By: Kristina Ackermann
It’s no secret that the job description for newspaper publishers is evolving, often on a day-to-day basis. As readers and advertisers are presented with an increasing number of outlets to direct their attention and dollars, newspapers have suffered immense losses and have been scrambling to fill the gaps. In what is universally considered to be a challenging and confusing time for our industry, the papers that stand out as success stories are the ones that have branched out beyond the task of printing words on paper, and that is why E&P selected Bill Masterson as publisher of the year.
The Times of Northwest Indiana first landed on my radar when I wrote about the paper’s One Region: One Vision initiative for the 2011 installment of E&P’s “10 Newspapers That Do It Right” feature. Since then, publisher Bill Masterson Jr. hasn’t slowed down. His commitment to improving the community extends beyond the pages of the Times. By bringing together local business leaders, leading a capital campaign to raise funds for charity, working to preserve jobs, offering high-quality content, and fostering a spirit of innovation, Masterson has earned the nod not only as our publisher of the year, but also as the new vice president of publishing at Times parent company Lee Enterprises, a role he assumed in early October.
In describing his tenure at the Times, Masterson said the economic downturn was more of a wake-up call than anything else. “We looked around and decided to quit feeling sorry for ourselves. Yes, the newspaper industry is evolving but not unlike any other industry. You know if the record companies were still just making vinyl records they’d be out of business. We need to evolve, and that doesn’t mean people don’t want the printed product, but we do need to price our product accordingly,” he said. “We’re up year-over- year in revenue, we’re up year-over-year in OCF (operating cash flow), and it’s because of that mentality.”
As you may have guessed, “pricing the product accordingly” means charging more for subscriptions, and the Times has raised rates a few times under Masterson’s watch. It’s a decision he stands behind and actively promotes to his readers: “What other service can you have delivered to your house for 61 cents a day?”
In addition to what Masterson describes as an “aggressively priced” print product, the Times delivers an electronic replica edition, which currently has around 9,000 paid subscribers. “It’s a win-win, because the advertiser is hitting the customer that actually wants the product, and the reader is able to get the paper in the format they want,” he said.
New subscribers can choose to receive home delivery only, the e-edition only, or a hybrid subscription with the daily e-edition supplemented by home delivery Wednesday and Sunday, Thursday through Sunday, or Sunday only. While content is currently free on nwitimes.com, Masterson said the paper will introduce a paywall in the coming months, part of a company-wide rollout across Lee Enterprises.
Putting employees first
Between publishing the Times, serving as group publisher of several other Lee papers, serving on the executive board of directors of the Barden Gary Foundation and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Northwest Indiana, writing columns for the Times, meeting with regional authorities as co-chairman of One Region: One Vision, and, oh yeah, raising six children, Masterson stays busy. Despite the frantic pace, he still makes time to hold quarterly State of the Times meetings to keep his employees up to speed on company issues that affect their jobs and their livelihood.
A publisher may only be as good as his employees, and if that’s the case then Masterson’s doing just fine. When speaking of his accomplishments, he’s quick to point out that his staff and department heads have been proactive in restructuring their traditional roles, revamping content and how it’s offered, and absorbing additional duties. Of executive editor William Nangle, Masterson said, “At 66 years young, he’s as progressive as any young editor is when it comes to digital.”
And while the Times has not been immune to the challenges and tough times associated with modern newspaper publishing, Masterson said most of his staff reduction has come through attrition rather than the layoffs that have plagued many in the industry — including other Lee newspapers such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“I’m not real familiar with the situation in St. Louis, but what I’ve done here is I’ve always believed that you need to be honest and open with the employees,” Masterson said. “We’ve had a very limited number of layoffs. I’m very blessed to have the employees that I have, and morale is very high.”
Part of the reason Masterson has been able to keep jobs steady at the Times is the way he has positioned the paper to take advantage of the unique opportunities presented by the region he covers.
The paper’s main office in Munster, Ind., is, geographically, less than an hour from the urban center of Chicago, but that is where the proximity comparisons end. Masterson describes the region as “Balkanized,” a cluster of competitive towns and cities lacking a central anchor or unifying ideology. That’s how the One Region: One Vision initiative came to be; it’s an effort to encourage local leaders to share resources and move toward the common goal of improving the quality of life for their citizens, even though they come from different backgrounds.
