Amid Wholesale Changes, Philadelphia Inquirer Employees Tell Crossing Broad About the Sports Department’s Current Mix of Anxiety, Curiosity, and Dubious Morale

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s transformation has been taking place for a long time now. At least a decade. Maybe 15-20 years. You could probably point to the advent of the internet as the moment when print media was forever changed, though we didn’t realize it back then. The sports journalism scene has been rapidly evolving in the time since, rendering newspapers more and more obsolete as storytelling and original reporting give way to #content.

Over the years, various iterations of Inquirer bosses have done their best to navigate the changing market, and figure out a better way to operate and organize the offered products. It started with running the Inquirer and Daily News as separate entities under one umbrella, while getting a feel for how content should be posted to Philly.com. Over time, the staff began to merge, a paywall was erected, and the focus slowly shifted to digital as print began down the same path as the dodo bird and passenger pigeon. Ownership changed hands several times, and the paper is now run by the non-profit Lenfest Institute, founded in 2016 by the late television entrepreneur H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest.

That’s the CliffsNotes version for you, but what happened in the Summer of 2020 took the slow burn of gradual change and dumped it right into the particle accelerator, like a Philadelphia media version of the Large Hadron Collider, running underneath the Vine Street Expressway.

You know the story by now, but at the height of the social unrest that swept over the country following George Floyd’s murder, the Inquirer published an Inga Saffron story with a headline reading ‘Buildings Matter, Too.’

Yes they can be rebuilt, while lives are forever lost. But that doesn’t mean they will be.

That was the sub-header printed below.

Saffron didn’t write any of that; an editor did, but it was widely panned anyway for trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement, and it kicked off an internal revolt with employees alleging that the paper was not properly representing the region it claimed to serve. The staff was not diverse enough. It was too white, too conservative, and not a reflection of Philadelphia and the people living in the city. That’s what they said.

In the fallout over the mistake, editor Stan Wischnowski resigned, which left longtime sports boss Pat McLoone exposed. McLoone, who was highly regarded among a portion of veteran writers, departed around the same time that the company was commissioning a report from Temple University, asking the school to do an audit on the staff, the stories being published, and the overall approach to local journalism. Upon completion of the study, Temple confirmed what the employees had alleged, determining that there wasn’t enough diversity in the ranks or in the approach to covering this region. Communities of color were marginalized by a staff that was three-quarters white.

As a result, the Inquirer did what you’d expect. It began to act on the recommendations provided in the report. Gabriel Escobar, a Colombia native and newspaper veteran, replaced Wischnowski. The company hired an Asian journalist, ESPN’s Michael Huang, to replace McLoone. Young men and women of color were identified for roles within the sports department and the rest of the company, and hired en masse.

All the while, ownership sped up the process of buying out vets who were close to leaving, but maybe not there quite yet. In addition to the pre-Summer 2020 sports departures of Mike Kern, Dick Jerardi, Sam Donnellon, John Smallwood (RIP), Rick O’Brien, Bob Ford, Phil Anastasia, and others, this round of 2021 buyout offerings saw Les Bowen, Paul Domowitch, Marc Narducci, Ed Barkowitz, Bob Brookover, and Frank Fitzpatrick leave. There will be a few more departures as well, which haven’t been announced yet, as the Inquirer brings in more than a half-dozen younger sports writers and editors who increase staff diversity. Among the hires are three women, two of whom will cover the Flyers. A third will cover the Sixers. Two men of color were added as editors, while a young Asian writer was brought in to cover the Eagles. There were two other editors hired as well, both white men, but younger.

At the same time, 500 production employees lost their jobs when the Inquirer closed down its Schuylkill printing plant. The building was sold to a developer for $37 million as the paper began to outsource printing operations instead.

Over the past month, Crossing Broad spoke with 12 former and current Inquirer employees, some in sports and some in news, to get a feel for how the myriad changes are being received internally. There was a mix of curiosity and anxiety, with varying takes on morale within the sports department, specifically. Everyone we spoke with asked to remain anonymous, but shared their thoughts on the staff overhaul and new direction of the paper, which is described to us as being a contemporary and hyper-digital approach, essentially leaving the newspaper itself on the back burner.

 

The carrot and the stick

In discussions with Inquirer sources, it was noted that some employees were nudged towards taking the buyout, even if they didn’t necessarily want to leave. Part of this was done via providing an enticing separation package, but it was also made clear that if writers chose to stick around, they might be re-assigned, and given a different job they might not necessarily want.

One member of the sports department who recently left explained it this way:

“This has been a purge at the department. You can say it’s been a needed purge, or an overdue purge, or a socially-responsible purge, but nevertheless, it’s a purge. There are people who left before they would have called time on themselves, because of that. To me, that’s unfortunate.

