A new year means new beginnings. For many newspaper leaders, 2016 was a year full of challenges, from overcoming natural disasters to the consolidation of content management systems. Ultimately, as each new obstacle presented itself to staffs across the country, team members gained new insight and perspective on what may possibly lie ahead in 2017.
Once again, E&P interviewed five newspaper leaders: a publisher, an editor, a sales 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. Although these five different positions address their own set of challenges, they all share the same hopeful message that this new year will bring new solutions.
What was your biggest challenge in 2016, and what did you learn from it?
Mi-Ai Parrish (president and publisher, Arizona Republic ): This was the first year as the new Gannett. The transformation as America’s largest media company, with a powerful local-to-national network of nearly 4,000 journalists was both exhilarating and challenging. We got to learn about leading the way as the largest local media operation in that network as we revolutionize our work and share our story.
Peter Kovacs (editor, The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.): Our community—and our small newsroom—were challenged as never before this year, as Louisiana suffered through a summer of tension and tribulation. Most significantly, a massive and unexpected flood crippled the Baton Rouge area in August, impacting about a quarter of the homes and businesses in the capital region. It was the largest natural disaster in the United States since Sandy assaulted the East Coast. And it came at a time when our community was already anguished and exhausted from a series of events in July: the fatal shooting of a man by Baton Rouge police, two weeks of tense demonstrations, and the slaying of three fearless law enforcement officers by a twisted loner bent on revenge. What we learned from our experiences is that, as Louisiana’s leading news organization, we speak to our community but also for our community to a world hungry for reliable information.
Chris Williams (senior director of digital portfolio, Dallas Morning News ): 2016 was a big year for us because we were closing the loop on a strategy we started off two years ago: a focused removal of technical debt impacting our journalists and consumers, plus a full modernization of all our digital channels. We’ve moved from four content management systems to one proprietary CMS, called Serif. We launched an entirely new brand vision and website for our digital news on DallasNews.com. All this was done while still keeping a mantra of “continuous improvement” to our other brands and digital properties. Our biggest lesson? Doing all these things turns modern journalists from writers into story designers. Stories are no longer told in two paragraphs and a single picture. They are now journeys of pictures, videos, data visualization and platform differentiation supporting the words.
Steve Flank (general sales director, The Reading Eagle, Reading, Penn. ): With the marketplace continuing to get more competitive and complex, it became even more imperative that we needed to make sure that we understood exactly what our clients’ needs were and that we made it easy for the client to do business with us. We have learned to serve as marketing consultants by providing multimedia solutions that solve our clients’ needs while giving them a positive customer experience.
Jerry Johns (production manager, Twin Falls Times-News, Twin Falls, Idaho ): We had to stay flexible enough in our deadline and production schedules in order to take on new commercial print work without causing a backlog in the daily printing of our daily newspaper products. We also kept an eye on the bottom line to be certain we were staying within budget numbers, yet giving ourselves the opportunity to generate new revenue with added commercial products. Being a 365 daily operation and having to maintain the print site for our SBU, it is impossible to over-communicate. We are constantly communicating between sites to be certain everyone is on point and keeping to their production schedule. In addition to all of that, it’s imperative we keep our press and packaging equipment running effectively and efficiently as possible while finding adequate time to keep a solid maintenance schedule.
What were some of your success stories in 2016?
Parrish: We had a year of tremendous innovation and transformation, building on our core strengths and leveraging technologies and audience. We created and launched Street Scout, the most accurate local real estate valuation site. The USA Today Network launched the first weekly virtual reality show, Virtually There, with visionaries from Phoenix. We built a variety of local projects, including AZ Public Info for public records access and XAZ, our Explore Arizona membership program. We also had a strong year in community leadership, watchdog and political coverage. The historic presidential endorsement, coverage, fallout, feedback and follow-up was a remarkable reminder of the importance of a free press in a strong democracy.
Kovacs: The flood disrupted the ways we communicate with our own staff, our readers and the rest of the world. Cell phone service failed, rising water carved our community into a chain of isolated islands and the damage impacted more than 100,000 homes. One of our photo editors was among hundreds stranded on a segment of Interstate 12, which became a concrete island surrounded by flooded rivers. A technician was swept off the road by floodwaters while driving to work. Our carriers saw their routes disrupted and many lost their vehicles. Despite these challenges, we were able to continue publishing online, we did not miss a day of printing, and only 10 days after the disaster we were able to restore all circulation routes to full service—even in areas largely depopulated by the damage.
Williams: Serif, our home-brewed CMS, was rolled out to our 250-plus journalists in under three weeks. Right afterwards, both our CMS and new beta website were battletested by 127 concurrent reporters as they covered the tragedy of July’s shootings in Dallas. While nobody ever wants to test technology with such a horrible circumstance, our storytellers were able to keep the public aware of every second as it happened because of the products we had built. After that, we went from beta to a full launch and received a ton of positive reader feedback.
Flank: We were awarded second place in the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association Newspaper of the year award. The purpose of this contest is to recognize outstanding work across all departments and products, with an emphasis on overall excellence. There are a number of different categories and we received first place honors in the advertising excellence category. Additionally, we’ve had continued revenue and circulation growth in our South Schuylkill News publication. We purchased this weekly in early 2015. By focusing on local editorial and circulation growth, we have also been able to sustain our growth in advertising revenue.
