By: Kristina Ackermann
As newspapers trudge on through report after report of declining ad sales, shrinking audience, and waning relevancy, they are also, thankfully, getting better at tooting their own horns.
If the industry has come to learn anything from the Great Recession, it’s that we produce a product, a product that needs to be marketed just as well as — if not better than — any other product. This year’s 10 Newspapers That Do It Right are all prime examples of how newspapers can flex their marketing muscle to take back their place in the community, produce the high-quality products that readers demand, and update their sales tactics to accommodate the needs of modern advertisers.
Their results are sometimes tangible — like the Arizona Daily Star, which earned back the advertising dollars of grocery stores that had switched to a local competitor, or the Williamsport Sun-Gazette, which produced and sold hardcover books honoring local veterans in its community. Often the results can’t be seen — like The Vancouver Sun, which draws 550,000 pageviews per month by catering to a niche audience of Chinese-Canadian readers, or The Denver Post, whose iPad app is so popular it’s currently being replicated across the Digital First Media titles.
The newspapers featured on the following pages are making a difference, not in leaps and bounds necessarily, but in calculated, thoughtful steps designed to position them to seize even more opportunities for growth. All is not doom and gloom in our industry, and these papers are the proof.
Arizona Daily Star
Circulation: 138,545 Sunday; 95,844 daily
Not content to take the industry-wide drop in advertising lying down, the Arizona Daily Star launched an aggressive campaign to reclaim local grocery inserts from a direct mail competitor — and won.
Chase Rankin, vice president of advertising, sales, and marketing, led the Daily Star on a mission to recapture lost grocery inserts, which had dwindled to only one advertiser in spring 2011. The goal was set high, and Rankin accurately predicted that once the leading grocer in the market returned to the paper, others would follow suit. Fry’s Food (a division of Kroger) began by running run-of-paper ads in both the Daily Star and the paper’s nonsubscriber product, Buyer’s Edge. By fall 2012, Fry’s moved its full insert business to the paper, and Safeway and Sprouts weren’t far behind.
“We knew that grocery inserts were vital to us for revenue and readership,” Rankin said. “We also knew it wouldn’t be easy to get the grocers back. It took patience, a lot of customer care, innovative ideas, and ongoing teamwork from everyone in the organization.”
Rankin also knew that getting those advertisers back wasn’t enough — he had to give them a reason to stay. The second phase of the Daily Star’s grocery strategy was to strengthen the Buyer’s Edge product. More ROP advertisers were added, paper stock was upgraded, an online component was added, and weekly distribution was increased to total market coverage of 420,000 households.
As the inserts grew to add value to the Wednesday edition of the Daily Star, the circulation department capitalized by adding Wednesday to all subscription options, resulting in a 47 percent increase in Wednesday home-delivery and even greater value for Wednesday advertisers.
According to market development director Darrell Durham, the paper’s annual revenue from grocery advertising jumped more than twofold from 2011 to 2013. Revenue gains from the Buyer’s Edge jacket have come to represent 13 percent of the Daily Star’s annual revenue.
The Dallas Morning News
Circulation: 700,649 Sunday; 410,131 daily
In 2008, when The Dallas Morning News experienced its second year in a row of declining print ad revenue, publisher and chief executive officer Jim Moroney decided he didn’t want to wait to see how 2009 would turn out. The A.H. Belo flagship has since set a pitch-perfect example of what a diversified media company can accomplish.
Though the Morning News achieved additional circulation revenue from an across-the-board price increase in May 2009, plus revenue from commercial printing contracts with The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Investor Business Daily, and USA Today, even these sources began to level off in 2011. That’s when the paper’s executives started to look at “below the line” — or niche — marketing revenue.
“We wondered if we could get into this ‘below the line’ marketing space and thereby earn revenue from other parts of our customers’ marketing budgets,” Moroney said. “We also wanted to get into the small and medium (size) business space, a group of customers we had long since priced out of the metro paper.”
