A Fresh Perspective: How Consultants Are Reenergizing Newsrooms and Ad Sales
Posted: 1/15/2013  |  By: Nu Yang
As publishers seek innovative ways to generate revenue during these financially strapped times, they are looking beyond their office building for outside help from newspaper consultants. Many consultants come from a newspaper background and are now offering their perspective in another role. From redesigning an entire paper to training a sales staff, consultants are voicing their suggestions on many issues troubling the industry — and publishers are listening.

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When it comes to finding a consultant, publishers should know what their problems are and what challenges they want to overcome. Luckily, many consultants specialize in more than one area.

Based in Norfolk, Va., Brass Tacks Design (brasstacksdesign.com) launched in 1992 and is now entering its third decade redesigning newspapers. Founder Alan Jacobson said he’s “not focused on the cosmetic reasons” for a redesign. “It doesn’t matter how pretty you make it; if it doesn’t move the needle, it’s not working.”

He called a newspaper’s redesign “very strategic.”

“If publishers spend $1, they want to see $1.01 back,” he said. “Our goal is to boost revenue and cut costs. Lately, we have been redesigning the classifieds section, which is traditionally very much neglected, but it’s so tied in to revenue.”

When publishers call Jacobson about a redesign, he puts the potential client through an interview process, where he tells them, “A redesign is not your goal.

“I go deeper with my questions,” he said. “It’s typical to just think of the surface, but asking questions leads to the core.” Jacobson said that most of the time, publishers are looking for solutions on how to cut costs.

For example, he said the Bakersfield Californian saw a boom in real estate advertising 10 years ago, but when that bubble burst, the paper went from feast to famine. The redesign launched in March 2006 after dramatic cost cuts and with a smaller staff, and Jacobson said it had to be executed with bottom-line results.

“We had to simplify the design but not show the reader that any of the value was lost,” he said.

Detailed in a report on brasstacksdesign.com, Jacobson’s strategy has transformed the front page with more compelling content selection (stories and photos), presentation, headline writing, use of color and typography, and more emphasis on local news. He also introduced new story forms to meet readers’ needs, with heavy emphasis on short-form journalism, and implemented a workflow in the newsroom that encouraged collaboration instead of the traditional assembly- line model.

At the time of the redesign, the Californian reported that single-copy sales increased between 8 and 13 percent, and there was a jump of 1,000 additional inches of advertising in the redesigned real estate tab.

The Republican-American in Woodbury, Conn., was facing a challenge with its weekly County Life publication. The goal of the redesign was to make the product more useful and unique.

“We designed in a way that advertisers think readers will look at it,” Jacobson said. In its more “compelling” format, Jacobson said the redesign boosted revenue 673 percent.

The Elk City (Okla.) Daily News launched a redesign last summer with Jacobson. The paper is published Tuesday through Friday and Sunday and has a circulation of 4,500. Publisher Elizabeth Perkinson said the paper’s last redesign was in the 1980s, and she wanted a more modern look.

After working with Jacobson, Perkinson said she was pleased to receive positive feedback from readers and advertisers about the redesign, which is important in a town of 12,000 with two competing papers (see “Battle for Elk City,” E&P, November 2012).

Although the amount of local coverage is still the same, Perkinson said it feels like more content because of the new layout. “We just displayed it better,” she said. “Instead of 10 to 12 headlines on the front page, we’re down to three to five.”

She said circulation has increased slightly. Jacobson also helped train the sales staff to develop better strategies, including selling front page advertisements.

When asked what makes his services stand out, Jacobson said, “We get to the bottom line. Other designers do fine work, but they’re focused on the cosmetic. They don’t get into the nuts and bolts, and by nature, our clients are worried about money. Our main question is, ‘How will this make publishers more money?’”

Located in Fayetteville, N.C., Advantage Newspaper Consultants (newspaperconsultants.com) offers a wide range of services including a TV magazine ad sales program; Business-NOW!, a concentrated sales training and revenue-generated initiative; Platinum Advantage, an integrated ad sales program that packages online and print ads to boost revenue and retention; and iFolds Pro, focused on e-content, e-advertising, and e-delivery.

The company was founded in 1996 and is lead by president Tim Dellinger and vice president John Jones. The company employs more than 20 full-time staff members nationwide.