Johns: Scheduling similar press packages from multiple sites allowed us to keep press changeovers to a minimum, and reducing down time between press runs was a way to keep the press and packaging groups running efficiently. We remodeled our TMC product to present a more reader friendly package while maintaining the production costs within budget. We also changed our TV weekly to a 12-page standard format and increased ad revenue by creating additional ad spaces in guaranteed positions. This bumped our ad revenue while keeping our production costs within budget.
What do you believe will be your biggest challenge in 2017, and how do you plan to overcome it?
Parrish: In more than a decade as a publisher, I’ve learned that I can plan, but always need to be flexible and resilient. This business can be a humbling one, with continual change, challenges and opportunities. We always work to have a thoughtful and robust strategic plan—and the ability to roll with the good and not-so-good that we work with.
Kovacs: Our community continues to face a vexing recovery. There are still people in trailers and hotel rooms, months later. The challenges will be especially difficult for the poor, who do not have the cash reserves to rebuild while they wait on reimbursement. About a quarter of our Baton Rouge employees were impacted, and they’re struggling to get back home. Our staff joined hands to help, and we gutted colleagues’ homes for two tiring weekends. I learned from Katrina that covering a crisis helps make us one with our readers. We wait in the same lines, struggle with the same red tape and experience the same shortages. It’s a hassle, but it makes us stronger and helps us bond with the community.
Williams: The simple answer is “maintaining pace.” We have done a lot recently and we can’t slow down. Media entrepreneurs, social media, and other platform changes are keeping us on our toes. I want to expand the digital feature sets of our brands such as GuideLive.com, SportsDayDFW.com and DallasNews.com. We are going to experiment with new content topics and keep our journalists delivering news in the best ways.
Flank: The possibility of declining advertising revenue. We plan on going through a major restructuring of our advertising sales departments and the way we go to business. We are fortunate to have in our company’s portfolio the following divisions: newspaper, radio, digital, commercial printing and event marketing. Currently, they all work independently. In 2017, we are combining all sales divisions into one multimedia advertising sales team so that we can offer our customer a combined marketing solution with an exceptional customer service experience.
Johns: I’d say revenue vs. expenses. We’ll continue to look for additional revenue in our commercial print in 2017 while keeping our expenses in line with budget guidelines. Keeping a competitive edge in our pricing to maintain relevancy is always a challenge as consumable expenses rise. We will continue to find ways to streamline, or consolidate production runs to keep expenses at a minimum while still offering highly competitive rates to our customers, both repeat and new.
What theme or ingredients will you have in place to assure a successful 2017?
Parrish: We are focused on digital growth, audience growth, innovation, community leadership and watchdog journalism.
Kovacs: While other newsrooms are retreating, we’re holding our own thanks to our strategy of expanding our footprint into New Orleans and Lafayette. We are owned by a local family that believes in our business and believes in Louisiana. When other newsrooms fall short, their owners are out of town and they probably never learn of the problem. But our owners are right here, always engaged, so I hear about it every time we slip. Their support and involvement is a blessing.
Williams: Now that we’ve modernized ourselves inside and out, our updated strategy for 2017 is about two major themes: brand capability expansion and empowering the user. It seems buzz-wordy, but each word is important. Our focus is going to be about growing what each brand offers and building features that the audience wants. This means that we’ll be diving deep into both qualitative and quantitative research to make good decisions. We will build new features into our websites and social media feeds to make sure we can perform the way our users need.
Flank: Cross training, communication and a customer focus will be the main ingredients in 2017. These basic ingredients will assist us as we go forward with our major restructure from our individual advertising sales teams to a multimedia advertising sales environment.
Johns: There’s an old saying; “If the press ain’t runnin’, you ain’t makin money.” I believe that holds true today. Even in the digital age, print media is still a viable revenue stream. It’s our goal to maintain this stream while we continue to find opportunities for new revenue growth in commercial print products to “keep the presses runnin.’” We’ll also continue to look for ways to streamline the production process to be as efficient as possible, while maintaining our commitment to quality.
What are some journalism trends that people in your position should be paying attention to next year?
Parrish: Leading the way on real news, protecting the First Amendment, being a relentless watchdog in the communities we serve.
Kovacs: Once in a while, I take a call from a reader who wants to know whether we’re covering something they heard about on the radio or they read about on Facebook. The calls are a hassle, but they’re also a comfort because they remind me that readers appreciate our place as the most authoritative source in the news hierarchy. Our industry has been disrupted in so many ways, but the challenge that got the most attention in 2016 was the proliferation of fake news. If the public understands how easily fake news can be created—and spread—that helps so-called legacy news organizations. We need to take advantage of the moment, to make people understand that we create something of value.
Williams: We, as an overall media industry, need to be cautious of doing nothing but racing for the same articles or the same solutions all the time. New, personal, and authentic stories are going to be king in a world of filtered repetitiveness through SEO and social algorithms. For technology and product development, I know I’ll be watching the “journalism tools market.” How can we be the best at empowering both regular and professional people to tell their stories via text, imagery, video, and augmented-virtual reality? Finally, storytelling and marketing lines are getting blurry. Blending business goals with news and content in new ways with integrity is happening. Period.
Flank: The journalism trends we see are with social media and how the public is using it to receive their news. How do we capitalize on the growth of this medium? With increased competition in the social media field and pressure for these companies to be profitable, what type of innovative advertising opportunities will evolve?
Johns: Social media. As more readers, and potential readers of printed products, turn to social media outlets to get their news and entertainment, it becomes imperative newspapers stay vigilant in creating new and updating current ways to stay in the game. From a production standpoint, it means creating and displaying quality products that will not only catch the public’s eye, but draw them in to where they want to pick up our product and stay engaged.