The resulting effort was a combined strategy of launching new businesses and acquiring others. In March 2012, DMN Media launched 508 Digital to provide digital marketing services to small- and medium-sized businesses at prices that can compete with the do-it-yourself options already available. This was followed in July by the acquisition of Pegasus News, which provides local entertainment news for the Dallas/Fort Worth area. In August, the company formed CrowdSource, an event marketing company that has already produced a cooking show that drew more than 8,000 paid attendees, and a Walk to the Park event that invited attendees to walk to a new park in downtown Dallas for an afternoon of live music, food, and entertainment.
In September 2012, the Morning News formed Speakeasy, a social media marketing agency that caters to medium and large businesses, and in December the paper acquired certain assets of DG Publishing, Inc., a magazine publisher of high-end resource guides, including Design Guide Texas and The Texas Wedding Guide. And Moroney said the company is just getting started.
“While we are proud to have started or acquired five new businesses in 2012, we will continue to pursue a strategy that builds new sources of revenue off the foundation of our brand, our core competencies, and our infrastructure,” Moroney said.
The Denver Post
Circulation: 604,184 Sunday; 412,669 daily
2012 was a busy news year for Colorado, with deadly wildfires that swept across the state in the hot summer months, the July 20 mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, and then the national attention of being a swing state in the November presidential election. All this delivered the opportunity for a news media company to deliver a truly exceptional product to an information-hungry audience — and The Denver Post did just that.
As part of the Digital First Media empire, the Denver Post was quick to establish real-time, multimedia coverage of breaking news events, plus investigations into the deeper issues that arose, such as faulty reverse 911 systems reported during the Colorado wildfires. News director Kevin Dale said the paper filed hundreds of breaking news updates for the Aurora movie theater shooting and followed up in print with a poignant special section honoring the heroes.
“We have built a foundation of journalists who are skilled enough to produce powerful reporting — it starts with the content,” Dale said. “Then, we have tried to create an entrepreneurial atmosphere in production and delivery to serve that content to our readers in smart ways.”
The content delivery platform of choice for the Denver Post is the iPad, and the paper’s second-generation iPad app, launched Aug. 1, 2012, has been heralded across the industry as the new standard in news app development — mostly because it doesn’t look anything like a newspaper. With two options for the home screen layout, enhanced social media integration, continuous scrolling, and improved advertising server opportunities, the app’s design has been replicated across the DFM network, providing company-wide mobile growth.
“Our goal is to provide a tablet experience that our audience has not seen before,” said Ed Moss, president and chief executive officer of the Denver Post and executive vice president of DFM.
Another digital initiative that is gaining momentum at the Denver Post is an e-book initiative that has opened up new distribution channels for both content and advertising. The two e-books launched so far have been a snow skiing guide and a “pictures of the year” compendium. The paper’s strategy is to create several small e-books each year, with three or four more substantial efforts that utilize original reporting and interactive features.
Circulation: 26,555 Sunday; 25,580 daily
The Lawrence Journal-World believes in the power of local news, and has scaled its national and world coverage way back in order to accommodate more of what its readers want on every platform: print, mobile, and online. The result has been a diverse blend of multiplatform content that residents of Lawrence can’t get anywhere else.
In addition to its award-winning main news site, the Journal-World offers stand-alone sites for coverage of local sports (the University of Kansas is located in Lawrence), entertainment, healthy living, and local businesses. Star columnists drive a loyal following both in print and online, and there are mobile apps dedicated to KU sports coverage and local headlines.
“Our objective is to reach audiences and advertisers through every channel, medium, and device they want us on,” said vice president of content Mark Potts. “We don’t talk about just being digital-first; we want to be audience-first.”
Specifically, the audience-first strategy means not ignoring print, and the Journal-World has recently launched a new print Sunday arts section, plus new health and business pages. Further plans to augment the print edition include sections aimed at shopping and nightlife.
“We devote our resources to blanket coverage of our local market. Our news and advertising departments work closely together — we’re even housed in the same room — for shared success, creating products that are both good for readers and will bring in revenue,” Potts said.