According to Jones, more than 250 clients use the company’s TV magazine program. “About three to four years ago, newspapers were cutting back, but they now realize the TV book is perfect for the newspaper,” he said.

The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune
revamped its TribTV publication last summer. As reported in an Advantage newsletter, the weekly TV magazine generated no advertising revenue for the newspaper and was composed primarily of listing grids with little editorial content. The editorial and advertising staff at the Tribune and production team at Advantage worked together to redesign the TV magazine to provide entertainment value and an array of advertising positions in the 24-page publication. The result was $400,000 in advertising revenue, exceeding the goal of $300,000.

The McAlester (Okla.) News-Capital serves a smaller market than the Tribune, but the publication, along with other papers owned by parent company Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., has been using the TV magazine for 10 years. Advantage also helps the paper put the TV magazine online as part of its electronic edition. The News-Capital has a daily circulation of 6,200 and a Sunday circulation of 7,200.

Publisher Amy Johns said the TV magazine saw a huge increase in revenue and doubled the budget she had predicted. “Working with Advantage has given us a fresh attitude,” she said. “Our salespeople have a hard job to do. They’re used to hearing ‘no’ … having Advantage is like having a new member on our sales team.”

Johns said she found value in hiring a consultant. “I always have my publisher’s hat on, and I look at the risks. Consultants are worth it if both the publisher and ad manager are willing to buy in … consultants are there to assist you, shed light, and build new energy, but they shouldn’t be looked at as being a paper’s savior. They are the icing on the cake, not the cake.”

Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal director of sales and revenue management Kerry Coke wasn’t looking for a consultant when Dellinger contacted her last year, but she was curious to hear what they had to say about their TV magazine program. Coke said the paper’s weekly TV guide needed to be revitalized. After hearing Dellinger’s proposal, she was skeptical because “it sounded too good to be true.”

At the kickoff campaign, Coke said Advantage consultants promised 30 appointments with advertisers, and they were able to deliver those 30 in less than eight minutes.

Coke said she went from a skeptic to a believer when “everything (Advantage) said was going to happen, happened … I saw how they handled themselves with my sales force, and I saw that their objective was to make my business a success.”

What makes Advantage stand out, Jones said, is its willingness to talk about revenue. “Advertising is about revenue. Take that out of the equation, and you have a major problem. You can talk digital, mobile, apps until the cows come home, but you need them to turn into a positive revenue stream.”

When working with publishers, Jones said the goal is to evaluate each market and create more revenue, and they have found that online advertising has no retention.

“Look at the core product,” he said, referring to print. “We used to offer a strictly Web sales program, but we stopped after 18 months because we found retention was terrible.”

Jones said he isn’t anti-Web or anti-digital, but he is a big advocate of the core product. “Digital revenue is like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and until I see it, we have other business to do.”

Based in Toronto, KubasPrimedia (kubas.com) was created by the 2010 merger of Kubas Consultants and Primedia Sales and Marketing. According to chairman Len Kubas, Primedia is the largest newspaper representative firm in Canada. Kubas founded Kubas Consultants in 1977 after leaving his position as marketing services director at the Toronto Star. KubasPrimedia has worked with more than 250 newspapers and publishing groups around the world.

KubasPrimedia provides several services focused on sales and advertising, including market expansion, pricing, sales programs, customer retention, and best practices. It also offers an ad cost calculator that can be integrated with all products. In addition, KubasPrimedia offers original research for the industry, including an annual preview study that surveys daily newspaper executives and managers on their expectations for advertising revenues and what strategic initiatives they plan to undertake.

“We don’t want to give out cookie-cutter solutions,” Kubas said. “(Newspapers) need in-depth analysis on how much to spend, how often, what yields — our analytics help determine that.” Kubas also said he sees that “newspapers are not setting the agenda; advertisers are setting the agenda.”

Palm Beach (Fla.) Post vice president of revenue development Charles Gerardi said he hired Kubas in 2003 after he saw his depressed advertising rates. “I knew we could do better, and I was looking for strategies that would capture yield in our market.” The Post has a daily circulation of 136,000 and a Sunday circulation of 104,000.

Gerardi said Kubas suggested modular formats, which would cut costs and save revenue. Kubas explained in a Local Media Association article that the modular strategy “involved packaging and pricing ads based on a selected number of standard units, rather than allowing advertisers to buy an infinite number of ad sizes using variable space measures such as column inches or agate lines.”

