Note: Updates are being added at the bottom of this post.

There was a bit of end-of-the-day excitement in the mediasphere, kicked off by a memo to Philly Inquirer staff that appears to tell them to put down the mice and back slowly away from the web.

One of the first reactions I read was from Jeff Jarvis:

You are killing the paper. You might as well just burn the place down. You’re setting a match to it. This is insane. Even the slowest, most curmudgeonly, most backward in your dying, suffering industry would not be this stupid anymore.

A little more measured was the discussion on Twitter between Zac Echola, Scott Karp, Tim Windsor, Howard Owens and a handful of others. (If you’re not on Twitter, providing links here would be pointless; if you are, you are likely following these folks anyway.) One of the results of that was Howard’s own post this evening, The Philadelphia experiment isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Part of it:

There are a ton of other web-centric things newspapers can and should do with their web sites, but none of them include publishing first online enterprise and investigative pieces, columnist, lengthy features, trend stories and even analysis pieces.

Techcrunch published today a poll that showed that on a typical day, 39 percent of the Internet audience went online to check the news. That’s 39 percent of the not quite 80 percent of Americans who even have Web access (75 percent in 2004(pdf), I assume it’s higher now, but maybe not).

That is a number that represents a boon of an opportunity for newspapers, but it also points out how far online must come to be an major news destination.

(You need to read the whole post for the full argument, which is a good one.)

The memo, reproduced by Jim Romenesko, seems relatively benign. Some of it:

…we are adopting an Inquirer first policy for our signature investigative reporting, enterprise, trend stories, news features, and reviews of all sorts. What that means is that we won’t post those stories online until they’re in print. We’ll cooperate with philly.com, as we do now, in preparing extensive online packages to accompany our enterprising work. But we’ll make the decision to press the button on the online packages only when readers are able to pick up The Inquirer on their doorstep or on the newsstand.

~snip~

This does not mean that we will put the brakes on the immediate posting of breaking news that puts us first in a competitive Web marketplace. On the contrary. That’s one of the reasons that we instituted the morning team led by Julie Busby at the beginning of the year, and I want to re-emphasize that being first with the news is all-important.

So breaking news goes to the web first and larger pieces (and reviews, oddly) go to the web after the paper comes out, enhanced in some cases with “extensive online packages.” A little 1990s, perhaps, but hardly backward, at least on the surface.

I’ve had a couple of reactions to the moves in Philly. The first was to wonder if it doesn’t make sense to concentrate on print when print remains the core of the franchise, and when news staff is being cut. After all, claiming the online space with breaking news and then augmenting the longer stuff from the print edition is not a bad transitional strategy.

But (and here’s the second reaction) I wonder if the problem with this is not one of culture. Does this send a message to Inquirer writers and staff that the web is fine for the headlines and the spiffy graphics, but the “serious journalism” belongs in print? Are they really serving the reader or are they serving an increasingly outmoded idea of what a daily newspaper is?

UPDATE: While I was sleeping Zac Echola weighed in saying, in part:

To me, this smells not like differentiating a product. It smells a lot like reallocating scant resources to the print product so they can use the Web mostly as a place to shovel their content. And shovel it later than they were shoveling their content previously.

UPDATE 2: Two more, calm measured responses to the Philly memo, one from Steve Yelvington and the other from Jay Small, are both worth reading. While all this is, on the surface, about the Inquirer, what’s emerging is more considered conversation about how newspapers need to deal with current realities and possibilities.

UPDATE 3: A tweet from Ryan Sholin points to the Twitter feed of Inquirer Executive editor, online/news, Chris Krewson, which includes:

For those who’re curious, this “massive policy shift” is a tempest over an internal memo. 75 pct of what we do online will not change.

UPDATE 4: Ryan Sholin does the journalism on this and interviews Chris Krewson.

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