With 2018 Behind Them, News Leaders Look to Slay the Competition in the New Year

When Dictionary.com announced its 2018 Word of the Year was misinformation, I’m sure many of us in the news industry were not surprised. Dictionary.com defines misinformation as “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead”—and there was plenty of that going around last year. From fake political ads on Facebook to fact-checking our president, newsrooms are working overtime to stop misinformation from spreading.

As we look ahead to 2019, who knows what the next word of the year will be?

What we do know is that 2018 bought us many challenges and many successes, and as we move forward into a new year, our focus will continue to be on shedding light on the truth.

With 2018 behind us, E&P asked several news leaders to share their thoughts on this past year and what they think 2019 will hold for them.

 

Q: What was your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?

Leonard Woolsey (president and publisher, Galveston County Daily News, Galveston, Texas): Managing culture—making sure everyone in the newspaper understands urgency is the norm of our business. I am proud to say employees are fully engaged in the financial success of the newspaper. From page counts and reducing expenses to sharing news about a new business opening, everyone in the operation is predisposed to finding ways to make the newspapers not only a great editorial product, but a financial success. Money and profit are not dirty words at the Daily News.

Paul Tash (chairman and CEO, Tampa Bay Times, Tampa Bay, Fla.): The tariffs on Canadian newsprint put a very heavy burden on the industry. Because the Tampa Bay Times has the largest circulation in Florida, the tariffs were a particular challenge here and forced some hard decisions, including layoffs. We responded by rallying public and political support and taking a prominent role in the coalition aligned against the tariffs. After a full day of hearings in Washington, the tariffs were overturned, although newsprint prices are not falling nearly as fast as they increased once the tariffs were imposed. Beyond the financial impact, the controversy showed that newspapers can still make our voices count. In the industry, sometimes we forget.

Samantha Johnston (general manager, Colorado Mountain News Media–West, Aspen, Colo.): My biggest challenge was looking throughout the company and realizing that conversations were happening among colleagues about their peers who they perceived as less than competent, yet when the rubber met the road, everyone was optimistic and supportive and acting as cheerleaders instead of simply saying, “You’re right. You’re not succeeding. Let me help.” I love the concept of caring personally and challenging directly. I’ve learned that when I challenge directly from a place of authenticity, it is typically received gratefully and not defensively. I see my most important role as that of developing the talent that will lead this industry today and into the future and being a loyal and trusted peer and that requires both being radically candid with the people around me, but more importantly, creating the type of culture where everyone feels like they can criticize me and other managers, too. This year, I put a lot of intention behind being authentic in my communication—when things are good and when they are bad. It’s game-changing and culture-changing.

Jeff Light (publisher and editor-in-chief, San Diego Union-Tribune, San Diego, Calif.): Our paper has been sold four times in eight years, so our challenge always is to stay focused and to educate the new people who become involved with our business about what we are trying to do and why. In the acquisition of any company, the moment of the transaction is the point of least information, so it is a time when mistakes can be made. With our last owner, we also saw a lot of turnover at the top and the constant pressures of a public company, all of which added to the potential for error. Coming in to this year, our biggest challenge was trying to help our then-corporate leaders to articulate what they were trying to achieve in a way that could build confidence and energize the company. It was a great struggle for that group to run the company in a manner that aligned with the goals of our employees and the values of the communities we serve. We were fortunate to have been acquired mid-year by a private owner (Patrick Soon-Shiong) who brings a different level of insight and commitment to what we do. He has shown deep appreciation for the social justice mission of our company and an infectious enthusiasm for story-telling, technology and accountability. Many of our short-term crises have been resolved, leaving us to face the difficult and exciting challenges of the long term.

Thomas A. Silvestri (president and publisher, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond, Va.): Sustainable revenue is the urgent answer that I’m sure you’ll get from many colleagues. So, I’ll add constantly readjusting in a time where nothing seemingly lasts long. Overcome is an interesting word. Do we ever overcome the big picture? In the face of high expectations and the risk of major disappointments, you confront by raising awareness, deepening understanding and firming up commitment to what needs to get done now, in 90 days and in the future. Push harder and smarter on better performance, setting smart goals and executing multiple projects and initiatives at once.

Q: What was the most important financial lesson you learned?