And it was a carrot and a stick. It was a decent buyout. It was incrementally better than the ones they had offered in the past. It was a bigger carrot, but it was also a bigger stick. People were told, ‘Hey, we’re really re-thinking the way we’re doing everything, and a lot of things are gonna shift around, and there are no guarantees that you’re doing next year what you’re currently doing this year.’ All of that was the subtext. While people weren’t kicked out the door, they were led to believe that it wouldn’t be the worst idea if they went ahead and took that buyout. It was disappointing that people who have been there 30, 25 years, whatever it is, didn’t necessarily get to call their shots.”

Upon asking for a buyout, employees were able to request their departure date, and while the Inquirer met those demands for some staffers, other requests were not granted. Hence the funky nature of various people leaving at different times this Summer (and into the Fall). Some were able to finish out the season on their respective beats, but others were not.

It was, indeed, a generous buyout offer. Speaking recently on the Let’s Go to the Phones podcast, Bowen noted that he received 46 weeks of pay and nine months of healthcare. That amount is more generous than the offers given to staffers in the previous buyout rounds.

As such, there’s not a lot of veteran presence remaining in the sports department. David Murphy, Jeff McLane, Keith Pompey, Mike Sielski, Mike Jensen, Marcus Hayes, Matt Breen, Scott Lauber, and Jonathan Tannenwald remain, though one idea that popped up frequently in conversation was the thought that the Inquirer had lost a lot of “institutional knowledge” over several buyout rounds. Decades of combined experience. Some of the older folks we spoke with admitted that the paper probably needed to get younger and add fresh faces, but with that came the loss of vast sports knowledge and practical experience.

Morale is down because there’s been a lot of turnover, which is natural,” said one source.

Interestingly enough, one veteran survivor was Gary Potosky, who actually got a “promotion” of sorts, though we’re told this was just a formality reserved for a staff email. Potosky, who had previously served just underneath McLoone, was given the title of “Assistant Managing Editor, Sports,” and essentially retained his role as the department’s #2, working beneath Huang.

 

Archaic processes and a digital shift

In discussions, current and former writers noted the direction of the sports department was steered almost 100% into digital, with the goal of growing subscriptions. This is not surprising, since Huang has a digital background, and the job description for his new gig clearly stated that the Inquirer was looking for somebody to lead this charge. McLoone was seen as an “old school newspaper guy,” according to several employees, and we were told he would not have dropped the axe on some of the older men who had been at the paper for decades. He was essentially bounced to pave the way for the shift in approach.

To that end, one current employee described the former process as “archaic,” noting that reporters used to run the show and could do “whatever the fuck they wanted to do” while writing stories that a digital crowd simply was not interested in. Stories were too long or didn’t appeal to a younger demographic.

These guys felt like writing a fucking listicle was beneath them,” said the employee.

But listicles sell on the web, regardless of the quality of the content, and that’s the type of story pitch being suggested in internal sports discussions. The content focus is definitely more “web friendly,” according to one current writer, with pitches amounting to topics like “best places to watch an Eagles game,” or “top 10 (insert topic here).” It’s stuff you’d traditionally find on a site like Crossing Broad, but not The Philadelphia Inquirer.

A third employee noted that there’s no reason to put resources into the newspaper, because print is not consumed by a younger generation of sports fans.

“We could make it the best newspaper ever, but nobody would buy it, they said.

Another recurring theme centered around shifting goals at the newspaper, with management changing direction with too much frequency. One former writer explained that the staff would be called into “a big room” every six to eight months and presented with a new plan, typically after the Inquirer had brought in a lesser executive from another paper.

“It was always like, ‘this is the new thing we’re doing,’” the writer told us. “They were always chasing the tail of the (The New York Times) and The Washington Post. It was like, ‘this is what the cool kids are doing now, so let’s do that, too.’ And by then, the cool kids had figured out that what they were doing wasn’t really working, and they were doing something else.”

 

To search, or not to search

Several sources alleged that there wasn’t a search for new talent, but instead a pre-compiled list of targets, most of whom had worked with Huang at some point. Josh Tolentino, who was brought in to cover the Eagles, was described as Huang’s ‘mentee,’ and some people we spoke with seemed miffed by the thought that specific people were marked, instead of compiling a list of candidates and/or doing a more comprehensive talent hunt.

A portion of the new hires come from ESPN, where Huang worked.

I understand why they’re doing it, but it doesn’t make it right,” said one Inquirer writer we spoke with during the hiring spree, alleging that the search was narrow in scope and hyper-focused on specific individuals, instead of canvassing the sports media world for the best candidates.

