Success can be measured in many ways. On most occasions, it’s measured by a number. In the newspaper industry, success perhaps means having the largest circulation or the most page views. Maybe those numbers mean little to readers who instead measure how successful a newspaper is by how it delivers important news to them.
However we might measure success, it seems that successful newspapers do have several things in common. Read on to find out the ingredients.
A Compelling Mission
Today, a mission statement might sound like a sentiment of the past—and in fact, it was in the late 19th and early 20th century that newspapers began adopting these kinds of slogans, according to “ Rise of New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts,” a report by Penelope Muse Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina.
However, Thomas Kent, the former standards editor of the Associated Press, shared with Poynter that a mission statement is important for any news operation.
“A published mission statement makes the editors’ criteria more transparent to audiences,” he said. “…a mission statement, especially for a local news outlet, can go much farther. It can identify very specific subjects of coverage, and define the publication’s top values.”
Many newsrooms are proud to share their mission statements, such as the Washington Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” which it adopted in 2017. The catchy slogan is concise enough to fit on a t-shirt—and perfect for building a brand and marketing purposes. Earlier this year, the Post released its first Super Bowl commercial that put emphasis on the motto.
Likewise, the New York Times, whose mission statement is “We seek the truth and help people understand the world,” put out two commercials last fall focused on that message. One highlighted an investigative report into the separation of families at the border and the other was a report into the Trump family tax schemes. Both ads ended with the words, “The truth is worth the wait.”
Abernathy makes it clear to E&P that before any organization sets out to accomplish (or market) anything, they must first have a mission—a compelling reason to exist.
According to her research, there has recently been an abundance of private equity funds, hedge funds and other types of investment partnerships that have bought and now manage newspapers. Unfortunately, their main mission tends to be making a profit.
“These new owners are very different from the newspaper publishers that preceded them. For the most part they lack journalism experience or the sense of civic mission traditionally embraced by publishers and editors,” Abernathy wrote in her report.
Abernathy’s research shows how important local news is in every community—and it begins with the mission. It also shows that when the mission is all about money, investors operate with a “short-term, earnings-first focus” and they are prepared to rid of any holdings (including newspapers and reporters) that fail to produce what they deem an adequate profit—ultimately leading to news deserts.
Having a great leader at the forefront of any organization is ideal. They influence happiness and productivity of their employees and with the overall success of the company. For a newspaper, a strong leader can make all the difference in a languishing industry.
In Vale, Ore., the Malheur Enterprise, was a struggling newsroom. But according to a NPR article, its circulation has surged in recent years, thanks to Les Zaitz, the paper’s editor and publisher. A successful investigative reporter in his day, Zaitz served at The Oregonian for decades. When he acquired the paper in 2015, he noticed that it wasn’t producing much quality news, so he came in ready to coach the newsroom. As a result, employees developed their skills and began producing top-notch, in-depth reporting. The paper has also won several national awards, including the Investigative Reporters and Editors Freedom of Information Award.
When leadership is poor, it can plague a newsroom with a series of disasters as it did for the Los Angeles Times. That changed last year when local billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong purchased the paper and returned the publication to local ownership.
The Times went on a hiring spree, and even attracted Norman Pearlstine, who has held leadership positions at the Wall Street Journal and Time Inc., to join the paper as its executive editor.
“What excited me and made me want to come on board was an understanding of the depth of (Soon-Shiong’s) commitment to wanting to make this just a great paper and to invest resources in ways that make that possible,” Pearlstine told the Columbia Journalism Review.
A revival is also taking place at the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Ma. As a former district court judge, Fred Rutberg was nearing retirement when he began looking forward at what might come next. It turned out his answer was becoming a newspaper owner.
According to the Associated Press (AP), Rutberg pulled together a group of investors and bought the Eagle in the spring of 2016. He hired more reporters and editors, added new sections, revitalized its website and spent money on better-quality newsprint. Rutberg goes as far as answering reader’s phone calls and pursuing revenue diversifying ideas.
The AP described this level of involvement as “a thrilling contrast to the Eagle’s former corporate owners.”
The paper had been declining drastically during the two decades of corporate ownership, but the Boston Globe reported Rutberg’s methods are working: digital subscriptions grew 60 percent, and daily circulation is holding steady at 14,179 and at 16,711 on Sunday.
Taking Innovative Risks
Innovation doesn’t necessarily equal digital media. One print innovation we’ve seen is the Ledger Dispatch’s Interactive News augmented reality app. Readers in Jackson, Calif. download the app to their phone and have an interactive experience by holding the screen over a printed image or text.
Writing for the INMA, publisher Jack Mitchell said that due to the app, revenue was up 30 percent last year and key revenue categories that had left the paper, such as real estate and automotive verticals, had returned.
“AR features can be a fast way to generate new revenue,” Mitchell wrote. “The more exclusive the content and the more AR experiences you have, the more downloads of your app and the more successful you will be.”
Meanwhile, the Washington Post continues to lead the way when it comes to digital innovation, especially when it comes to its Arc Publishing software.
Media analyst Ken Doctor recently reported for Nieman Lab on the success of the publishing platform, citing that Arc was serving more than 30 clients in big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and more. He also wrote about the Post’s ambition to make Arc central to the business strategies of the trade.
