More than a year has passed since the New York Times’ newsroom published “Journalism That Stands Apart: The Report of the 2020 Group.” The report was intended to define “the newsroom’s strategies and aspirations” and laid out arguments for initiatives like nurturing more reader participation; creating more visually stimulating, multimedia journalism; and committing to greater collaboration between the newsroom and the publisher’s product teams.
Overall, the report provided interesting insight on what the Times was planning for its future, so we couldn’t help but wonder what other newspapers had on their agenda for 2020. E&P reached out to several newspapers across the country and asked them to share.
What variables do you think will have the most influence on how well your newspaper performs—in both revenue and audience—in the coming two years?
Mark Adams, CEO, Adams Publishing Group, Athens, Ohio: The continuing success of our newspapers will depend on how well we execute on our commitment to provide “must-have”—primarily local—content to our readers. That means being deeply engaged with each community we serve, so that we can understand as clearly as possible how to identify and provide that content. It also means constantly reinvesting in our newsrooms and in our technology, so that people are willing to pay for the high quality, unique, abundant, habit-forming content we are making available to them via a variety of platforms. Our goal is to continue to be the go-to information source for our communities, which will in turn provide the audience needed for our advertisers. Achieving and maintaining a modest bottom-line margin of 15 percent will provide sufficient resources for APG to continue to reinvest as needed to produce the essential “must-have” content.
Brian Bloom, publisher, The Goshen (Ind.) News: There is no substitution for quality, in all aspects. Newspapers that succeed can effectively integrate digital, while still driving a print audience. We strive to be hyperlocal with an emphasis on relating the human experience.
There are obvious challenges—newsprint, postage, economy, many outside our control—so we work to determine what makes our product invaluable. How can we incorporate social media into our day-to-day operation? How effective can we be with blogs and digital video? We are in our infancy in relation to what technology can provide. With the preponderance of questionable social media outlets, newspapers remain the last great bastion of editorial truth. We can’t take that for granted.
Shawn Palmer, senior vice president, chief revenue officer, RJ Media Group (Meriden, Conn.): We need to diversify our revenue stream. Traditional advertising revenue will continue to be challenging so new revenue growth needs to be an area of focus for us. Today, our total audience is at its highest, and video, podcasts and native will further expand it even more. The challenge for us will be monetize these new readers/viewers/listeners. Consumer revenue is an area of opportunity and absolutely needs to play a bigger role in our revenue mix.
Scott Schmeltzer, president and publisher, the Ironton (Ohio) Tribune: Our audience, over the last several years, has been so fragmented with the many platforms that, for a consumer, it can be overwhelming. Newspapers need to stick to the core of what has made them so great for so many years, and that is the truth. Accuracy, integrity, and fairness still matter to people. The more consistent we can be, the better. All audiences need and deserve a trustworthy source of information. That is us.
On the revenue side, trust with our advertisers starts with making sure they have all the information from our teams to make the best marketing decisions. We need to have trained teams that can answer all the questions thoroughly about the products we offer. We need to provide value to our customers. Value builds trust.
Carrie Simison, publisher, Colorado Springs (Colo.) Independent: We seem to be living in a period where news in general is vilified through the president’s constant claims of “fake news.” We need to remind the public that newspapers and journalists are trained professionals whose job is to actually wade through the bullshit and tell the true story. By continuing to abide by the high standards we set for our reporting, we know we can keep our regular readers and prove to the skeptics that what we do is not “fake news” and that we’re the local, reliable source to keep them in the know. Plus, there’s something about it being in print versus online that gives extra reliability to it.
Of course, figuring out the balance between content and revenue in print and online is the challenge that all newspapers are facing. To stay relevant, we have to be where our readers are, when they are there, which sometimes means breaking stories online versus holding them for our print product that hits the streets just weekly.
With more new readers paying for news, how may this impact editorial in the future or how you’ll deploy your newsroom talent and resources?
