By: Nu Yang
Newspaper industry leaders across the country came together in New Orleans Feb. 17–20 for the 2013 Mega-Conference hosted by the Inland Press Association, Local Media Association (formerly Suburban Newspapers of America), and Southern Newspaper Publishers Association. In its fourth year, the event opened with a session focused on launching digital agency services and concluded with how to build a successful modular advertising program.
With a program that featured subjects from audience development to mobile ad sales, publishers found solutions and formed new partnerships that may breathe new life into their business model this year.
Strong program with results
According to Inland Press Association executive director Tom Slaughter, this year’s attendance was 531, up from 469 last year. In addition, more than 50 exhibitors presented their services to attendees in the conference’s tradeshow room.
Slaughter said the rise in attendance suggests people in the industry are feeling better about the direction they are heading. “We had a strong program with first-rate sessions that people found they wanted to be part of.”
LMA president Nancy Lane added that the conference “filled a void in the industry” for smaller, community papers.
“Some of these papers don’t relate to the bigger conferences,” she said. “With all three of these associations coming together, it feels like a home.”
Lane said more than 100 people gathered Sunday afternoon for the digital pre-conference session, “Launching Digital Agency Services: What it can do for you — and your customers,” which signals to her that it is an important topic for publishers.
Slaughter also said that the presentation by International News Media Association executive director Earl Wilkinson, called “Newsmedia Outlook for 2013,” was “a good scene setter.” Wilkinson spoke about 10 new revenue streams (such as local advertising networks, content marketing, and video) that publishers could embrace to replace print advertising’s decline.
Another popular panel was the executive roundtable featuring Michael Klingensmith, publisher and chief executive officer of Star Tribune Media Co. in Minneapolis; Larry Kramer, president and publisher of USA Today; Terry Kroeger, publisher of the Omaha World-Herald and president of BH Media Group; and Jim Moroney, publisher and CEO of The Dallas Morning News.
Each executive shared his company’s digital and paywall strategy, but it was Moroney who made the bold statement that the biggest threat to newspapers is downsizing in the newsroom. “We need to support the scale that will give us the competitive edge,” he said.
Moroney also said newspapers must diversify their sources of revenue. “Marketing services are a real opportunity for us,” he said. At the Dallas Morning News, “We’re focused on content marketing, and huge opportunity dollars are flowing into content marketing. Our archives are a vault of value … which will be more and more valuable in the marketing world in five years.”
Kramer said sales representatives at the local papers owned by parent company Gannett are selling not only print ads, but also direct marketing services.
“This salesperson does not exist in our newsroom,” Moroney said, explaining that the representatives at his paper come from outside the company. “They have to get turned down 32 times a week just to get one sale.”
None of the executives who currently print a newspaper seven times a week predicted a reduced schedule for his paper in the near future. Compare that to the panel that immediately followed with Ricky Mathews, NOLA Media Group president, and Jim Amoss, vice president of content and New Orleans Times-Picayune editor, who spoke about the company’s digital efforts, including its decision to print only three times a week.
“It suggests that everyone in the industry is searching for solutions, and that is no monolithic solution,” Slaughter said about the dichotomy between the two panels.
New to this year’s program was the Buzz Session, in which industry research and development partners showcased how their products and services help newspapers grow revenue and improve operations. The catch for these 12 exhibitors was they only had four minutes to speak before they were buzzed offstage.
Buzz Session participant and Wave2 Media Solutions vice president of sales Brian Gorman came to the conference last year as an attendee and this year as an exhibitor. “(The Buzz Session) was a chance for me to get our name out there in one shot,” he said. Visitors to his booth were “all looking for ways to increase revenue” and to do it in a very specific way.
SNPA executive director Edward VanHorn said next year, he would like to see the Buzz Session expanded over the course of the conference instead of a half-day, to allow more exhibitors to participate.
KPC Media Group vice president of sales, digital, and marketing Terry Ward attended the conference for the first time this year. KPC Media Group is a regional newspaper group based in Kendallville, Ind., with 11 community newspapers serving northeast Indiana.
Ward said he came to New Orleans to connect with digital partners that could aid him in the tablet and mobile market. “KPC is moving aggressively into digital, and we want to align ourselves with the right partners.” After attending Mega-Conference, he said he is in talks with several digital companies he met on the exhibit floor.
As a newspaper executive in a small market, Ward said he learned how to approach digital growth at the conference. “It’s print and digital, not print or digital. We have to keep our eyes on both sides of the business.”
This conference was Aberdeen (S.D.) American News publisher Cory Bollinger’s third year in attendance. The daily publication has a circulation of 13,000.
Bollinger said he came looking for revenue ideas that would attract new audiences and to hear about trends with mobile and digital. After attending the “Hip to Be Square: The Modular Advantage” session presented by Leonard Woolsey, publisher of the Times- Georgian in Carrollton, Ga., and group publisher of Paxton Media, Bollinger said he is now looking at adjusting his rate program.
Platinum sponsor SpinGo, a company specializing in event content, attended Mega-Conference for the first time this year with six team members, including vice president of sales Dennis Mulcahy. “We’re an emerging company that wants to make an impact,” he said. “We came in really excited to be partners with community papers.”
Mulcahy said publishers were engaged with SpinGo’s vision of online content, and many saw this solution as a way to make their community events calendar more scalable. As a result of attending Mega-Conference, Mulcahy said SpinGo signed up 200 new sites from publishers and their publications.
AutoConX Systems chief executive officer Rob Hage has attended the conference for three years. The company serves more than 200 publishers and provides automotive and real estate vertical websites.
“Publishers are looking for digital solutions,” he said. “They want to get return-on-investment, share their best practices, and know how other publishers are making our product work.”
As a newspaper partner, Hage attended the executive roundtable, curious to see what these publishers thought of industry trends.
“Their financial prospect for the future was positive,” he said. “In fact, the entire conference had a positive outlook, and that has a good effect on our business.”
SAXOTECH vice president of business relations John Pukas echoed the same thought, saying the overall attitude of the conference was positive. SAXOTECH provides integrated media solutions for more than 1,000 news organizations around the world.
Pukas said publishers who stopped by his booth were interested in hyperlocal content and audience engagement. Another hot topic was digital-first and print-first strategies.
“It’s multichannel,” Pukas said. “Each channel serves the community in a different way. It serves several purposes and different audiences. All that matters is getting the message out in all of these channels.”
SAXOTECH also sponsored a Mardi Gras parade down famous Bourbon Street and a theme party in the French Quarter. Pukas estimated at least 400 people attended. He said the event allowed him to talk to everyone in a different light, and “it was great seeing so many positive people” at a community, social event.
“It wasn’t a doom or gloom meeting,” VanHorn said. “(The conference) showed an optimistic future for newspapers.”
Now that this year’s Mega-Conference has concluded, what do these associations, publishers, and exhibitors see as upcoming hot topics and trends?
“Publishers will be looking at how to enhance their print product and get deeper into digital and mobile,” SNPA’s VanHorn said. “Circulation and revenue will be bouncing back.”
“If 2012 was the year of the paywall, then 2013 will be the year of the digital agency,” Slaughter of Inland Press said.
Hage of AutoConX said digital revenue will continue to grow for publishers, and he sees more media companies starting to offer digital services.
Aberdeen American News publisher Bollinger said instead of worrying about going digital, newspapers should worry about being “customer first,” because “customers are always a hot topic.”
As for the next Mega-Conference, LMA’s Lane said the three associations are looking at six to eight different locations, a larger exhibit hall, and a venue with the right price.
“To see 600 attendees next year is not out of reach,” she said.
For more information, visit mega-conference.com.