How nonprofit ownership of The Philadelphia Inquirer accelerates digital revenue growth


By Emilie Lutostanski, Director of the Local News Resource Center at LMA 

Stan Wischnowski photographed in the photo studio at 801 Market Street, in Philadelphia, February 24th, 2016. (JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer for The Philadelphia Inquirer)

With a fresh, distinct rebrand, a robust audience development team, and deep investments in investigations talent and technology, The Philadelphia Inquirer approaches the local news business with fervor in the second half of 2019.

In June, the newspaper switched its website domain from Philly.com to Inquirer.com. The project to streamline brands was an important step in The Inquirer’s digital evolution, said Executive Editor and SVP of News Stan Wischnowski.

“We’ve created an infrastructure that creates the potential for us to generate more revenue through a digital pay model because we now have a distinct brand,” he said.

Ownership by nonprofit The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, though distinctly separate from the for-profit newspaper, positions The Philadelphia Inquirer not only to grow as a singular brand but also to obtain cutting-edge publishing technology and grow its digital subscriptions business into a projected $9 million revenue stream this year, Wischnowski said.

“We were one of the last of our national peers to convert to a digital paid model. We launched in September 2017,” he said. “We are approaching the two-year mark very soon and we have about 100,000-plus of our customers pay for digital content, and we feel like that’s a huge success story for us. We have gone from having no digital pay model whatsoever to what will be about a $9 million revenue stream this year, and we know we need to accelerate even faster in that area.”

A brand revamp is not new to The Inquirer. In 2014, Lewis Katz and Gerry Lenfest bought the Philadelphia Media Network, which included The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily News and Philly.com. Two years later, Lenfest donated the news outlets to his nonprofit, The Lenfest Institute, and both daily papers published their digital content on Philly.com. Staff reapplied for their jobs. Roles for analysts, videographers and developers were created, and The Inquirer built out an audience team that had never existed. These changes all laid groundwork for the shift from Philly.com to Inquirer.com as well as the ongoing digital transformation, Wischnowski said.

“We felt like if The Inquirer was going to be a distinct, trusted brand, we first had to build something that had a digital acumen to carry us on to this single brand,” he said. “It was very methodical but at the same time quite revolutionary for us to finally go from multiple brands back to our roots of the 190-year-old Inquirer.”

Like digital transformation in much of the industry, The Inquirer has become more reader-revenue oriented, and with that shift comes an increased focus on audience engagement, both online and at hosted events. The Inquirer recruited Kim Fox, managing editor for audience and innovation, who leads an audience development team of five to grow readership and drive subscriptions, including through a Lenfest Institute-funded project using the Hearken model that allows readers to engage in story development. In turn, the stories generated tend to perform stronger in terms of audience reach and engagement, Wischnowski said.

With new staffing, the strategy for audience engagement has never been more sophisticated or efficient, Wischnowski said.

“We do a lot of segmentation. We are starting to zoom in on our audience, those with a propensity to pay for our content. That level of analytics we have now at our disposal is much more granular,” Wischnowski said. “We are getting out in the community more. We are listening more than we ever have. The audience team has been a key component of that.”

This graphic shows how the masthead of The Philadelphia Inquirer has changed over 190 years.

The Inquirer newsroom has a digital dashboard that shows what type of content is converting users into paying subscribers, Wischnowski said. More connectedness with readers, outreach and listening are ways for journalists to “contribute to the cause where subscriptions are won or lost largely by the actions that journalists take,” he said.

“Digital transformation is complicated, and it can be messy, and it can be very taxing. There’s no way we can get from point A to B without dedication from our journalists,” he said. “They know that there needs to be, in this digital revenue model, more interaction with our readers. There is an entrepreneurial spirit where, even through social media, our journalists are developing specific audiences of their own.”

Among other grants, the Lenfest Institute funded six dynamic, digital-native journalism fellows from diverse backgrounds for two-year spots at The Inquirer, doubling the investigations team to twelve, and also created a separate 12-person statewide investigative unit. The fellows participate in hands-on, brand-building audience engagement, like highlighting the work of diverse Philadelphia millennials making a difference in the community, and by having coffee-shop talks with and about the community in the Inquiring Minds series. These monthly events are designed to gather feedback and story ideas from readers and offer subscribers behind-the-scenes insight from the newsroom. Sponsored, revenue-generating events such as Industry Icons also help to propel the digital transformation at The Inquirer away from dependence on advertiser revenue.

“Our journalists are very active in the event space, and that’s projected to be a $2 million revenue stream for us this year,” Wischnowski said. “We use those events in a way that allows us to not only be much more data-informed with our thrust of analytics, but also listening firsthand from readers who are not shy about sharing their thoughts about what the what the product should look like.”

Grant funding from The Lenfest Institute has accelerated needed technological advancements, allowing The Inquirer to improve the basic, underlying infrastructure of digital products, as well as implement the Arc publishing platform used by The Washington Post.

As part of a $3 million grant over the next two years, Wischnowski said The Inquirer plans to create responsive newsletters for real-time news situations, as well as invest in video, audio such as smart speaker offerings, apps, and tech talent including product developers and engineers.

“We’ve made a strategic decision to develop sort of a quasi-transmedia newsroom where instead of having those traditional silos … we will be integrating the product developers, those engineers and I.T. talents, into our newsroom,” he said. “We’re certain that we’re going to be able to get products out the door more rapidly and be more responsive to the readership.”

The rebrand and domain switch in June was an important step in The Inquirer’s ongoing digital transformation journey, fueled by nonprofit investment in local journalism.

“We’re at a point now where we can truly begin to execute on a high-impact journalism strategy, and also one that we think our customers would be willing to pay for,” Wischnowski said. “We feel very fortunate with this ownership structure; it’s kind of a first-of-its-kind. Every dollar we make stays in here.”