Gerardi said Kubas also introduced a multidimensional pricing structure with a number of different levels compared to their former national and local retail options.

He said there were several variables that Kubas helped implement, including tying contracts together with one level of commitment, therefore simplifying discussion with the advertiser; breaking down businesses into categories for more effective pricing, and allowing the paper to create new marketplaces; understanding that the higher the frequency, the better the variable; changing the pricing based on the day of the week as opposed to just daily and Sunday prices, allowing more flexibility for the advertiser; and applying built-in pricing advantages, where the larger the ad, the better the rate.

“We learned that not one size fits all,” Gerardi said. “Before, so much of our advertising pricing was based on a gut feeling; now we’ve brought customizing to our pricing … Kubas helped show us there is more of a science to that gut feeling approach.” Gerardi said the paper saw positive results in the first year. “We started with 197 ad sizes. Now we have less than 20. The presentation is much cleaner, and the average frequency and ad sizes went up.”

Gannett’s director of revenue initiatives Molly Evans said she has worked with Kubas and his team on several occasions in a few markets over the last 10 years. “Initially, the biggest benefit was the techniques (and) best practices consultants brought to the table. Over time, after developing skills and experience by doing it (implementing the new pricing strategy), the big benefit to me was the analysis work they can do. With less staff resources, and in smaller markets where depth of management experience is less, the analysis is a huge component of the work.”

Changing Times
Publishers aren’t the only ones who have had to adjust to the evolving industry landscape; consultants have had to adjust to the times as well. From redesigning websites to figuring out how to boost digital dollars, consultants have also added more to their plates.

Creative Circle Media Solutions (creativecirclemedia.com) was founded in 1982 by Bill Ostendorf, former Providence (R.I.) Journal managing editor for visuals and new product development. He left his newsroom position in 2000 to consult full time. According to Ostendorf, his company has redesigned 450 newspapers and 200 media websites.

In 2004, Creative Circle introduced several software options. The newest products include QuickAds, a platform that allows any website to benefit from simple, text-based, self-service display ads; and PressReleaseQ, which collects, manages, publishes, archives, and monetizes local business news.

“QuickAds was designed to get a lot of advertisers — print, classifieds, and Web — on a publication’s website and do it in a fast, cheap, easy, and flexible way,” Ostendorf said. “It was also built to allow local ad managers to create new and fresh ideas online in a matter of minutes with no programming or technical knowledge. You can get creative with QuickAds and go after existing or new markets in a lot of different ways.”

Regarding PressReleaseQ, Ostendorf said, “Publishing and providing top SEO for business news and press releases is a $5 billion business for others, but newspapers can do this better than anyone else locally. So, we built a platform that not only delivers great SEO and generates new revenue but is also a big time-saver in the newsroom. This is all new money and should be an easy six-figure, recurring revenue stream for any metro market.”

Ostendorf said his consulting work still focuses on improving the print product, but there are more requests for customized digital software. “It reflects the industry,” he said. “The transition is messy and difficult, and sadly, there is still potential in print that papers are walking away from.”

He said that in 2004, his services were focused 100 percent on print with 90 percent centered on editorial. Today, it’s 85 percent digital, with 60 percent of that revolving around revenue.

“(Publishers) all want to figure out how to make money with less staff,” he said. “That’s not the only way to get ahead. They need to improve the product.”

In Middletown, N.Y., the Times Herald-Record used Creative Circle to redesign the newspaper and several other newspapers in the cluster including the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa., and two weekly newspapers. The Record has a daily circulation of 60,000 and a Sunday circulation of 70,000.

Record
executive editor Derek Osenenko said his paper underwent two redesigns in 2008 and 2010, reducing the size of the tabloid publication, and transforming it to the size of the New York Post. “It really forced us to push local news, create sections, and adjust our plan to execute on a smaller size.”

Creative Circle also helped engineer a copy desk consolidation that reduced expenses. Osenenko said the staff in Middletown also streamlined production with the Pocono Record, which was a challenge because the Pocono Record was a broadsheet. He said Ostendorf and his staff created an original redesign for the Pocono Record and didn’t rely on templates. Ostendorf said the paper experienced an increase in newsstand sales as a result of the redesign.

