Here’s a candidate for one accelerating tactic by big newspaper chains that appears to only make things worse: The elimination of local publishers.
The theory is that companies have built corporate leadership teams specializing in the different sectors of the business—advertising, circulation, news—and don’t need the additional overhead of a well-paid manager pulling them together in every local market.
Instead, you increasingly see regional publishers in charge of three, four, even a dozen daily newspaper markets. The manager-to-staff ratio probably isn’t that much different, considering how many newsroom and production jobs that have been cut over the past 10 years.
Tronc went even further in 2016, deciding it didn’t need publishers at all. Across the board, it eliminated that layer, elevating the editor of each of its daily newspapers to an editor/publisher role, even though many had little to no background in the non-news portions of the business.
In August, after a year of plummeting print ad revenue and stalled digital growth, Tronc reversed course, at least in the case of the Los Angeles Times. It restored the publisher role there and hired former Yahoo interim CEO Ross Levinsohn.
An obvious concern in eliminating local publishers is that there’s “no one home” in the communities you are serving—no one attending Chamber of Commerce dinners or being a member of the Rotary Club. If that sounds quaint and outdated, consider the mountains of evidence that community and reader engagement are key to digital transformation and reinventing newspapers’ business models. Of course, that engagement is about a lot more than sending a suit to a chamber event. More on that in a minute.
But there are other major problems with the loss of local leadership.
It leads to corporate solutions for problems that don’t exist. The forced rollout of products that won’t work in a given local market, for example, or company-wide homogenization of content and design until local identity is erased. Before Gannett rolled out its USA Today insert into dailies across the country, who were the local publishers or editors saying that “more national news” was a top priority for their readers?
At the same time, local problems fester. Sure, the advertising, circulation and news staffs can report up to very talented corporate specialists in those areas, but what if the new newspaper business model requires native advertising and sponsored content solutions for local businesses? What if a reader revenue model can’t be marketed and sold in the same way print subscriptions were and requires full partnership with the newsroom to pull off? Who will lead the staff in the changed thinking and through the ethical minefields inherent in this kind of transition?
Local publishers aren’t necessary, one could argue, if a company views newspapers as fast food franchises: a single recipe, branding, marketing, and customer interface that they think will work in any community in the country. But good luck with that. Local news isn’t fast food. And building trust and loyalty among readers and advertisers requires listening and treating a community as partners in what you do, not just as consumers.
But the alternative approach must go beyond simply restoring local publisher positions. One might as well save the money if you don’t truly believe in engaging with local communities and building unique business models that serve them well.
And a difficult point of discussion is whether the specific people who operated under the old way are capable of being publishers who are empowered to engage the community and reinvent the business.
The newspaper industry’s worsening financial results should cause companies to hit the reset button and reinvest in the job of local publisher. But it needs a new crop of leaders with a different set of skills and more diverse backgrounds.
If engagement with the community is paramount, we need publishers who are a part of, understand and look like the community. There’s a strong argument to be made that community organizing is a more relevant background for the modern publisher than advertising sales.
We also need publishers with digital in their DNA, and we need to develop people on the news side with entrepreneurial skills and business knowledge, whether they become publishers or not.
Matt DeRienzo is executive director of LION Publishers, an organization that supports local independent online news publishers from across the country. He is a longtime former newspaper reporter, editor, publisher and corporate director of news.