In 2015, every newspaper department confronted challenges, from having fewer resources to work with to making tough business decisions. Many team members fought back with new innovations and technology that made an impact. Others created successful revenue strategies that helped make their bottom line. As we enter 2016, new problems will certainly arise, but new solutions will also crop up.
E&P interviewed five newspaper leaders: a publisher, an editor, an advertising director, a digital director, and a production manager to discuss the challenges they are preparing for this year and how they plan to overcome them. What we learned is that while each department faces its own set of unique challenges, it’s working as one team that will prove they are ready to take on any level of difficulty.
What was your biggest challenge in 2015, and what did you learn from it?
P.J. Browning: First, declining revenues continued to make headlines in 2015. We continue to concentrate on new forms of revenue to offset declines, and we’ve found success in events and non-traditional sources. What the team has learned is to be creative and allow ourselves to think beyond the traditional forms of advertising and we’ll be successful. Second, multiple national breaking news stories. For a community our size, it’s one thing to cover a national news story, but we had three this year, which put a lot of pressure on a news organization our size. The team did an amazing job telling the stories that needed to be told. What we learned from the experience was the importance of a local news reporter to families and readers. The response from our community was overwhelmingly positive and supportive. It goes to show you how important local news reporters are to our community.
Carol Stark: Setting aside time for continued staff training on new and better ways to tell stories. It’s a challenge for all time-strapped newsrooms, yet it is critical to what we do. For example, the goal may be to use more video on the website. While it’s easy to post video, it’s much more difficult to produce video that’s creative, can be done quickly and either informs or entertains the viewers. New ideas and tools are available at every turn. Finding the right one is always the trick. And there’s little time for trial and no room for error. What we learned on the video front is be more selective. Go for quality and give our readers video content that adds to the story. Too often there is a disconnect between the two. Just like finding the right photograph to illustrate print, the right video is just as crucial to digital story-telling.
Kevin Siu: Over the past year and a half, we’ve focused, digitally, on impact journalism—even if that means sacrificing a degree of reach and churn. This has necessarily meant trade-offs in where we apply our efforts. We can’t do everything. As Canada’s newspaper, we cover an area bigger than the United States, but with a market about one-tenth its size. And we have the digital ambition of, say, The New York Times, with a newsroom about a quarter its size. So we have to make some tough choices. What we’ve learned is that this can be a good thing—it means we’re more rigorous in our decisions, bolder in our experiments and more demanding in our execution.
Deanna Fox: The economic challenges of our business force you to constantly rethink your approach. Personally, I find the need to focus tightly on areas where we can be effective challenging when the sands keep shifting in the core business. You cannot get distracted by the next shiny thing; the opportunity cost can be deadly. I have shuttered my fair share of mediocre ideas that needed a better reality check. I am constantly trying to improve how we evaluate and act on opportunities.
Marty Black: Keeping our presses running. While our presses are newer than most in the industry, we have more problems with obsolescence. That’s because so many of the computer/electronic parts that drive our press are no longer manufactured. There are numerous drives, encoders, power supplies, etc. which are in very short supply. Our press vendor is aware of the problem but is unable to provide an easy solution since these parts come from sub-suppliers.
What were some of your success stories in 2015?
Browning: The big success came from the “Till Death Do Us Part” series in which the legislators of South Carolina finally made changes in domestic violence laws. It’s the ultimate win for a news organization to see this type of change brought about because of reporting on an issue this important. One other success story that we’ve enjoyed sharing is our Lego project. Our bridge (the Ravenel Bridge) turned 10 this year and our team was looking for an out of the box way to create excitement around the anniversary. We came up with a customized Lego bridge set where we worked with certified Lego builders to engineer and create 500 custom sets. We also created an event with a live 25 ft. bridge build that included over 40,000 Legos. It was fun for the community and a total win in the “new” revenue column.
Stark: The continued growth of our social media and mobile sites. They have affected the way we operate within our seven-day, mid-size Missouri market. We now have more than 31,000 Facebook followers and anticipate reaching 32,000 by the end of 2015. By creating an integrated digital-print news budget, we have streamlined the way we think about our digital platforms, including social media, and our print budget. They are not separate entities. We look at them as the whole of our news operation rather than separate tasks. A working budget that incorporates the strategy for each is a must. But we also plan powerful presentations of our print product. We don’t want the paper to look like an afterthought. Until newsrooms intuitively work in sync on all the elements of digital and print news, we will always be spinning our wheels, especially in smaller newsrooms. We effectively tore down all walls this year and stopped allowing reporters and editors to work in silos.
Siu: We had a federal election in Canada this year, which was a prime opportunity to try new experiments and approaches to storytelling. In our case, that included a leaders debate with our partners at YouTube, an election forecaster, a candidate and ridings database, live Facebook video coverage, social cards, a revamped politics newsletter, a daily WhatsApp update—those are just a few highlights off the top of my head. I’m psyched to see how all the U.S. news organizations cover the presidential race. We’re already seeing some really innovative stuff.
Fox: Local growth: our core business and digital business continues to be a success for us at the local level. We have a benchmark to get at least 50 percent of our business at the local level from a digital product. The key is hitting that benchmark while growing the size of the territory. The team is doing that in strong percentages YOY in many territories. We aren’t there yet, but we are closing in every month. Video: now a significant six figure businesses with high double digital growth percentages each month. We see big gains in audience and plays year over year and are following that with revenue gains. This is an area where we are taking share that is moving from traditional TV/cable to the digital space. Also, we have aggressively moved into the OTT (over the top) space with our content. You can find us on Amazon Fire TV and Roku now and we expect to be on Smart TV’s and Apple TV in early 2016. As the audiences are moving quickly on to these platforms—we are there and ready. Digital: this is growing in the high teens and our new products are working for local businesses. The local growth we are having is being powered by our digital products and we have strong plans in place to keep improving them. Programmatic is an area we continue to evaluate and refine. Our focus on mobile is big for 2016 along with our video efforts.