As chairman of One Region: One Vision, Masterson has assembled a board of representatives from federal, state, and local government, plus education, health care, tourism, finance, industry, media, public safety, and more. This meeting of the minds has led to investment in urban revitalization, establishment of a health care council, a bimonthly mayors’ roundtable discussion, community public gatherings, and more. In late September, the group hosted Indiana governor Mitch Daniels at a sold-out luncheon. The initiative, under Masterson’s leadership, positions the Times as a force of change in the community and presents local citizens with a positive view of the local newspaper.
Beyond the ideological mission of uniting regional interests, Masterson has leveraged a more straightforward benefit of the region: It’s cheaper to do business in Northwest Indiana than it is in Chicago.
While other papers were outsourcing their printing operations, the Times added press capacity to serve clients across the state line. Masterson also positioned the Times as a customer service call center and regional design center for Lee newspapers — a move that added jobs and brought in additional revenue.
Above and beyond
Masterson’s involvement with the community doesn’t end at One Region: One Vision. His latest pet project has been a campaign to raise funds for a new Boys & Girls Club in Gary, Ind.
“We led a capital campaign to remodel an old abandoned school and turn it into a Boys & Girls Club and provide opportunities for kids that they wouldn’t have had otherwise,” he said. At the time this issue went to press, the campaign had raised $5.5 million.
“This is all private dollars. It’s a testament to the people here believing in the One Region: One Vision mantra that we need to come together,” Masterson said.
Though he admitted he would not likely be taking on any additional capital campaigns any time soon, Masterson stressed that he hopes the legacy he leaves is as more than a newspaperman. “I hope that when it’s all said and done, I’m not defined by my success as a publisher. More importantly, I hope I’m defined by what type of father I am to my kids and what type of husband I am to my wife,” he said. “Those are the things that are important to me.”
While his community, family, and charitable contributions speak volumes, it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to fully escape his publishing accomplishments.
“I’ve been a publisher since I was 27 years old. At the time I thought that was because I was some kind of superstar, but in hindsight I think I was the only one dumb enough to take the job at the time,” Masterson said. “Being in the industry as long as I have, I measure the bottom line, and I make sure that we’re making money. You’ve got to make sure that you take care of the community. You’ve got to make sure that you have integrity.”
Masterson started his career as a youth carrier for the Daily Oklahoman. In 1976, he was selected as Parade magazine’s “Young Columbus Carrier of the Year” and was awarded the key to the city of Lawton, Okla., for outstanding achievements as a youth. His early exposure to journalism instilled a competitive drive and appreciation for the value of journalism.
“I like to win. I like to be successful. I love what I do. I believe that we have a tremendous responsibility to provide the community with perspective and information, and that’s an enormous opportunity,” he said. “Instead of being first, I want to be right … We don’t mislead people. Being right is very, very important to me.”
As he looks ahead to his new role as vice president at Lee, Masterson said he will remain publisher of the Times as well as group publisher of his other regional titles.
“What I hope to do is take the success model that we’ve had not only here, but also at some of the other papers that report to me, and emulate that success with a broad number of newspapers,” he said. “My biggest challenge is making sure that I’m able to provide the one-on-one time that I’ve been able to provide with some of the publishers to help them develop this new way of thinking, taking the pressure off themselves, the ‘woe is me’ attitude — let’s do something about it. There are dollars out there that are being spent on advertising, and what we need to do as an industry is develop products that people are willing to pay for.”
Masterson said much of his success is attributable to a shift in attitude — to losing that “woe is me” outlook. “We need to develop that mentality and then go out and get it. Let that bad economy be someone else’s problem.”
And as for being named publisher of the year?
“I’m humbled by my employees … heartened that they would think enough of me (to nominate me). It’s not like they got raises that other newspapers didn’t get. We’re still struggling the same way that other media companies across the country are, but we’ve got jobs, and we’ve got a good product that people want; we just need to price ourselves accordingly and provide the best product we can and the best service we can,” he said. “As long as we’re willing to change and modify what we do, there’s always going to be room for us.”