Woolsey: Don’t take your supply for granted. Both the newsprint shortage and the dramatic run up on prices were terrifying. At times we wondered if we would be able to secure a truck of newsprint or if it would arrive on time. I hope we never find ourselves in both the price and supply pressures like that again. It changed our business forever.

Tash: It’s good to have friends. They don’t show up on a balance sheet, but they are tremendous assets.

Johnston: The notion that “If we build things, they will come” is wrong; that gravy train has been over for a long time. If there is one truth with audience engagement, it’s that opportunities that can and should be monetized must be monetized from the beginning. Falling into the trap of, “We need to launch it so that people can see what it is and they’ll love it and buy it,” most often results in a cool idea that doesn’t have a good business plan behind it and it ends up being a cool idea that never gets monetized. It doesn’t matter if it’s newsletters, podcasts, voice programs, videos…build a business plan (no matter how big or small), get sales teams jazzed, create killer content, build solid value propositions for the customers and audiences, and go to market with things you believe in. We’re one of the only industries in the world that invests in building cool things, gives them away for free, and then acts surprised when people aren’t clamoring to buy them when we get around to selling them. There may be products you build and never take to market, but the ones you do should always have a monetary component and we shouldn’t be ashamed of that. Journalism is a noble cause, but great journalism doesn’t come free.

Light: We resolved last year to take a hard look at the next five years for our business. What do we know about how this is going to unfold? We pledged to be clear-eyed and disciplined. We weren’t just drawing trend lines; we were evaluating our future, in detail. What is going to happen to our top 50 advertising accounts? What is the lifespan of our TMC business? What are our print circulation prospects? What is our profitability by line of business and by day of week? Can we make the turn from an advertising company to a consumer revenue company? Once you do that work, the wishful thinking and the cynicism go out the window. It’s daunting, but not at all depressing. Quite the opposite. You get a much more urgent sense of what it means to be off your plan today when you can see that line drawn five years into the future. The lesson for us was that there is nothing to be gained by cowering before the task. There is no better feeling than building a complete team with full command of the trajectory of the business.

Silvestri: Get off the mark as soon as you can and allow a long runway for planning, promotion, pinpointing progress (or lack of it) and polish. Also: When you hear someone say “It looked good to me,” drop what you are doing and check it again.

Q: What were some of your success stories from 2018?

Woolsey: For decades (dating back to 1967), the Daily News purchased preprinted comics from an outside national source—that is until a sharp-eyed editor challenged the behavior. By doing so, his bold idea and hard work moved the outsourced printing back in-house, created a new comics lineup, reduced features fees and contributed a $100,000 annual impact. We dramatically reduced costs, sold advertising on the pages and saved jobs. All of this resulted because everyone on staff was on the lookout for an opportunity to improve the financial aspects of business.

Tash: We made key additions to our leadership team, we launched our new website and we published extraordinary journalism. This has been a challenging year, but we are ending it with good momentum.

Johnston: One: Hiring Jerry Raehal as the publisher in Glenwood Springs, Colo. Recruiting top talent is as rewarding as anything else I get to do. Two: Launching a new magazine called The Roaring Fork Collection that literally left retailers calling our sales department and saying, “A customer just walked into my store with my ad ripped out and said ‘I want this.’” Print, when thoughtfully orchestrated to fill a necessary niche, still works. Is the world spinning on a digital axis? You bet it is. Can print still work? You better believe it. Three: Seeing the long tail of digital discussions finally starting to wag. Our sales teams have worked so hard to help our business customers leverage digital opportunities, yet print still has such a powerful hold on resort communities (a problem we’re grateful to have). We are starting to see an increasing consumer confidence in digital and the investments are clients are making are paying big dividends for them. It’s rewarding to see this important paradigm shift.

Light: In January, stories by our investigative team led to a $775 million rebate to utility ratepayers because of corruption revealed by our reporting. In August, a sitting congressman and his wife were indicted on 60 counts, including fraud and conspiracy—again, based on our team’s work. In the last half of the year, we have done extraordinary work reporting on the migrant crisis unfolding on our border. This is a story with tremendous stakes for the San Diego region, and our newsroom has used every tool at its disposal—podcasting, animation, interactive video, and frank, fearless reporting. At one point, we wrapped our entire Sunday paper in portraits of immigrants who have helped to make our community one of the most diverse and successful in America, bringing yet another dimension to a complex story.

