Gregory J. Osberg stepped down as publisher and chief executive of Philadelphia Media Network on Friday afternoon, less than six weeks after the company was purchased by a group of local owners.
Robert J. Hall, who has been PMN's chief operating officer, will replace Osberg as publisher and CEO of the company that operates The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com - a job he held previously for 13 years.
Osberg, 54, said he would remain with PMN as an adviser on digital strategies and advertising sales.
In an interview, Osberg said the decision to step down after just 19 months was his alone. Brought in to run PMN by the hedge funds that bought it at a bankruptcy auction, Osberg said that he had always thought his tenure would last about two years, until new ownership was found.
In a statement, Lewis Katz, a co-managing partner of the ownership team that acquired PMN for $55 million on April 2, said Osberg was "instrumental in bringing together the new local owners."
"We are pleased that Greg has agreed to continue to work with the company to drive advertising sales and help formulate digital strategies," Katz said.
Osberg said he would continue to work from his current office on the 12th floor at 400 N. Broad St. How long he might remain an adviser is open-ended, he said.
Hall was publisher and CEO from 1990 to 2003, when the newspapers and website were owned by Knight Ridder Inc. He worked as a senior adviser for the hedge funds, led by Angelo, Gordon & Co. and Alden Global Capital, that acquired the media properties for $139 million. Hall became chief operating officer of PMN in early October 2010, after a bankruptcy judge approved the sale.
In an interview Friday, Hall said he was "still convinced that there are a lot of great people in the newsrooms" and throughout PMN's other departments. But he acknowledged the toll that bankruptcy and multiple ownership changes have taken.
"We have lost our focus as an organization," he said, adding that he wants to "pick everybody's brains" in the print, digital, and business operations "about where we should be headed."
"We need to get that edge back," Hall said.
Despite significant financial and competitive challenges confronting the newspaper industry, Hall said, PMN has "two things going for us."
First, the new owners are "long-term thinkers" who can provide more breathing room and time for planning than the short-term-oriented hedge-fund group, he said. The second strength is the "really dedicated and talented people" who work for PMN.
Hall, 67 and a Philadelphia native, first joined the company as controller in 1973, when it was Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., a division of Knight Newspapers Inc. In 1985, he left Philadelphia to join the Detroit Free Press as general manager and later was named its publisher. He returned in 1990 to succeed Sam S. McKeel as publisher.
William K. Marimow, who returned as editor of The Inquirer on April 30, worked closely with Hall as assistant to the publisher from 1991 through 1993, as printing operations were moved from Broad Street to the company's Schuylkill Printing Plant in Upper Merion.
Calling him an "A-plus mentor," Marimow said Hall showed him the interrelationship of journalism and business. "I thought he had a great sensitivity to a publisher's proper role in terms of spearheading the business effort and investing whenever it was possible in good journalism," he said.
Osberg's brief tenure was marked by enormous and, at times, wrenching change at the 183-year-old Inquirer. PMN sold its office building on Broad Street, where The Inquirer has been produced since July 1925, and announced plans to combine the three newsrooms in leased space at 801 Market St.
Within the last year, those newsrooms underwent two rounds of job cuts through both voluntary buyouts and layoffs. The company cut 37 newsroom positions in March at the two newspapers and Philly.com. The Inquirer newsroom now has about 240 employees, down from more than 600 in the late 1990s.
However, it was when word emerged in late January about the hedge funds' efforts to sell PMN that Osberg made controversial decisions about articles by The Inquirer and Daily News concerning the sale. In one instance, a blog post about a rival bidder was removed from Philly.com.
His actions led nearly 300 newsroom employees and alumni to sign a public statement in mid-February calling on PMN's current and future owners to protect the integrity of their reporting. Osberg disagreed that censorship had occurred but has since said that he wished he had handled those decisions differently.
Osberg championed the company's efforts to get its content to the increasing numbers of readers using digital devices as their primary means of consuming news. And PMN spent more than $1 million to upgrade computers, mobile devices, and other equipment used by journalists in the newsrooms.
In the fall, the company launched a tablet product preloaded with digital editions of The Inquirer and Daily News. Osberg said Friday that he was pleased PMN was "out front" with such an "experiment," but surprised that tablets using the Android operating system have not gained ground on Apple's iPad.
"We wanted to come up with a model where we could break away and be independent of Apple," he said. Though PMN has 4,000 people who subscribe to the publications through the tablet, he said it was clear that the iPad is the "dominant device."
"I still . . . feel strongly that we need to figure out a way to control our own destiny other than being managed through the newsstands of Apple or Amazon if we want to truly benefit from the digital convergence that's going to be taking place," he said.
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