Digiday also reported the Post was adding new subscription tools to the platform: “a registration system designed to capture audience email addresses; a paywall, which can be either hard or soft; a customer service portal that connects publishers’ customer support teams with subscribers; and a page builder that allows publishers to develop and deploy offer pages on their sites without programming or design resources.”
In April, MediaPost reported that the platform “may grow into a $100 million business that would bolster the company’s bottom line.”
At the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, publisher Walter Hussman is taking a huge gamble on innovation. The AP reported Hussman is promising subscribers a free iPad to view the digital version of the paper (as it will only be printed on Sundays by the end of the year) if they pay $34-$36 a month for a subscription. The paper began the experiment in Blytheville, Ark., where more than 70 percent of subscribers converted—if replicated statewide, the paper could turn a profit, which it hasn’t done since 2017.
For Jed Williams, chief strategy officer at Local Media Association, “innovation is the foundation for creating a sustainable and successful future” for the industry. He cited Hearst as a media company that continuously experiments, but one thing that Williams points out is their variety of content verticals and niche franchises.
“Hearst utilizes a blend of centralized corporate strategy and market autonomy to kindle innovation unique to each property,” he said.
One such example is the San Francisco Chronicle’s The Press, “a collection of winery reviews (and much more) from the journalists at The Chronicle, with the mission of providing a one-stop travel resource for Wine Country,” according to its website.
Another Hearst property, the Houston Chronicle, has the Texas Sports Nation, which promises in-depth coverage of Houston sports, ticket giveaways and invitations to exclusive watch parties and VIP events.
Hearst not only created content verticals but also built out consumer revenue channels from there, Williams said. “I think it’s also smart innovation in that these are focused objectives with clear goals…and they’ve got a very cohesive well articulated strategy between corporate and the markets.”
Williams said McClatchy is another company that has a strong innovative spirit. An example is their McClatchy New Ventures, a space dedicated to focusing on emerging technology and immersive storytelling. The project has led the organization to experiment with video, podcasting, long-form episodic programming and smart-speaker news delivery.
A ventures unit like this dedicated to continuous innovative experimenting is ideal in any industry, and it certainly plays by Williams’ law that “innovation must be a discipline.”
Strength and Endurance
One newspaper that has shown endurance is the Philadelphia Inquirer. Between 2006 and 2015, the company went through seven different owners until philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest became its owner. During this time, former Cleveland Plain Dealer publisher Terry Egger was hired as publisher.
With Egger leading the way, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com restructured their newsrooms and became a single operation called the Philadelphia Media Network (PMN). Then, this past June, after celebrating 190 years, PMN rebranded to the Philadelphia Inquirer , Philly.com became Inquirer.com and the masthead was redesigned. After years of uncertainty, the media organization is now paving a path toward a certain future.
Sometimes it’s Mother Nature that tests a newsroom’s strength. When wildfires erupted in Northern California, newsrooms like the Paradise Post still had a job to do. Newspapers were hand-delivered to locals at evacuee shelters, hotels, trailers and anywhere they could find readers. Former Chico Enterprise-Record editor David Little, who also oversaw the Paradise Post, told CNN that the two newspapers, along with the Oroville Mercury Register (another sister newspaper), would be distributed together in hopes of reaching evacuees staying with friends and family. In addition, Little and his staff were focused on constantly updating the website.
Perhaps the newsroom showing the most strength is the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md. After a gunman killed five employees in the newsroom on June 28, 2018, reporters didn’t stop working. Reporter Chase Cook tweeted on the same day he lost his co-workers, “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”
That edition went out, and the newspaper has carried on. On the one-year anniversary of the attack, Capital Gazette editor Rick Hutzell wrote a column to commemorate the date. He mentioned how the dedication of his staff and support from parent company Tribune Publishing, the University of Maryland and others helped the newsroom to continue. Hutzell talked about how the paper was recognized for their work, most notably by the Pulitzer Prize committee which honored them a special award and citation including a $100,000 bequest for their courageous response to the tragic event.
Ultimately, Hutzell’s message to journalists and newsrooms around the world was this: “No matter the threat, your dedication to the work of journalism is what guarantees a free press survives. What matters is showing up for work and doing your job, even when it’s heartbreaking. Even when it’s dangerous.”
Plans for a Future
As more disinformation spreads in the news cycle, the livelihood of newspapers is essential for every community. We must look forward to the opportunities that will help keep newsrooms open.
For starters, invest more in training journalists and teach them skills that will help them in any role. Video production. Data and analytics. Social media. Journalists wear so many hats now, so why not invest in more training?
Build trust among readers. According to the Indicators of News Media Trust report, a 2018 Knight Foundation and Gallup survey found 71 percent of those surveyed said “a commitment to transparency is important, and similar percentages say the same about an organization providing fact-checking resources and providing links to research and facts that back up its reporting.”
Diversifying revenue is another opportunity. Focus on revenue streams that don’t rely only on reader revenue and advertising, but get creative with services and products that will attract dollars.
And perhaps most importantly, we need more collaboration. Many newsroom leaders and journalists would have never imaged that they would be working alongside print and digital competitors, but it’s something we are seeing more often now in attempt to close coverage gaps.