Two weeks ago, Philadelphia Magazine reported that editors at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News had circulated a memo warning staff that if significant changes in the newspaper company weren’t made, it wouldn’t exist in five years.

“We have fewer than five years to make fundamental changes in our business, our products, our operations and our culture,” read the memo, according to Philadelphia Magazine.

The subtext, according to the report, is that Inquirer and Daily News management is not having an easy go on the business end despite its recent turn to a nonprofit business model. The late Gerry Lenfest donated the newspaper company to a nonprofit three years ago, in part to guard against the pressures of running a news organization with profit expectations. It’s getting to be a harder prospect.

Inquirer circulation figures show a paper in steep decline. According to the article, its daily circulation has fallen from 373,892 copies in 2002 to 101,818. Sunday circulation has dwindled from 747,969 to 201,024 over the same period. It’s no wonder the paper’s management is in a panic.

The solution, according to the memo, is digital: “The future of media is digital, and the bottom line is that we’re ill-prepared to confront the challenges and opportunities before us,” the memo reads.

I’m not sure if anyone is qualified to lay out the conversion of a legacy media product like the Inquirer to digital. The Inquirer has only 30,000 digital subscribers, which doesn’t come close to approaching its reach in 2002. Sustaining a newsroom the size and scope of a large metropolitan newspaper is going to take more, I think, than boosting digital subscriptions.

Market capitalism tells us, perhaps, that the time for a change in the way we get news is at hand. If the Inquirer fails, something else will take its place. I have to say, I’m skeptical. Capitalist principals also tell us that if there’s not money to be made in a venture, it won’t happen. At this stage, it’s hard to imagine how an enterprise anything close to the Inquirer could be started from scratch.

Take last Sunday’s Inquirer. The front page contained a remarkable report on the sexual assault claims of Curtis Institute violinist Lara St. Clare and the school’s efforts to cover up her credible claims. The paper also detailed the nepotism of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which has hired 10 relatives of its board chairman, Joseph Ashdale, detailing the agency’s conversion into a Republican party patronage haven.

And that was just on the front page.

If the Inquirer disappeared, there would be virtually no stopping city corruption. No other news organization has the capacity to report those stories as thoroughly or accurately as the Inquirer. If it was true that U.S. car companies and investment banks were “too big to fail” after the 2008 recession, I think the same can be said for the Philadelphia Inquirer and other newspapers, both big and small, that are struggling to stay afloat. It’s too important to fail.

Pete Mazzaccaro

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