling a local daily newspaper, the Lexington Herald-Leader.¹ As I expected, our farm is too far out in the boondocks, and, Alas! physical delivery of that newspaper is not available where we live.

That’s kind of sad, given that I delivered the old Lexington Herald morning paper, and Lexington Leader afternoon edition, when I was in junior high and high school.

In 1980, the Herald-Leader’s new building, with the printing facilities visible through large windows at street level, was completed on Midland Avenue near East Main Street. But time marches on, and the internet age crippled print newspapers; in June of 2016, the newspaper announced that it would cease printing the paper in Lexington, and outsource that to Gannett Publishing Services outside of Louisville. The last locally-published edition rolled off the presses on July 31, 2016. Twenty-five full time and four part-time employees lost their jobs.

Well, laying off 29 employees is nothing, not compared to yesterday’s news:

Philadelphia Inquirer to sell printing facility, lay off 500 plant employees in bid for long-term economic stability

by Andrew Maykuth and Juliana Feliciano Reyes | Updated: October 9, 2020 | 4:47 PM EDT

The Philadelphia Inquirer will close its sprawling Montgomery County printing plant and shift production of its newspapers to a New Jersey contractor. The cost-cutting move will put as many as 500 employees out of work, but is aimed at ensuring the survival of the media company as consumers turn to digital platforms for their news.

The company on Friday told employees that it plans to close and sell the Schuylkill Printing Plant in Upper Merion Township, perhaps by the end of the year. The Inquirer is negotiating with a buyer for the 45-acre River Road property, which includes a 674,000-square-foot manufacturing facility that opened in 1992. The buyer’s identity and plans were not disclosed.

Five hundred employees. At least when the Herald-Leader laid off 29 in August of 2016, the economy was doing decently, and they had reasonable chances to land other jobs. But as many as 500, as the economic shutdowns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have caused local unemployment to skyrocket?

“While the sale is not yet final, we recognize how deeply unsettling and distressing this is to employees at the printing plant,” Lisa Hughes, The Inquirer’s publisher and chief executive officer, said in an internal memo Friday to employees.

“They have served our readers tirelessly, with dedication and devotion to the craft,” Hughes said. “Many of them have spent decades with the company — and all performed their jobs valiantly when the pandemic arrived.”

There are 550 employees at the company’s printing plant, and 500 of them will go; that’s almost half of the Inquirer’s 1,073 total workforce.

In 2012, the Inquirer sold its long-time headquarters on Broad Street, and the editorial staff now work out of three rented offices. While the union said that this news blindsided them, it can’t really be that much of a surprise.

Wikipedia has a good, detailed account of the financial woes which have beset The Philadelphia Inquirer, leading to two bankruptcy auctions. In 2006, Philadelphia Media Holdings LLC bought the Inquirer and it’s tabloid sister, the Philadelphia Daily News, for $515 million. A bankruptcy auction in 2010 was voided due to a court action and unions unwilling to come to terms, and another was held, with the papers finally sold in 2011 for $139 million. Then, in April of 2012, the company was again sold, for just $55 million. In effect, the value of the company had dropped by almost 90% in six years.

To provide some contrast, Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon, bought The Washington Post a year and a half later, for $250 million, five times the value of the Inquirer, which serves a metro area virtually the same size, 6,096,120 for Philadelphia versus 6,133,552 for Washington.

I wrote previously about why I would not subscribe to the Inquirer, even though I cite it a lot²: it’s simply too expensive compared to The Washington Post, to which I do subscribe. I guess that the Inquirer needs the money, as shown by this news.

But, in the end, print newspapers are 18th century technology. Yes, things have been updated with new composition and printing technologies, with color photographs, with stories from other sources transmitted over the internet rather than teletype, but there is still a several hour delay between putting stories to bed and getting the newspaper printed and delivered.³ With the internet, we get updated stories, and, let’s be honest here, we can get them for free. Print newspapers are still trying to figure out how to survive in the digital age, and many will not survive. The original story stated that the Inquirer and Daily News had a combined print circulation of 91,000 for weekdays, and 156,000 for the Sunday edition. The website inquirer.com has a paid subscription base of 45,000, but, put it all together and the numbers come nowhere close to the peak circulation of 500,000 daily and a million Sunday editions, back in 1989. For whatever reasons there are, the Inquirer is not attracting the readership it once did.  Some people might speculate that its very liberal political orientation, something which seeps into its supposedly straight news stories, might not appeal to as much as half of the Philadelphia metropolitan area.

Tempus is fugiting” was the expression Mickey East, then a professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, used to use to ‘encourage’ students to hurry up and get their work done. Well, for the Inquirer, and other print newspapers, the 18th century lingered long, but tempus is fugiting for them, and if the Inquirer has managed to keep printing, by outsourcing its dead-trees edition to a Gannett-owned plant in Cherry Hill, New Jersey — and subscribers had better hope that the Ben Franklin Bridge isn’t jammed up — their time is still limited.
¹ – Full disclosure: I ws a staffer on the University of Kentucky’s student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel, during the early 1980s, when I was in graduate school, and had several OpEd pieces published in the Herald-Leader around that time.
² – The Inquirer has a short limit, five articles, which one can view for free online. The site tracks my IP address, and that’s how it limits things, but if I shut off the WiFi to my iPhone or my tablet, I can access five more articles on each, since they have different telephone numbers.
³ – Before I retired, I used to stop at the Turkey Hill in downtown Jim Thorpe, to pick up coffee and a copy of the Inquirer to take to the plant for everyone to read. Being an hour north of the Philadelphia area, we got the ‘early’ edition, and there were hundreds of times I saw, in the sports section, “this game ended too late for inclusion in this edition.”
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