Newspapers Consider the Pros and Cons of Rebranding as the Demand for Digital Grows

The rebranding of the Tribune Publishing to its new name, tronc, Inc (Tribune Online Content) garnered a lot of attention within media circles and also outside of them. The news even inspired a funny yet poignant bit on John Oliver’s HBO show, “Last Week Tonight.” The clunky name made for easy comedic fodder, but it may have been how it was messaged that was most confusing.

When chief digital officer Anne Vasquez explained in a tronc video of a new structure that fed content “through a funnel,” it naturally left a lot of folks wondering what that meant and whether her colleague, CTO and president of new ventures Malcolm CasSelle could be taken at his word when he proclaimed tronc as “the future of content.”

Washington Post columnist Erik Wemple covered the tronc debut. When asked a few months later about the unveiling and whether it “made sense,” Wemple thought it made sense from a public and investment relations’ perspective, as tronc tried to stave off acquisition and appear to be striking out on an exciting new digital path.

“It seems, from covering this industry, that every time I look up, Tribune was making news because of cost cutting or losing staff,” he said. “Maybe what tronc was all about was making news for some reason other than distress or misery.”

However, from a content perspective, Wemple found the approach to be dated, replete with buzzwords, and with an emphasis on “more video, more video,” smacking of 2007ish-era industry innovation.

It remains to be seen what will become of tronc’s future. Gannett appears more resolved than ever to acquire its competitor, and certainly more Americans even outside of the tronc newspapers’ regions know the brand now, for better or for worse.

What is certain is that the tronc rollout amplified a conversation that began with murmurs as far back as the advent of the internet, an attempt to answer the questions: In the digital age, what will be the role of newspapers? What would become of their brands as the medium continues to evolve?

 

What It Means to Rebrand

For media companies, rebranding isn’t exactly a new concept. In radio, it happens all the time, largely because of the pervasive merger and acquisition climate. Radio stations are reformatted and thus rebranded all the time. To a lesser extent, it happens in television, too. Cable news networks periodically get fresh graphics and logos as anchors, hosts, and programs come and go.

Just last month, the Newspaper Association of America changed its name and website to News Media Alliance. In the announcement, it said, “The organization’s new focus better reflects the fully-integrated multi-platform media organizations that comprise its membership. The new website visually depicts this expansion of news media into digital and mobile formats, with a modern look and feel that incorporates imagery of what it means to be a news media organization today: communicating in real-time across multiple platforms.”

Newspapers have often experimented with their own models, playing with new fonts and layouts, moving from black-and-white print to four-color process. More recently, they’ve been subject to consolidation. For example, The Bay Area News Group consolidated its print titles in 2015, leaving just two: The East Bay Times and The Mercury News. Simultaneously, it launched eastbaytimes.com, but shuttered two other websites. Despite having fewer websites, the publisher reportedly expanded its digital operations, including banking more heavily on video.

Plenty of titles have vowed to be “digital first,” meaning that digital content, digitally tasked staff, and production resources would increasingly be devoted to digital operations.

In the digital space, Gannett pooled more than 90 of its newspapers, forming the USA TODAY Network. A flagship newspaper title in Kenya, The Star, made a public proclamation that it had overhauled its mission to be decidedly more astute about local and national politics.

In Scotland, The Scotsman rebranded as The Scotswoman for one whole day in honor of International Women’s Day 2016.

Operating in the age of Twitter, when sentences are condensed to fewer characters and acronyms abound, The Wall Street Journal quietly began to use its initials, WSJ, for digital properties, without any backlash at all.

These are significant, noteworthy variations, but they’re not representative of the more comprehensive rebranding that other newspapers are considering as their channels and platforms become increasingly digital-focused—precisely what tronc did.

Dean Roper
Dean Roper

Dean Roper is the director of insights for World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). He noted that it’s further important to distinguish between corporate rebranding and newspaper title rebranding.

“In the past, rebranding a newspaper meant a newspaper redesign, perhaps accompanied with a new content strategy. I think of The Globe and Mail in Canada,” he said.

Roper recalled that the publisher debuted a new print title design and new website more than five years ago. It “raised a lot of eyebrows,” he said, largely because of the continued confidence in the print edition. “They turned on the switches of brand new printing presses at a time when nobody was investing like that.”

 

Risky Branding Business

Rebrands are risky. When they go bad, the best-case scenario is that they’re mocked. The worst-case scenario is that they’re wholesale rejected by the public they seek to woo, like the plight of “New Coke” in 1985.

Officially called Coke II, it represented new everything—new logo and a new formula. It turned out that cola consumers rather liked the original formula and look, and Coke II had a short shelf life. After a very public outcry, The Coca-Cola Co. reintroduced the original formula and leveraged brand-new branding for “Coca-Cola Classic.”

Whether it’s a “new formula” or a “new look,” a product rebrand is an acknowledgement that what was “once” is not as good as the new product, not as relevant as the new offering. The old product represents the past; the new product represents the future. So, it’s understandable why newspapers are having these conversations as they add digital web and mobile to their menus.

Cullen Communications in Ireland—a branding firm—published its “Five Rules of Rebranding,” which include tips like: Make it fresh. Have buy-in. And don’t dither over details.

The final two “rules” should give pause to publishers thinking about rebranding: “Keep core values.” Also, “Do it for your customers.”