Gilbert Bailon, editor, St. Louis (Mo.) Post-Dispatch: Having more readers willing to pay for our content helps us to allocate more resources toward our mission. The Post-Dispatch newsroom is the biggest local news website, fueled by the largest newsgathering team in our region. That comprehensive local coverage with news, sports, business, and arts and entertainment is unrivaled. Knowing more about our core subscribers helps us to engage with them and hear their ideas and comments directly. It helps us to strengthen our relationships with our most loyal, invested readers.
If you had to pinpoint your newspaper’s strengths, what would they be? What would you consider to be the organization’s weaknesses right now? What would you like to see changed between now and 2020?
Adams: APG has many great strengths: It’s a family-owned enterprise, which has deliberately, thoughtfully and enthusiastically entered the community newspaper space with a commitment to be successful for many years to come. We do not manage quarter to quarter.
APG’s priorities are established and well known to our associates. Although we are a young company, the communities we serve know we are there to serve them well, not to strip the newspaper of any value and leave town. We know that our greatest strength is in our own associates, who create the must-have content and provide great solutions for our customers. We believe taking good care of our associates in every way—to which we are committed—will result in our associates taking good care of APG and the communities it serves.
APG is financially strong with a significant capacity to grow. But we are not growing to get bigger, we are growing to get better and stronger.
If APG has any weakness, it is its relative youth. We are, after all, barely four years old, have grown fast, and have not had time to implement fully all of our priorities across the board to our more than 100 publications across 15 States. But we have great momentum and are confident we will be increasingly strong through 2020 and beyond.
Bloom: Our strength is our investment in the communities we serve, both in news coverage and sponsorship. We created our own film series, which helped drive a proposed $14 million theater renovation on our Main Street. We devised the “Power of Pink Purse Sale” to raise money for cancer charities, and either initiated or promoted festivals and events as diverse as comic-cons to rock concerts. We put our stamp of approval on projects that benefit our audience, and couple advertising with sponsorship to increase visibility. That’s the long way around of saying: We, as a paper and as a staff, are involved.
As to our weakness? We too often succumb to the idea that because we are a small staff, we have small expectations. We don’t always react favorably to change, and we are a work in progress in creating social media posts as events happen; (we are) too often in the habit of telling our audience what they missed. As staff sizes dwindle, especially on the news side, we demand a lot from less, and we need to do a better job of energizing our community journalists to help as our eyes and ears.
Nadine McBride, president and publisher, Norwich (Conn.) Bulletin: The Bulletin is a long-standing news source for this area of Connecticut, having been established 227 years ago. Our mission to provide accurate local news to the communities we serve remains our strength to this day, providing information that is useful to our readers, that can only be found through our reporting of events. Our commitment to those communities is enhanced by the dedication of the newsroom staff and reporters. Another strength is our involvement in the local communities that we serve and the assistance we provide to the various businesses and groups, for local events to better the communities.
As the business needs change, so have the way we operate. Some functions of our daily operation have been outsourced, which leads to less local control on how the specific function is carried out. I perceive this to be a weakness. What I would like to see changed is to bring back to the local level some of these functions that have been outsourced.
Schmeltzer: Our strength is the trust we have built up over time with all of our customers. Having local columnists, local content, and trusted local marketing team members is what separates us currently. Our knowledge of the city and county government structure and its players is a huge strength. Our audience knows we will be fair and balanced, and that in today’s climate of “fake news” is super important and vital to any news organization.
I think a weakness that I would like to see become a strength is training. We have seen so many platforms start and stop over the last couple of years, it has been impossible to keep up with the training and knowledge of all the moving parts. If you think of social media, video, and many other digital and print options we are doing, getting anyone fully immersed and trained is sometimes next to impossible.
The Times’ 2020 Report noted the organization’s commitment to diversity. Have you been re-evaluating how to better staff the newspaper moving forward?
Bailon: The evolution over the last five years has been widespread and will continue as our journalists work across platforms, varied forms of storytelling, and acquire new skills to enable that multifaceted journalism. Hands-on skills training and understanding of online analytics will continue to be fundamental to grow and to stay abreast of evolving techniques and platforms. As a Midwestern metro, diversity carries a broad connotation. Clearly, that encompasses race, gender and other demographics, but also includes geography, rural/urban issues, age, and political perspectives. Representing that vast diversity across two States is a core newsroom goal.