Ostendorf also redesigned the print classified sections, introducing liner ads in the regular run of the paper. “It opened up numbers, added revenue, and targeted advertisers who normally would advertise with us,” Osenenko said. “It also extended our reach out to a wider audience.”

Creative Circle also redesigned the website and weekly electronic publication of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association. Executive director Edward VanHorn said the association could have selected to work with a “younger, edgier” technology firm but chose Ostendorf’s company because it understood newspapers.

“We wanted an original, creative design — not a template,” VanHorn said. “But it was also critical to have a content management system that was easy to use, highly functional, and supported by a team of experts. We knew from working with (Ostendorf) on other projects that he and his team are driven to produce outstanding work and over-the-top customer service.”

GWR Research (gwrresearch.com) founder Gary Randazzo has embraced the changing industry formats, saying he believes the Internet is not disruptive technology. “It’s sustaining … and it’s unfair (for newspapers) to create separate news organizations and projects for it … it should be treated as another way to serve customers.”

Randazzo, who has served as senior vice president at the Houston Chronicle and as executive vice president and general manager of the San Francisco Chronicle, left Hearst Corp. in 2005 to work full-time at his marketing and management-consulting firm in Spring, Texas.

He said his services recently have focused on financial system designs, sales management, and structure review. When working with newspapers, he said his goal is to “define a strategy, look at the current advertisement and structure base, and find new revenue streams.”

The Jewish Herald-Voice in Houston worked with Randazzo a few years ago to address some of the paper’s challenges. The weekly paper has 5,000 paid circulation and 30,000 readership. President and advertising manager Vicki Samuels said the paper’s goals included “cutting expenses without cutting payroll, and adding incentive for the salespeople.”

“I’ve been in the newspaper business for 20 years, and I was running out of new ideas,” she said. “We wanted to hear new ideas from an experienced eye.”

The family owned business has been in publication since 1908. “We’ve worked with the same vendors for years and years, and we think the price we’re being given is fine,” Samuels said. “It never occurred to us to go back and get a better deal.” In particular, Samuels said Randazzo helped them negotiate with their printer to get competitive rates and control their expenses.

Randazzo also helped create a budget for a digital edition and create incentives for the sales staff. Samuels said the incentives motivated the sales team and caused them to work harder and sell more, bringing in more revenue for the company. “Anything (Randazzo) suggested is still in place,” she said.

Mel Taylor, founder of Mel Taylor Media (meltaylormedia.com), based in Philadelphia, has more than 25 years’ experience in television, radio, and newspapers. For the past 15 years, Taylor said he has been working with the Internet space, helping traditional local media go after the digital world.

Taylor listed his most in-demand services as search engine and social media optimization; email marketing and creating a database with the ability to capture email addresses; and advertorials (specifically, advertising videos).

“The number one thing I try to teach newspapers is they are a marketing agency,” he said. “They can help small businesses with all forms of marketing and advertising … newspaper sales reps need to be seen as more than paper.”

Taylor said he primarily works with publishers on several challenges, including making over their sales and media kit, which is often out of date; inventory management, where Taylor will go into the paper’s ad server and see where they can make money; and learning how to create good contracts with advertisers.

He said what makes his services stand out is his experience with all media and his focus on the “unsexy part of the business, such as pricing and contracts — the reasons why papers are struggling with making money.”  

From the Outside In
Hiring a consultant can be well worth the time, energy, and money, as long as the consultant is the right fit for your business. If you’re considering hiring one, here are some tips on what to look for when researching and selecting a consultant.

“Find people that will tell you the truth, not what you want to hear,” Advantage’s Jones said.

“You need someone who will understand your problem,” Ostendorf of Creative Circle said. “A lot of consultants will take on jobs but do not have experience with that issue. They need to have had dealt with that problem before.”

“Talk to other clients, particularly if they are working on similar projects,” KubasPrimedia’s Kubas said.

“Think about the overall costs,” SNPA executive director VanHorn said. “The lowest price is not always the best buy.”

“Are they willing to take on calculating risks?” Palm Beach Post’s Gerardi asked. “And will they keep your objectives first?”
 
Jacobson of Brass Tacks Design said rapport is important. “You should treat it like a short-term marriage … be clear with your goals.” Jacobson said he starts in Microsoft Word, where he asks his clients to list three goals. “When it’s in writing, they’re more committed to that one sheet of paper … you can’t hit your target if you don’t know what you’re aiming at.”