Black: We purchased two other daily papers on the Big Island of Hawaii (Hilo Tribune and West Hawaii Today) and upgraded their production operation. While it did not make sense to move all printing to our facility—since it’s 100 miles away over water—we did move the printing and packaging of the Sunday comics and TV book.
What do you believe will be your biggest challenge in 2016, and how do you plan to overcome it?
Browning: Revenue and we’ll continue to tackle it with new and unique ideas. We may also need to acquire or build out new businesses to help us offset traditional revenues. We have also added new resources to concentrate on new opportunities for growth.
Stark: Continuing to build an aggregated print and digital audience for local information at a time when people of all ages are being more selective in what they read and find useful. We need to consistently provide them with print and digital platforms that are relevant to their interests. I also foresee some “brain drain” in our newsroom in 2016. We are fortunate to have a staff of seasoned veterans. They have lots of knowledge about the region we cover. Several will be retiring next year. That’s a valuable resource that’s difficult to replace. We plan to keep them available to us via freelance work, columns and for training their replacements. Making sure that beat files are complete and updated will be important as literally a hundred years or more of experience will be leaving us in 2016.
Siu: The rate of change. This year, we saw Facebook, Apple, Google and Snapchat launch news platforms and more streamlined news experiences. The people who dub things have dubbed it the Age of Distribution. By mid-2016, we’ll have declared an Age of Something Else. That doesn’t mean the Age of Distribution will have vanished; I’m pretty sure it will remain a primary consideration for publishers in 2016. But it does mean that there will be another thing (or half-dozen things) to figure out. You can either freak out or you can have fun trying to solve a constantly evolving puzzle. I opt for the latter—but you need a centre, which has to be your journalism.
Fox: The turmoil in preprints. It’s been on the horizon for a while and landed with a vengeance in 2015. We know 2016 will be more of the same. Overcoming the losses will come from our digital/video strategies and growth plans in these areas. As shopping continues to evolve that will bring new opportunities locally.
Black: Continuing to meet all deadlines and budgets while avoiding breakdowns. We will be working with our vendors on replacing obsolete equipment and systems.
What theme or ingredients will you have in place to assure a successful 2016?
Browning: We will be mindful of expenses around our core products, but we will not hesitate to invest in growth opportunities. We must continue to invest in new opportunities to be successful. We will also move forward with a strong eye towards local journalism and the resources needed to deliver a dynamic newspaper for our readers.
Stark: With 2016 being an election year, we will be sure we have a strategy for special and thorough coverage, with the focus on issues that matter to our readers. Missouri has had a Democratic governor for eight years, but currently Republicans have the majority in both the Senate and the House. Nationwide, the Missouri gubernatorial race is being touted as one of the most important. We will be putting a lot of energy into the coverage of that race. We will also look to further define signature areas of coverage for our market. Beats that reflect the common concerns and news interests of people, who live, work and do business in the Joplin, Mo. market. Fresh, high impact news is the goal. Creative thinking and noteworthy enterprise are the keys.
Siu: Discipline. In 2015, we appointed a head of audience, which both symbolically and practically supports our reader-first approach. If we’re led by our reader—not just what they’re consuming, but also how and where they’re consuming news—it becomes clearer how we define and answer our digital priorities for the year: impact journalism, subscriber engagement and mobile growth. The challenge is having a nuanced, sophisticated understanding of your audience. And that’s where data comes in; our data team is doing amazing things.
Fox: Focus on sales talent. Find them and get them on our team. It’s hard and getting harder, but without them we cannot get the level of success we should be reaching. I say that knowing that we have positioned ourselves to really thrive as the video business accelerates across our footprint. We will not—and cannot—miss this opportunity.
Black: Setting priorities for upgrades while focusing on the best maintenance of our current equipment.
What are some journalism trends that people in your position should be paying attention to next year?
Browning: We are nervous about the idea of news being a commodity. What we’re seeing today is two trends: A move to more freelance reporting, and a move to fewer seasoned journalists. A mix of the two with a seasoned team is where we think newspapers need to be. A newspaper that wants to provide insight into community and issues needs to be balanced with reporters that have a vested and known interest in the community and sources. Otherwise, we fear that newspapers will lose credibility in a time where loyalty is teetering.
Stark: More and better ways to produce enterprise and investigative journalism. Newspapers are in the best position to give readers those types of stories and should be working on improved delivery methods. We need to make sure we are investing in our newsrooms and not trying to do more with less. People want relevant information. If newspapers and their websites want to appeal to people and prosper, they need to produce news that touches the busy lives of news consumers. News that goes beyond the who, when, and where of the news to the why it happened and what it means to readers. That can only happen if newspapers make a serious investment in content that makes a difference in the communities they serve.
Siu: As more publishers embrace Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News, Snapchat Discover and Google AMP, how do we build loyalty and distinct news brands with, in most cases, a smaller and more homogenized set of storytelling tools? Also, with the success of Snapchat Discover, I think we’ll see other chat apps (WhatsApp, WeChat, Line and others) start to introduce news channels. So there will be multiple ways to reach largely new audiences, which is awesome, but publishers will have to figure out what kind of content works best on each network and which networks to commit to. Looming over it all: What kinds of resources do you dedicate to these plays?
Fox: Did I mention video? Obviously, this is the trend that we are paying heavy attention to. I believe it presents a great opportunity in any market. We found the tools, talent and ability to produce video exist within the organization if you are willing to look and say yes—we can figure that out.
Black: The growth in the use of mobile devices is ongoing and it’s an important market segment to reach and satisfy.