By: Ellen Sterling
In 1920, the Inland Press Association realized it needed to help its member newspapers better assess their own performance relative to the marketplace. Thus, Inland developed what became the industry benchmarking standard, the National Cost and Revenue Study (C&R).
But, at 93 years of age, the original benchmarking tool that produced the study was old and hadn’t kept up with the swift pace of change in the industry. It was time for something new.
“We always felt proud of our benchmarking service,” said Tom Slaughter, executive director of Inland, which boasts 815 members—dailies and weeklies—from all 50 states and Bermuda. “But we just felt that over the years it had gotten less relevant to the industry. So, we started with a blank sheet of paper. We took a lot of time to talk to a lot of people. We had five focus sessions and we learned that there weren’t enough digital metrics in the study. The new cost and revenue study has new metrics and, for today’s industry, it’s more inclusive.”
It’s also more current. The studies produced by the new benchmarking tool—set to roll out this month—will now be produced quarterly, as opposed to annually as in the past.
To design the new benchmarking tool, Inland partnered with Mather Economics, LLC., a Georgia-based applied economics firm that works with more than 400 newspapers to determine pricing and circulation strategies.
“This benchmarking tool is going to be a good thing for the industry. Inland asked us to revise the old benchmarking study,” said Matt Lindsay, Mather’s president. “The number of participants was falling and those who did participate found that it was costly for their newspaper to gather all the data. We decided to update and automate the data collection process.”
To introduce the new benchmarking tool, Inland held a series of webinars for organizations interested in learning about it. They were very well-received.
At the webinars, Slaughter went over the process that was in place. “There were two pain paints we dealt with,” he said. “First was the pain of gathering information and getting it to be aggregated with other newspapers’ information. One publisher told me that one full-time employee devoted two weeks to the task. That was a real roadblock and a critical issue.
“The next issue had to do with the currency of the information. One Inland member said he’d dropped the cost and revenue study because it was ‘like trying to keep the car on the road looking only in your rearview mirror.’ That speaks to the currency of the information and suggested to us that, in this environment that changes daily, once-a-year data output is not as useful as it was five or 10 years ago.”
Slaughter said Inland chose to work with Mather because “they already have a footprint in the industry. They understand the business and they understand the data in the business. Their expertise is data manipulation and making sense out of complex information.”
Bob Terzotis, Mather’s vice president of operations, said the research for the new benchmarking tool was started with five focus groups of leaders from within the industry and covered everything. “We looked at the current metrics—what’s still relevant, what’s new,” he said. “We talked through the pain points on data collection and how we might automate that process as much as possible and discussed what we wanted the data to look like coming back to the users.
“(With the new tool) every newspaper will be able to assign as many users as it wishes. Each user will have a log-in. One of the important things we heard from the focus groups is that not everybody needed to see every piece of information.”
Thus, he explained, when signing up for the study, a newspaper will self-select a peer group based on factors such as circulation, staff size and revenue. Each participant paper will be put in a “compset” (comparison set) to measure its own data against others.
Terzotis added that when reading the results of the study, a newspaper “will see the core newspaper overview. They’ll see who they’ll be compared to, the time frame of the information and have the viewing option of looking at the average, or just the top performers.”
Doug Phares, president and COO of Ohio-based Sandusky Newspaper Group, is enthusiastic about the new tool. He’s a board member of the Inland Press Association. “Sandusky,” he says, “is a small, family-owned-for-five-generations group of mid-sized dailies in Minnesota, Utah, Tennessee and Ohio. We also have five weeklies. This new tool takes out all the manual labor and gives you an understanding of the trends. It also continues to have the benefits of differentiation between market and management issues.
“Inland Press Association is the cornerstone of industry benchmarking in compensation. It is used by most of the mid-sized dailies in the country and has 60, 70 or 80 line items. It will give us all the horsepower of the annual report but quarterly or, perhaps (in the future), monthly. It will be integrated with a general ledger system.”
Steven Pope, COO of Huckle Media and publisher of the Faribault Daily News in Minnesota, owns two dailies, one twice-weekly paper and seven weeklies. He’s excited about the benchmarking tool. “We’ve already started to report our information,” he says. “We’ve been a long-standing participant in the previous version of the study. The information is still anonymous so you can’t tell which newspaper owns which set of figures. If that weren’t a feature, no one would participate.”
Pope sees two key benefits to the benchmarking tool.“First is easier data generation to allow pretty-much-automated data acquisition,” he said. “The second key benefit is that data will be gathered on a more regular basis. So it will allow real-time information.”
Tim Mather (no relation to Mather Economics) is financial studies manager of Inland. His job, he says, pretty much involves working full-time on these studies.
“I’m excited about (the new tool),” he said. “It’s going to be an exciting new management tool. We used to send out the data and analysis we’d gathered in binders that weighed about four pounds each. Now, we can provide data more often and much more easily.
“Of course the biggest difference between the old study and the new one is that the old study was annual. All analysis had to be done by staff. Now, it’s a dashboard-driven computer app. You can customize a competitive data set. So, you can compare yourself to your own peer group—based on region, circulation and top performers, for example. You can slice-and-dice it any way you want. It’s a good thing for everyone involved.”
For further information on the new Inland & Mather benchmarking tool, visit www.inlandpress.org.