“Today, though, newspapers are constantly forced to rebrand, or rebuild their image, especially when you think of publishing content on whatever new distributed platform pops up. They have the dual challenge of connecting with a completely new audience while retaining their core brands to their loyal readers…Obviously, any time there is a merger or acquisition, it’s a good time to rebrand, but any time you genuinely pursue a new content strategy, the marketing should follow,” Roper said.

Still, this is a tricky proposition for newspaper organizations, many of which have built their brands for decades, if not centuries, on a loyal following that trusts those legacy brands. These reputations and relationships are precious. A rebrand comes with risk.

A Legacy Brand Foundation

In the Philadelphia news market, there’s a single go-to source for all things happening around the city: Philly.com.

Philly.com was set up at a time when a lot of newspapers were doing this—setting up wholly separate web operations with separate brand names,” Eric Ulken, executive editor for digital strategy, Philadelphia Media Network, said. “Most of the mid-sized or major metros had done this at some point or another. Many of them, in the meantime, have folded those digital brands back under the print umbrella, recognizing that the print brand was maybe, long-term, more valuable or had more recognition in the marketplace.”

Philly.com is a unique web property, in that its content is derived from the two formerly competitive newspapers there: The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, both now under singular ownership by the Philadelphia Media Network.

“When I arrived (two years ago), Philly.com was its own thing, operated its own newsroom in a separate part of the building from the newspapers, each of which had its own website,” Ulken said. “That created a lot of confusion, especially because the newspaper sites were paid, and Philly.com was free.”

Naturally, why would readers pay for access to content on either paid site when they could get the same content for free via Philly.com?

Eric Ulken
Eric Ulken

“Thanks to a lot of great work over the years, Philly.com has a really strong brand in the market. It has a lot of name recognition,” Ulken said. “One of the things that we discovered, though, was that Philly.com was not known in the market as being the digital home of the Inquirer or the Daily News. We saw that as a problem, something we wanted to change.”

The complicated relationship between the three distinctive brands became evident recently when reporter Helen Ubinas wrote a piece about how easy it was to legally obtain an AR-15 weapon. It went viral, and Ubinas was even asked to appear on some talk shows and to be interviewed about her work. In some cases, she was attributed as a reporter for Philly.com; in others, as a writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Still others referred to her—maybe more precisely—as a member of the Philadelphia Daily News staff. In fact, all three were true, but it would’ve made for a long introduction requiring a complicated explanation about how she contributed to all those brands.

Incidentally, Ulken pointed out that there are distinctive staff members for each brand, too, such as each title’s “marquis columnists.”

To minimize confusion and to strengthen all three cooperative brands, the publisher made the decision to more seamlessly integrate the operations of the three entities. Three newsrooms were consolidated in a single one, and a more concerted effort was made to inform the public that the newspaper staff and brands were to thank for the site they’d come to rely on. Along with the Philly.com brand banner at the top of the site, there are graphic reminders of the two legacy newspaper brands, too.

Ulken noted that there’s evidence to suggest that the market is beginning to better understand the relationship between the newspapers and Philly.com today, though there’s still work to be done in that vein. It would not have served any of the brands well to diminish the fundamental legacy brands.

“I think it’s important that those of us who are fortunate enough to be the stewards of newspaper brands that go back decades—and in some cases, more than 100 years—that we recognize the value of those brands and do our best to make those brands make sense in the digital age,” Ulken said.

 

The Rebranding Alternative

Talks about branding almost inevitably turn to icons like Apple Computer—so well known that “Apple” alone suffices, and perhaps that’s because of decades’ worth of consistency. Way back when Steve Jobs was still giving keynote addresses at MacWorld and Seybold tradeshows, it didn’t matter the year on the calendar or the product to be unveiled, the brand was resolved and uncompromised.

Whether the developer was showing off a new OS, a new iMac in a rainbow of candy-like colors, or later, the iPhone and iPod, the public had an expectation of quality and innovation. That’s not to say the brand hasn’t been tested or challenged during those years, but the promise has remained. A strong legacy brand—no matter how the products change over time—can persevere.

Consumer electronic brands are afforded one luxury that newspapers don’t have: Their products are faddish, hip, and can ride one marketing wave after the next as new iterations or new innovations are rolled out. Conversely, newspaper brands are about longevity, trust, consistency, even as they introduce new apps, podcasts, or events.

“I don’t necessarily think that rebranding is the answer,” WAN-IFRA’s Roper said. “Reinforcing the brand is crucial, more than ever, when your content is distributed across so many channels and platforms. So much of this involves smart marketing of your content, something we as an industry—let’s face it—tend to struggle with. If you are a local publisher today, you’d better own that community. And I don’t just mean your content, but really be involved in every aspect of that community.”

Roper offered The Washington Post brand as an exemplary model for building upon the legacy brand without diminishing it. “They are doing amazing things,” he said. “It’s always nice to have someone to look up to for constant experimentation and innovation, but they are very, very unique with a billionaire as their owner who is pushing innovation while letting editorial do its great work. Still, it’s amazing to me how they seem to be everywhere today.”

Over at the Post, Wemple revealed that despite speculation about how technology and owner Jeff Bezos’ digital resume would influence the business model, there’s very little “distraction” from the business at hand. The brand and the mission remains the same.

“We don’t spend any extraneous time with buzzwords,” he said. “We just do the work. Like any organization, we’re trying to find our way, with video, with experimentation. But there is absolutely no confusion that the idea of reporters is to report and report, and write and write.”

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