Other successful revenue-generating ventures at the Journal-World have been a daily deals program, which grossed nearly $200,000 in 2012 with 11,969 deals sold, and a loyalty program called LawrenceGiveback that gives back to local charities by providing them with a percentage of sales from local merchants who accept the Giveback card. There are currently 17,000 Giveback users, with 53 local businesses and 75 charities participating. The program has donated more than $200,000 over the past four years.
In the coming months, Potts said the Journal-World will remain committed to researching and experimenting in the digital space as more and more readers move to mobile devices.
“We want to find the mobile solution that’s as vital to living life in Lawrence as the printed newspaper has been for 122 years,” he said. “For us, it’s all local, all about serving the local audience and advertisers.”
The Orange County Register
Santa Ana, Calif.
Circulation: 387,547 Sunday; 285,088 daily
Ever since 39-year-old entrepreneur Aaron Kushner took the helm at The Orange County Register in July 2012, the announcements of new hires, products, and developments have been nearly constant. Kushner and partner Eric Spitz, first-time newspaper owners with a history of running successful digital businesses, have the benefit of seeing the industry with fresh eyes and are not confined to the “way we’ve always done it” mentality.
“The Register is defying conventional wisdom that calls for newspapers to shrink the newspaper and staff that supports it, and choosing to invest rather than save our way to prosperity,” said communications consultant Eric Morgan.
Under Kushner, the Register’s new strategy calls for providing customers with rich content and a higher-quality product. It’s opening digital channels but not simply repurposing print content in an online format. It’s adding new sections, providing more locally focused information, strengthening investigative reporting, adding color and page thickness to the print product, and adjusting pricing accordingly.
Subscribers who balk at the increased price of the print subscription will soon be unable to access the same content for free online. Although Morgan wouldn’t share details about the Register’s digital pricing strategy, he did confirm that a paywall is coming, and the paper is targeting spring for the launch.
“Kushner believes many newspaper readers have stopped subscribing because the value proposition is not what it once was,” Morgan said. “It’s true that more people are reading news online, but it certainly isn’t helping your fate when news providers publish the same information found in a paid newspaper on the website for free.”
It’s still too soon to tell if Kushner’s strategy will pay off, though Morgan said both daily and Sunday circulation is up, as well as advertising. If nothing else, the young entrepreneur has captured the attention of the industry, reaping equal parts praise and skepticism from pundits and colleagues. There’s a new energy, and there are new jobs (the Register has hired 100 new staff members since Kushner arrived). More importantly, the Register has given the notoriously blasé Southern California population a reason to pay attention to newspapers again.
Circulation: 35,000 weekly
In the rural state of Vermont, the independent weekly Seven Days is moving the needle by expanding in ways that allow for repurposing and repackaging smart, lively content.
“Revenue wise, 2012 was our best year ever,” said publisher Paula Routly.
The company has diversified its revenue streams considerably in the past few years, adding video content, mobile and tablet apps, and niche publications, including a monthly parenting magazine, annual dining guide, another guide for college students, and a bilingual (French and English) quarterly for tourists that’s produced in partnership with Burlington International Airport.
Seven Days’ strength lies largely in its community events: homebuyer seminars, singles mixers, plus unique, statewide events that generate revenueand reinforce the brand of the core print product. One is Vermont Tech Jam, a two-day job fair and tech expo that Seven Days launched in 2008 with a coalition of private- and public-sector partners.
“Unlike many newspapers, (Seven Days) still has a robust employment classified section, and our involvement with the Tech Jam began as an opportunity to add a face-to-face event for those clients who advertise jobs with us — something Craigslist and other online competitors can’t do,” Routlysaid. “Over time, we were able to align ourselves with the tech-industry trade group, and we now partner exclusively with the Vermont Technology Alliance to organize the Tech Jam.”
The Jam has sold out of exhibitor space the last two years, with more than 80 companies and organizations participating and about 2,000 people attending over the course of two days. The event has earned the paper recognition on the state level, and even had Google as a sponsor in 2011.