A second contact felt like the approach to hiring amounted to an “overcorrection” as the Inquirer “pinpointed specific people.”

A third writer pushed back on the thought that Huang was hiring “his guys,” noting that the previous group of writers could be described as “Pat McLoone’s guys,” and alleged a lack of oversight during the end of McLoone’s tenure. Others didn’t seem to place much stock in this topic at all, explaining that most bosses are going to favor people they trust and are familiar with, and target them naturally.

In the case of sports department additions, the hiring process took place quickly, since more than a half-dozen jobs had opened up. Traditionally, Inquirer hiring is a slow process that can take months at a time.

One thing that was repeated to us is the thought that when the Inquirer did hire qualified women or men of color in the sports department, they usually left because they were in demand for bigger and better jobs. Ashley Fox, Dana O’Neil, Stephen A Smith, and Tim Kawakami were named by a few people (edit – also worth adding Kate Fagan, Shannon Ryan and Marcia Smith here).

When they did hire for diversity, they couldn’t keep those people around,” one person explained. Men and women of color were “in high demand,” as someone else put it.

And a macro-level topic that came up in discussions was the idea that the Inquirer had painted itself into a corner after the results of the Temple study were published. The company obviously found itself in the position of having to act upon the recommendations within the study. If they didn’t hire women and employees of color, then what was the point of commissioning the Temple report in the first place? And if they did go ahead and diversify the staff, would a portion of readers malign those new additions as “diversity hires?” That designation may very well be true, writers surmised, but it’s also unfair to the new hires, who may be quite talented and more than qualified for their jobs.

In a way, it was a Catch-22.

 

Working and living remotely

One of the bigger points of contention is the fact that some of the new editors do not live in Philadelphia and will not on a full-time basis. Huang, we’re told, will commute back and forth to his home in Connecticut, where he lived during his ESPN tenure and maintains permanent residence with his family. Two other editors will be based out of Chicago and a fourth in California, a full three hours behind the East Coast.

This was a perk offered during the interview process to make working for the Inquirer more appealing.

Concerning the remote nature of editing – does it even matter? The answer is no. You can edit and write and oversee and assign from afar, though several sources we spoke to described it as a “bad look” in the optics department. Their complaints centered around the idea that Philadelphia is one of the most provincial sports markets on the planet, and the thought that employees wouldn’t even live in-market was bothersome at worst, or ridiculous at best. Several people we talked to felt like editors working remotely couldn’t fully engross themselves in the region and therefore wouldn’t be able to add nuance and real-time ‘feel’ to their work.

“I think the optics are terrible, but those aren’t the optics they’re worried about,” said one person we spoke with. “They want the department to look the way they want the department to look, and they’re not worried about readers knowing where some faceless guy at a monitor (is currently living), whether he’s sitting in Philadelphia or Chicago. You can do this virtually. Even newspaper meetings, anything with your boss, that can be done on the phone pretty much. Writers don’t go into the office a lot. So practically, I don’t think it’s a problem, but optically, yeah.”

Along those lines, several people expressed concern that the new group of sports writers has little connection to the Delaware Valley. Olivia Reiner, who graduated from Germantown Academy, is a local product, but the other new additions are all outsiders. While that doesn’t say anything about anybody’s talent or writing ability, it’s seen internally as a detriment in terms of earning credibility in a very hyper-local and sometimes unforgiving market.

Of course, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing many people in many industries to work remotely, some employees we spoke with said the idea of hiring “outsiders” was more in line with the non-linear and pervasive current approach. While new hires might not know the ins and outs of Philadelphia, the ESPN structure that Huang worked in featured contributors spread throughout the country. ESPN, however, is also a national media outlet, while the Inquirer covers a specific geographic region.

And as a matter of flexibility, having editors in different time zones does help the Inquirer cover more bases. If everybody is in bed at 11:30 p.m., but Joel Embiid breaks his foot in a Sacramento road game at midnight, God forbid, then the remote editors are available to jump on stories like that. Previously, the Inquirer did have some west coast blind spots after the newspaper went to print, but with a partially-remote and more widespread staff, there’s a newfound adaptability and range of coverage that wasn’t always there.

 

The sports department and matters of seriousness

One of the other items that came up frequently in conversation was a pseudo-divide that runs along cultural and maybe political lines, which isolates the sports department from other desks.

There was disagreement, we’re told, about the way sports approached the Odúbel Herrera and Deshaun Watson stories, with allegations that writers and editors were not “taking seriously” the domestic violence and sexual misconduct charges levelled against each athlete, respectively. There was also internal consternation with a writer using the word “exotic” in a story to describe the relationship between Ben Simmons and his new girlfriend, Maya Jama, which was thought to be insensitive. That word, “exotic,” was removed in a later version of the story.

