What does the fight over Philly.com mean for the future of Philly journalism?

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

"Two writers say stuffed Bigfoot is legit" and "I've never had sex with my husband" are the sort of headlines on Philly.com that fill Philadelphia Inquirer reporters with dread and despair.

“Two writers say stuffed Bigfoot is legit” and “I’ve never had sex with my husband” are the sort of headlines on Philly.com that fill Philadelphia Inquirer reporters with dread and despair. 

The website, created as the web portal for the Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, is at the center of a spectacular ownership meltdown at Interstate General Media (IGM), which owns the three media properties.

Lexie Norcross, daughter of owner and powerful South Jersey Democratic political boss George Norcross, has become a lightning rod for newsroom criticism in her role as vice president of digital operations and corporate services.  The long-troubled website now competes against the two papers that it was created to support — and uses gossipy content to drive traffic. 

“Most of the problems on that site … [are] because Lexie has been trying to turn it into a Buzzfeed,” says a former Philly.com staffer who, like others, spoke to City Paper only on the condition of anonymity.

The website’s partisans disagree, and blame naysayers at the Inquirer for defending what they called an ancient and failed newspaper business model.

“These are the arguments of the status quo trying to stop change,” says IGM web consultant Bob Cauthorn. “I’m not talking about pandering. I’m talking about relevance.”

Cauthorn, who also serves as chief operating officer at Greenspun Media Group, owner of the Las Vegas Sun, faults a newsroom attitude that would “rather win a Pulitzer than win 20,000 new readers. And that’s a disease.”

He says that the number of Philly.com’s unique visitors grew by 50 percent from February 2013 through the end of that year, according to data he provided from the firm comScore. According to that data, Philly.com receives far more local visits than any other news site.

Philly.com, he says, also makes good money and helps subsidize money-losing sections of the company (read: newspapers) — though he wouldn’t provide any figures.

Whichever model is the right one — whether for high-quality journalism, the hope of one day returning to profitability or, ideally, both — the company’s direction will likely be decided soon.

IGM’s ownership has split into two bitterly rival groups, one headed by George Norcross, the other by businessman Lewis Katz. They are stuck in a legal battle (now in a Delaware court) over how to auction off the company. A bidding war will likely ensue. But the realm has already been divided: Katz is allied with the Inquirer, Norcross with Philly.com. 

Katz (whose romantic partner, investigative reporter Nancy Phillips, is the Inquirer’s city editor) succeeded in persuading a judge to reinstate Inquirer editor Bill Marimow after publisher Bob Hall fired him in October with Norcross’ support. But Norcross has played a far greater role in reshaping the institution — starting at Philly.com. 

The Daily News, that gritty, working-class combination of hard-hitting reporting and salacious tabloid joy that lives in perpetual fear of extinction, mainly watches this battle from the sidelines.

The outcome, though, will decide the future of what’s left of a Philadelphia journalism industry that has collapsed. 

At the heart of reporter complaints are Inquirer.com and PhillyDailyNews.com, launched to little fanfare last April to feature the newspapers’ content in the manner preferred by newspaper editors. The sites remain unknown to many, and many reporters believe that they were designed to fail: They bar non-subscribers from viewing anything for free, including traffic from Facebook and Twitter — even though nearly all of that content is still available for free on Philly.com. 

For months, reporters tweeting links to their stories awkwardly included four-digit “access codes” to give readers temporarily free access. 

“It’s so rigid to make the paywall impermeable and the access code so daunting — so the clicks will go to Philly.com,” says an Inquirer source. “We have the ability to do really great things digitally and we’ve just been told, ‘You just put out your paper.’”

Most gave up and now just tweet to a link on Philly.com.

Newspaper staffers unsuccessfully lobbied for a more porous paywall. But Cauthorn says that his strategy is to maintain three distinctly branded websites, which will protect the newspapers by giving their print subscribers added value.

Contrary to industry trends and for the first time in recent memory, the number of people subscribing to the Inquirer, he says, outpaced the number canceling subscriptions over the last 12 weeks of 2013. Cauthorn declined to provide any data on Inquirer.com or PhillyDailyNews.com traffic.

The Norcross camp accuses the Katz group of violating a pledge to refrain from interfering in the newsroom, contending that Phillips colluded with Marimow to thwart reform efforts spearheaded by publisher Hall. 

But what to make of Philly.com, where Norcross’ daughter and Cauthorn reign?

In a November email to employees, Norcross and allied owners wrote that Lexie Norcross “does not control the editorial decisions of the website” but instead “serves as the liaison between advertising and the product and content groups.”

Interviews with sources close to Philly.com and internal emails obtained by City Paper suggest otherwise.

“That’s a load of bullshit,” says one former Philly.com staffer. 