Seven Days has also expanded its coverage of the state’s Restaurant Week by launching 7 Nights, the annual dining and nightlife guide, and boosting its food writing staff. The paper sells sponsorships for the event and bundles the price of participation with advertising in 7 Nights to encourage larger ads in the guide. More than 80 restaurants participated in 2012, and the paper supports the local community by donating a portion of the proceeds to the Vermont Foodbank.
Sioux City Journal
Sioux City, Iowa
Circulation: 34,445 Sunday; 30,997 daily
In April 2012, a 14-year-old Sioux City high school student took his own life after suffering aggressive bullying at school, online, and even via text message. Rather than simply report on the tragedy as a straight news story, the editorial staff at the Sioux City Journal decided the paper needed to do something more.
On Sunday, April 22, the Sioux City Journal published a full frontpage editorial that began, “We must stop bullying. It starts here. It starts now.”
Though the Journal had published frontpage editorials before, it had never dedicated the entire front page to an opinion piece. Accompanied by powerful artwork created by syndicated cartoonist Brian Duffy, the editorial had an immediate and dramatic impact in the community.
“We feel unequivocally that if the Journal is to remain relevant in this increasingly fractured society, we have to be forceful advocates for our community through a strong, proactive editorial voice,” said editor Mitch Pugh.
The paper’s bold message didn’t begin and end with one op-ed. It also worked with the local Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention to form the Bullying Prevention Community Coalition, a resource for parents, students, and education professionals. The editorial sparked action from state and national leaders, and Iowa held its first statewide bullying summit in November.
Since its April call to action, the Journal has run three other prominent editorials, and the staff plans to keep writing. Though reader response has been overwhelmingly positive, Pugh said the paper’s stance has affected its relationships with local school officials. “It simply isn’t easy for a community to unflinchingly reflect on its shortcomings, even when it comes to something as universally despised as bullying,” he said.
A strong editorial voice is at the heart of the Journal’s strategy for addressing the present challenges of the newspaper industry.
“Newspapers cannot expect to become more relevant and profitable by shrinking from the core responsibilities. Rather than cutting the number of local editorials, ceasing candidate endorsements, and eliminating opinion page editors, newspapers should be doubling down on such leadership,” Pugh said. “(Readers) may not always agree with us, and we’ve taken our fair share of heat due to this philosophy, but the community appreciates the role we’ve embraced to try to make Sioux City a better place to live and work.”
The Vancouver Sun
Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Circulation: 176,760 Saturday; 152,803 daily
There are more than 400,000 Chinese-Canadians in metro Vancouver, roughly one-fifth of the area’s total population. It is the largest minority group in the region, and one of the fastest growing. As such, it only makes sense that any local newspaper looking to grow its audience must effectively tap this demographic.
The Vancouver Sun, part of Postmedia’s Pacific Newspaper Group, created a niche news website that leverages the well-earned trust and authority of the newspaper’s brand and expands its reach into this important immigrant community.
“The plan was to do some original reporting in Chinese, to translate Vancouver Sun stories that had unique appeal to new Canadians, to sift the world’s wire services for stories and photos of intense local/cultural interest, and, finally, to form a group of community bloggers composed of some of the most influential members of the local Chinese community and the Chinese-Canadian community abroad,” said Paul Bucci, PNG’s director of digital products.
The Sun’s newsroom and Pacific News Group’s digital team launched Taiyangbao — which, translated, means “Sun newspaper” — in December 2011. Bucci said audience response was “immediate and impressive.”
In the first month after its launch, taiyangbao.ca received more than 140,000 pageviews, according to Bucci, and the site now has about 550,000 pageviews per month. Taiyangbao’s audience is 65 percent Canadian, with the remainder of views coming from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the U.S.
Where there are readers, advertisers are bound to follow, and Bucci said Taiyangbao sold out the site’s advertising inventory for its first three months, with total ad revenue now in excess of $150,000.