These arguments are sourced to an Inquirer Slack channel, which was created for writers to share story ideas or inform other employees about topics they were pursuing. While created to be a helpful space to present ideas for consideration and vetting, writers had the ability to express concerns about others anonymously, and all of this sometimes devolved into a generalized critique of the sports department’s alleged lack of sensitivity. Specifically, some female Inquirer employees were bothered by writers downplaying the charges levelled against Watson, with a focus weighted disproportionately to on-field matters. At least a half-dozen sports writers were “called out,” as one person put it, and another spoke of a “generational divide” that extends to other departments as well.

Others we spoke with pushed back on the idea that sports was a collection of locker room-styled “meatheads,” noting that there is a significant portion of progressive liberals within the group. One source, a self-described “huge lib,” told us that the complaints were “well-intentioned” but unfortunately became derailed by “wokeness.” That word, “woke,” was used sparingly in conversations with sources, and most hesitated before using it, or tried to find a synonym instead. Several writers explained that the point of the employee revolt was not to become more “woke,” but to better serve under-represented local communities and do more comprehensive journalism. One writer noted it was less about serving the “upper crust” of the region and more about catering to a largely black and brown city.

Among the items we’d deem harder to parse, some explained to us that the paper’s left-leaning political stance was alienating sports page readers. One source described the situation as suburbanites abandoning the newspaper because of opinions expressed in other sections. Another source played down this thought, believing that the paper was losing subscribers not because suburban conservatives were jumping ship, but because the paywall turned them away.

It’s an interesting topic, the “stick to sports” idea, though there’s no hard data to back up the thought that non-liberals are giving up on the Inquirer, similar to the way that dips in TV ratings cannot be attributed to the influx of politics without large-scale data and/or polling. We do not have, for instance, any kind of confirmation that Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling routine caused X amount of people to stop watching the NFL. In this case, the Inquirer folks we spoke with were split right down the middle in trying to determine if a leftish slant was having an adverse affect on the portion of readers who are only interested in sports. Six of our contacts thought there was something to this, and the other six did not.

 

Miscellaneous notes

Discussion with sources amounted to more than six hours of interviewing. These are some items of note that do not fit into the categories above:

  • The Inquirer has several Temple students covering Temple sports. Narducci most recently handled the paper’s Temple coverage.
  • High school coverage looks to be gone following the departure of Anastasia, O’Brien, and others.
  • A lot of the buyout folks were making good money and obviously some of the younger additions are going to bring down the wage bill. One person noted that because of a strong labor union, there was ample “protection” regardless of whether people were actually good at their jobs.
  • Most employees are still working remotely. There was talk of a soft opening in September or October, but nothing concrete yet. A survey of the newsroom revealed that most people (upward of 75%) would like to continue to work from home.
  • There’s going to be a newsroom reconfiguration in the coming months.
  • Originally, the plan for the Flyers beat was to have two female writers and a female editor. The editor ended up being a guy from ESPN.
  • You couldn’t give people too much Eagles coverage,” said one writer, noting that even with four beats at one point, football was a pageview juggernaut.
  • There was agreement among several folks that the older generation of sports writers would “romanticize” the discipline, which is to say that they enjoyed storytelling and talking to athletes in the locker room and were avid print readers growing up. A younger generation of sports writers lacks this sentimentality and tends to focus more on big stories (and getting them published quickly). It’s less about the writing itself and more about the #content, if that makes sense.
  • One source asked us to reiterate that news and sports don’t often cross paths. The sports beat writers, for instance, are rarely even in the office. Most are going from game to game and working in the field, so there’s not a lot of frequent non-departmental interaction.
  • We’re told that a “woman of color” was originally offered the sports editor job, but turned it down.
  • Stan Wischnowski and former publisher Terry Egger, who retired in 2020, were both described to us as “sports guys.” Running the show now is Lisa Hughes, who came to Philadelphia in 2017 after eight years as Chief Business Officer of The New Yorker.
  • Some also pointed out that the newspaper lost talented people who didn’t take buyouts. Writers like Zach Berman and Matt Gelb left on their own. Sheil Kapadia and Sarah Todd and Bob Cooney as well. And then you go back six or seven years to when Philly Voice splintered off from the Inquirer and brought over people like Jimmy Kempski and Rich Hofmann.
  • A line I found interesting was from a former writer who said “we are a website that happens to have a newspaper.”
  • One writer says morale is, “Through the floor… it’s so bad.
  • Another said that, “Sports writers are always complaining about something,” which results in morale perpetually being low.

 

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