Gabriel Escobar, a longtime journalist who has helped manage a rapid and sometimes tumultuous transformation at The Philadelphia Inquirer, has been named its top editor, responsible for the news operation as it chronicles life across one of the country’s largest metropolitan areas during a period of historic disruption and profound change.
Escobar, 64, has served as editor and vice president — the second in command of the newsroom — since 2017 and has been a driving force in its digital-first strategy and award-winning investigations. A former foreign correspondent, he is respected inside and outside The Inquirer as a skilled journalist and an even-keeled manager, as well as a deep listener always armed with a notepad.
Over the last decade, Escobar organized the newsroom’s coverage of major Philadelphia events including Pope Francis’ visit, the 2016 Democratic National Convention, the Eagles' first Super Bowl win, a deadly Amtrak derailment, and this year, the coronavirus pandemic.
Under the title senior vice president and editor, Escobar, who was born in Colombia, will be one of the highest-ranking Latinos at a U.S. news organization. He’ll lead the staff of roughly 210 reporters, photojournalists, editors, designers, and producers as the company navigates a turbulent year and an uncertain financial future.
“I go into this job knowing that there is a superb staff at The Philadelphia Inquirer,” Escobar said in an interview, “and there isn’t any doubt of its quality of work, every day, over the last eight months.”
He takes over the position left vacant when executive editor Stan Wischnowski resigned in June after the paper ran a widely panned headline, “Buildings Matter, Too,” that sparked outrage within and outside the company about the newsroom’s coverage priorities and its treatment of journalists of color.
At the time, Inquirer publisher and chief executive officer Lisa Hughes said the company would undertake a national search for “a seasoned leader who embodies our values, embraces our shared strategy, and understands the diversity of the communities we serve.”
Hughes ultimately decided Escobar is that leader.
“He’s utterly unflappable,” Hughes, who joined the company in February, said in an interview. “The business of running a newsroom is incredibly difficult in a normal news cycle. To do it in the middle of the biggest news stories of our time … it’s a remarkable thing to see.”
While those stories have fed The Inquirer’s journalism, they also put newfound pressure on a company and industry that have struggled for more than a decade. The pandemic scattered The Inquirer staff from its Center City newsroom — with no plans to return until mid-2021 — and the ensuing recession meant a dramatic decline in revenue. Dozens of employees left the company or were laid off this year, although the newsroom downsizing has thus far been achieved through buyouts. (The company on Tuesday said it would suspend plans for newsroom layoffs at least until the end of the year.)
Last month, The Inquirer also announced it will close its Montgomery County printing facility and shift production to an outside vendor, leaving 500 employees out of work.
And yet by most measures, The Inquirer remains the dominant news outlet in one of the nation’s five largest media markets. The combined Inquirer and Daily News weekday circulation is about 91,000, and Inquirer.com averages 10.5 million unique users per month, with paid subscribers growing this year to more than 45,000.
Diane Mastrull, a staff writer, editor, and president of the NewsGuild of Greater Philadelphia, The Inquirer’s largest union, said she’s seen Escobar grow as a manager “interested in understanding and knowing the people that make up The Inquirer’s newsroom.”
But, she said, the newsroom must address “its decades of woeful performance when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion," including a new commitment to equal pay and advancement opportunities for women and people of color. She said the staff and its leadership are too white and do not reflect the multicultural reality of the city it covers.
“We have much to be proud of," she said, "but still we have to recognize that we have let down our audience by not reflecting it internally.”
Escobar said being named The Inquirer’s top editor prompted him to reflect on the efforts and sacrifices of members of migrant communities, like his mother, Clemencia Escobar, who died in August 2017.
“Immigrants are very optimistic. They have very high hopes and they always think that the future will be brighter,” Escobar said. “It compels them to endure the hardship, because they always think that the sacrifices will pay off. That is sort of my mother’s life story, and when she died, she knew that her life’s work had been rewarded.”
Five years after her husband, a lawyer, died in a car crash, she brought Escobar and his two brothers to Queens from Colombia in 1964. Escobar was 7 and spoke no English.
The man who never set out to be a journalist credits his education and unintended career path to a nearly 10-year stint working at the New York Public Library’s main facility in midtown Manhattan, where he moved up the ranks during high school and after college.
Escobar earned a creative-writing degree from Queens College, City University of New York, as well as a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Though his newspaper career would carry him through multiple cities, countries, beats, and roles, he truly started at the industry’s lowest rung: as a paperboy for the Long Island Press in the early 1970s.
Through the 1980s, he reported at newspapers in Queens, as well as North Jersey; Hartford, Conn.; and at the Daily News in Philadelphia. He then spent 16 years at the Washington Post, where he was a police reporter, an immigration reporter, and the Latin America bureau chief, based in Argentina. From 1999 to 2005, he served as the Post’s city editor and was part of a team of editors that coordinated coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the D.C. sniper saga.
He joined The Inquirer in 2007 as metropolitan editor. After leaving in 2011 for a year at the Dallas Morning News, he returned to Philadelphia as a deputy managing editor before rising to his current role.
Escobar lives in Villanova with his wife, Louisa Shepard, and the couple have three sons.
In 2016, The Inquirer’s previous owner, philanthropist H.F. Gerry Lenfest, donated the company that ran The Inquirer, Daily News, and their websites to a newly formed nonprofit institute, now called the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. The Inquirer is still a for-profit business, but it’s a “public-benefit corporation” — meaning public interest is at the core of its mission — and it has become a widely watched model of how philanthropy and public support might help sustain community-focused journalism.
Jim Friedlich, executive director and CEO of the Lenfest Institute, in a statement called Escobar “dedicated deeply to public service journalism and to serving the diverse communities of Philadelphia.”
That facet of its mission came under unprecedented scrutiny in June, after The Inquirer printed the controversial headline “Buildings Matter, Too” in the wake of civil unrest in cities nationwide after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd.
The headline appeared only in print, over a column by Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron in which she explored the lasting impact of the protests and unrest. The headline, written on deadline by an editor, was widely criticized as flip, insensitive, and equating property with human life. It sparked a revolt in the newsroom over how The Inquirer covers Black communities and treats its employees of color, similar to internal reckonings this year at the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post.
In the months since, newsroom staff have undergone antiracism training, and Escobar and managing editor Patrick Kerkstra have overseen an ongoing effort called “Inquirer For All.” The endeavor involves more than 70 newsroom staff members and managers serving on committees examining the newsroom’s journalistic practices and internal culture.
Ernest Owens, vice president of print for the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists and Philadelphia Magazine editor at large, said the efforts have lacked immediacy. He called Escobar’s promotion “underwhelming” and said the group would have preferred someone with a new perspective, not just “a redistribution of power.”
Still, he said, the PABJ board is “cautiously optimistic” and welcomes “meaningful and intentional conversations” with Inquirer leadership.
“We hope that Gabe takes the time to not reside in the comfort of his tenure,” he said. “We recommend he carefully listens to the diverse staff and leads with their concerns in informing the next decisions and programs.”
Escobar said that The Inquirer is taking the antiracism proceedings “incredibly seriously” and that the newsroom will come out with new policies, procedures, and areas of coverage.
“Newsrooms evolve. Perhaps too slowly for some, but they do evolve,” he said, “and I think we [The Inquirer] are in one of those critical moments when serious questions are being asked: What we do, what we’ve done, what we should be doing, and how we should be doing it. We have the responsibility to confront them and answer them.”
As he steps into the new role, Escobar said his chief aims are to strengthen the “collegial” spirit in the still-remote newsroom and overcome the tension while keeping up the commitment and dedication staffers have to producing high-quality journalism.