“Revenue for the site keeps growing, and there are lots of advertising opportunities on Taiyangbao, from sponsored blogs, to small tile ads, to the standard big box and leaderboard units,” Bucci said. “We’ve even set up a self-serve news release system where clients can post an announcement for a small fee.”
Taiyangbao content is produced in the Sun newsroom and translated into traditional and simplified Chinese. “But it’s not a simple translation service,” Bucci stressed. “We, like other newspapers, can successfully transform ourselves to deliver more new and intensely local products that capitalize on our strengths and offer added service and attraction to ever-growing audiences and revenue opportunities.”
Circulation: 168,308 Sunday; 132,590 daily
Although there are plenty of newspapers experimenting with new content and new ways to deliver it, very few are following up that strategy with a targeted, strategic methodology on the sales side. The Virginian-Pilot is one of the few.
“In 2012, we completed our conversion from print-only sales reps to multimedia sales professionals who now offer the full suite of products and services across print and digital,” said advertising research manager Michael Lambert. “This marked the move from a ‘compete’ sales model to a ‘collaborate’ model.”
This transition occurred in measurable, attainable steps and included several key initiatives. First, all managers, reps, and sales support participated in a yearlong training curriculum that included terminology, products, pricing, building action plans, and analytics. Next, the staff revised the entire sales and fulfillment process from top to bottom, producing new collateral and marketing pieces to support sales efforts. All sales goals and commissions were revised in order to drive behaviors that support the new model. Finally, personnel were tested for their competency in the new system (both written and demonstration tests). Those who couldn’t pass on the second try were shown the door (don’t worry, pass rate was 98 percent).
The result? Digital sales are up 25 percent year-over-year from 2011. The sales process itself is running smoothly and efficiently since fulfillment efforts for print and digital have been centralized and aligned. The Pilot also invested in improved sales materials (both electronic and printed) to help the newly educated sales reps continue to drive revenue growth.
The decision to redefine the entire sales process was, thankfully, not taken lightly. The objectives were put in place only after the Pilot had exhausted the market analytics available.
“We embarked upon a program to systematically analyze the universe of businesses in our market in order to determine market penetration and to determine if we had the right products, pricing, and sales channels to serve the various businesses,” Lambert said. “This initiative was undertaken on the premise that national business and major accounts will be spending less, and that local small-to medium-size businesses are where the opportunity lies.”
Circulation: 28,629 Sunday; 21,635 daily
Every Monday since early 2007, the Williamsport Sun-Gazette has published a full-page feature highlighting the story of a local veteran of World War II or Korea in his or her own words. Titled Defenders of Freedom, the feature began when the local Korean War Veterans Association approached reporter David Thompson to publicize the local Korean War veterans color guard, which attends hundreds of veterans’ funerals annually. The interviews are accompanied by photos of uniforms, awards, and other memorabilia, plus then-and-now photographs of the veterans during their time of service.
“Many of the men and women featured enjoyed the hometown celebrity status gained when their story was published,” said publisher Bernard (Bernie) Oravec. “Interest in the stories then snowballed until we had a waiting list of veterans who wished to talk with us.”
The series eventually became so popular that the paper compiled the stories into a 304-page, full-color hardback book, also titled “Defenders of Freedom,” guided by the skilled hands of graphic designer Tim Wertz.
“We held a reception for the veterans featured in the book prior to its public release and presented each with a complimentary copy,” Oravec said. “The men had a great time sharing stories over dinner and collecting autographs from one another.”
After the first volume sold nearly 2,500 copies, the Gazette followed up with a second volume that included even more stories. Copies were donated to local veterans’ hospitals, libraries, and a hospice, and sold to the general public for $34.95.
“Our advertising department also sold display advertising in the book, which nearly covered the actual printing costs,” Oravec said. “Our actual net profit was about $22 to $24 per book.”
The Gazette is on a roll with these specialty titles and has already branched out to include book and magazine coverage of local high school sports, with future plans to feature other historical topics.
“Books published with existing newspaper content provide a great source of new revenue for newspapers,” Oravec said. “The key to success is to start with a popular column or series and enhance with photos.”