How do you think your newsroom there may continue to change and adapt? And how are there ways in which the organization is investing in professional development and training for staff?
Palmer: We are always trying to be as efficient as possible by sharing resources where appropriate without losing our local flavor and hurting our brand in our community. We cannot cut our way to the future, but we do have to be hyper vigilant on costs so that our local news-gathering and sales resources can be maximized. Our news and sales staffs’ have seen their roles and responsibilities change drastically. It is incumbent upon us to train them to thrive in the new world order.
Have social media platforms been important to how you’ve communicated with readers, and do you think that you will be using social media in a different way moving forward?
Palmer: Of course, social media has been very important since it allows us to greatly expand our audience, if only for a story at a time. At the same time, we are exploring other audience growth strategies that we have more control of that also yield positive results. Email newsletters are one that has been working well.
Looking forward, what are you telling advertisers about what they can expect, and how are you preparing to deliver on those expectations?
Bloom: Household penetration from the traditional newspaper and reach from our digital proposals are front and center. They’ve all heard that print is dead, repeated again and again by competitors who fail to note their own fragmentation of audience.
Our audience is quality over quantity, buyers versus shoppers. There remains a truth to the printed word, a level of authenticity that says, “When you see it in the newspaper, it must be true.” We also tell them that our future is exciting. We can bundle, in one presentation, a myriad of customer solutions. From geo-fencing and targeting to digital display and video to social media management—all presented in a package that includes the most trusted and usually the longest-serving media in the market.
How do you define the culture at your newspaper(s), and how do you see it possibly evolving in the coming years?
Adams: APG is a very focused organization: Focused on being financially stable. Focused on being a high-performance organization that strives for excellence in everything it does. Focused on being an organization where good people want to work. Focused on being nimble and innovative. Focused on staying very close to—and being supportive of—the communities we serve. We believe that APG has a bright, enduring future. But, our long-term success in realizing that future will depend on our continuing to focus on our priorities. All of these things define APG’s culture.
APG defines “good people” as those who are capable of and engaged in making APG stronger and better every day. To attract and retain those good people, APG focuses hard on providing the kind of environment in which they feel respected, rewarded and supported, including providing competitive benefits for our associates and supplying them with every tool possible to ensure that they are successful in their jobs.
Bailon: The Post-Dispatch has a long history of quality journalism, which drives our work each day. The bedrock of quality local journalism will sustain our role amid technological changes. Our newsroom tracks online analytics as an indicator of reader interest, which is balanced with our public service roles of watchdog journalism, public accountability, practical community information and commentary. We must provide original local coverage across a wide spectrum.
Schmeltzer: I think many community newspapers are offering digital subscriptions to the products they have. We are no different, because without a revenue source for our content, it is hard to provide great, cutting-edge content in a timely manner. I see a different culture evolving over the next few years as placing a price on the time and effort of our content. As we continue to provide content in a variety of forms—video, digital, web and print—we still need to be able to pay our teams that provide that content. Over the last several years, many organizations didn’t place enough of an importance on the content they provided. We are learning that was a mistake.
Simison: As an alternative newsweekly, our mission has always been to be the alternative voice bringing hyperlocal news to our readers. We’re a free product, both in print and online, so we are available and accessible to everyone and plan to stay that way. Of course, that means we rely solely on advertising revenue to pay our bills. It’s easy for advertisers to want to try the newest, shiniest forms of marketing and give everything a try, but at the end of the day, we know our audience; we know what they want, and we know they’ll patronize our local advertisers, and it’s easy to prove that. We do want to make sure we have supplemental products—whether that’s video, social media, events, etc. But all of those things still drive our advertisers back to our audience, and our audience to our advertisers, and that helps all of us.
Gretchen A. Peck is an independent journalist who has reported on publishing and printing for more than two decades. She has contributed to Editor & Publisher since 2010 and can be reached at [email protected]
Editor’s Note: Due to an editing error, the printed version of this article was missing Shawn Palmer’s answers. The online version has been updated to include his responses.