As for Cauthorn, he says that he was hired by Hall after George Norcross made an introduction.

“She’s sort of the super,” says one Inquirer source, referring to the relationship between Lexie Norcross and Cauthorn. “But he created this.”

According to emails obtained by CP, Lexie Norcross participates in editorial decisions from the mundane (like forwarding producers links to articles from web outlets like Breitbart.com and PageSix.com) to the substantial (appearing to run editorial meetings). A spokesman for George Norcross did not make Lexie Norcross available for an interview. 

In one e-mail, she instructed producers to come to an editorial meeting “with a list of stories that we are featuring on our site that day that ARE NOT from the inky/dn. … These meetings are going to stay until everyone gets in the habit of changing the way philly.com operates.”

The meetings are held to implement Cauthorn’s strategy: more Philly.com original content and less from the dailies. 

Cauthorn says that Lexie Norcross “doesn’t touch content.” He says that he and Hall decided to make her digital VP after she proved her talents by managing the company’s move to a new office. Plus, he says, “having a digital native matters.”

Lexie Norcross was also a high-profile defender of Philly.com’s most controversial editorial decision: the creation of a barely consummated column for Republican Gov. Tom Corbett on Philly.com’s “Voices” blog. She accused the dailies of “slam[ming] him every day.” 

Meanwhile, newsroom sources accuse George Norcross of forcing the Inquirer to cut its editorial page in half (Norcross has denied this), and say that their work often gets buried deep in Philly.com’s bowels. 

One example is veteran Inquirer reporter Jennifer Lin’s “Double Down” blog, which covers the casino industry. On Sept. 25, Lexie Norcross emailed Lin to deny her request that the site’s blog directory include her blog.

“I think we’re good for now with the amount of blogs we have featured on the site,” Norcross wrote.

Instead, the site promotes their more boosterish “It’s High Stakes” blog.

According to Cauthorn, Norcross only conveyed a decision that he had already made: The Inquirer’s gaming coverage was not up to snuff, he said, but declined to elaborate.

“I had said that this will not be. Philly.com is going to own this story because I didn’t think that the coverage of casinos up until now had been adequate. Remember, I run a whole operation in Las Vegas. I know a little bit about casinos,” he says.

Cauthorn says that Philly.com is building a new audience and not stealing one from the dailies. According to data he provided from the research firm Omniture, just 17 percent of Philly.com’s total traffic comes from visits to Inquirer or Daily News original content. 

“I think that’s accurate because they bury that stuff,” says one former Philly.com staffer, who says the site will feature an AP story over an Inquirer piece. “If they feature Inquirer or Daily News stuff it’s because they don’t have an alternative.”

But Philly.com sources also fault the dailies for being uninterested in meeting the demands of Internet-age journalism. They also complain that Inquirer reporters are rude and condescending to young and demoralized Philly.com staffers. One Philly.com source says he was “shit on pretty regularly by some people at the papers.” 

Philly.com has always been caught in the impossible situation of having to feature content both from a tabloid that runs an annual “Sexy Singles” feature and another that would find that absolutely scandalous. 

“It’s always been a weird dynamic because its always been a shared news organization,” says a former Inquirer source, with a sober broadsheet and a saucy tabloid locked in a “fight for placement on the home page.”

In November 2011, the company (then called Philadelphia Media Network) announced an effort to ameliorate that problem. It was called the “newsroom merger,” and under the plan all three brands would work together on run-of-the-mill stories like City Hall press conferences. Each outlet would also feature reporting from the others’ strongest beats. 

But the merger shut down after the new ownership group took over: Marimow did not like it, sources said. Marimow declined to comment.

Critics say that Philly.com’s development of an independent newsroom has actually made the problem worse: Instead of two reporters from two publications at the same company covering a single event, there are sometimes three — including some supervised by editors with uncertain journalistic standards.

But Cauthorn says that the data proves that his method works and disputes the accusation that Philly.com now relies more heavily on salacious click-bait: In the past, he says, some Philly.com staffers were paid a bonus based on the traffic they drove to the site — a practice he stopped. And even some Inquirer reporters are ambivalent about the ownership dispute, complaining about Marimow’s and Phillips’ leadership.

But if Norcross, the most hard-knuckled political operative in New Jersey, wins, some reporters fear that the editorial standards pioneered at Philly.com could allow him to use the papers to further his varied and oversized political ambitions.

“Lexie and her father are … the biggest threats to journalism in Philadelphia,” says one former Philly.com staffer. “I feel like people should know in what direction journalism in this city is going.”

Ultimately, someone will unite the company. Who that is matters tremendously.

Clarification: An e-mail from Lexie Norcross to staff regarding an editorial meeting was dated Feb. 20 2014, but the source who provided it to CP says that it was a recurring invitation sent for the first time in April 2013.

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