Silvestri: Winning top journalism and advertising awards at the Virginia Press Association competition. Delivering our 75th Public Square, which advances civil and civic community conversation on issues of importance to our readers. Quickly adapting to new management and benefiting from new relationships at the top. Being part of a BH Media initiative to launch special sections to salute military veterans in our communities on 11.11.Tapping our investment in an outstanding staff meteorologist to help achieve record pages views during September’s month of storms. Advancing new revenue initiatives using events, books and our archives, the latter focus producing a 12-page Retro Richmond special section for Thanksgiving that retold the stories of famous musicians who played in Richmond. Launching a film festival with our partners at One Day University. Continuing a new tradition of honoring more than 20 outstanding residents in our RTD Person of the Year event and special magazine.

Q: When you look at the industry, what are you most excited about for 2019?

Woolsey: I believe there is a trend to authenticity—people rediscovering not all news is the same, not all content is nutritious, not all advertising platforms are valuable. Call it “choice overload,” but people seem to be reducing and becoming more selective of media outlets. I believe this is good for our industry. Newspapers and established brands could find themselves on the receiving end of people retiring to trusted sources, tactile experiences and more selective choices.

Tash: There is a strong sense of solidarity and a willingness to share experience toward our collective success. Also, I am inspired by the talent and energy of young people who are coming into this business, whatever the challenges.

Johnston: Local Media Association’s Business Model Accelerator. I’m biased because I’m a new Local Media Foundation board member, but this project is legitimately awesome. The Accelerator will vet, test, prove and execute promising new business models that will sustain local journalism by helping to transform local media companies and/or create brand new enterprises. Think bold, disruptive ideas that can be scaled.

Light: After decades in the wilderness, I feel like the industry is starting to find its way. People are beginning to understand the value of credible information, insight and ideas; there is a new appreciation for the craft of journalism. The industry is reinventing itself as a subscription-based business that sells real value to real people rather than as a broker of clicks or a reseller of audiences. It is not an easy path, but I find this heartening.

Silvestri: Our innate ability to confront challenge, after challenge, after challenge and finding innovative ways to win new revenues and new audiences, while still being a business with customers who have been with you for 40, 50, 60 years. Also, serving your community well never gets old.

Q: What are your goals and priorities for this year?

Woolsey: Continuing to develop relevant and sustainable business models. Even though we are 176 years old, we need to operate like a startup. I hope as we continue to go down this road of everyone working towards these goals, we’ll continue to evolve and play an important role in the eyes of our readers, advertisers and communities.

Tash: We should be as successful in our digital efforts as we have been in print. We are making real progress and need to make more.

Johnston: To continue to create the most compelling and relevant content with the top talent in the industry and to be the model for monetization that others strive to replicate.

Light: Invest in local journalism. Acquire digital subscribers. Protect the Sunday print product. Reduce overhead costs. Expand digital agency and branded content studio. Grow events. Develop vertical content areas.

Silvestri: First and foremost, indispensable journalism. Financially, we’re already halfway into our budget year so our priority is to hit every goal in every sales initiative and execute every project and action plan on time and on budget. And listen for the warning sounds and make a lot of noise on the victories.

Q: What is on your wish list for 2019?

Woolsey: Stable or declining newsprint prices, steady supply, and advertisers rediscovering that the authentic experience of sharing a compelling message via a printed community newspaper is more impactful than clicking a mouse in a whirlwind of digital noise.

Tash: No hurricanes, no recession and no major retailers going out of business.

Johnston: Plentiful opportunities for so many great journalists who are still out of work; an American public who continue to believe in the importance of the work that we do; and our continued ability to create smart marketing solutions that drive local businesses toward prosperity.

Light: This industry occupies a special place in our country. We sit at the crossroads of information, commerce and ideas. The stewardship of these businesses is important for all of us. There are a lot of pieces in play right now. I hope we see things shake out in ways that will benefit the smart, capable and ethical people who have committed themselves to the journalistic tradition in America.

Silvestri: To do everything in my capacity to help RTD colleagues succeed, our advertisers prosper and our readers coming back for more. Also, I wish good health for all.

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Published: January 2, 2019

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