By: Gretchen A. Peck
The latter part of the last decade marked “rock bottom” for many newspaper organizations. Quite literally, challenges descended upon the newspaper from all angles. Print readership declined. Classified advertising made a mass exodus toward online alternatives. Analog workflow had to be replaced with new digital workflow technologies. Manufacturing costs have been on the rise. And publishers have largely been resorting to trial-and-error as they attempt to figure out the best ways to deliver electronic content across a slew of new platforms — the Web, mobile devices, e-readers, tablets, and so forth, each demanding a somewhat unique user experience.
There was good reason to worry about the health of newspaper organizations — and there still is — but look closely at a few that were labeled “doomed” by pundits, and it becomes apparent they’ve learned a lot in a very short span of time, and while they’re remaining committed to journalistic standards and core competencies, they are completely re-engineering the way they gather, manage, and deliver information.
Journal Register Co.
When asked about the most difficult challenges his company has faced in recent years, Jonathan Cooper, vice president of content at Journal Register Co., said, “Every aspect of it has been a challenge,” without any hint of melodrama in his voice. “We were a bankrupt company, and then a year ago we embarked on what the organization has tagged ‘a digital-first model.’”
That model was inspired by the dynamic way information is shared, received, and digested.
“The legacy newspaper structure was built around geography. Your press deadlines, your coverage area, were all determined by how far you can drive a truck, in order to make sure that Mr. and Mrs. Smith received their newspaper by the guaranteed delivery time. But if you think about today’s world, that’s no longer your coverage area or concern, because your readers can access information from anywhere, and you can share it with them in real time,” he said.
Cooper offers an example: May 1, the night news broke about Osama bin Laden’s death, “The next day, there were newspaper folks bemoaning the fact that they had to remake page one. And what I found interesting was the lag time it took for some leading news organizations to get the information published on their websites, pushed through social media, or sent through SMS alert, which is how folks want to receive that information on a story as large-scale as this.
“The only way that legacy newspaper companies are going to compete is to embrace these new ways of sharing information,” he said. “There were newspapers that went to press that night, and they didn’t have any information on this story. It’s a missed opportunity to break the news to their audience.”
In addition to leveraging new media, Journal Register Co. is banking on the creativity of its people.
“Part of what the last year for us had been — through the Ben Franklin Project and other projects designed to jump-start the creativity of individuals who work for Journal Register Co. — was to clear the runway. It’s a tired cliché, perhaps, but that’s what we’re doing. We are clearing the runway to make it easier for them to do their job,” Cooper said.
The Ben Franklin Project is described as “an opportunity to re-imagine the newsgathering process with the focus on Digital First and Print Last.” And that is precisely what the company has done — re-imagined the methodology of gathering and disseminating information. For example, Journal Register Co.’s newspapers are nurturing “citizen reporters” who are guided on how to gather information.
“You know, there’s a dirty little secret about our industry. We all say that we offer complete and comprehensive coverage, but take high school sports, for example. A community newsroom may have 20 people who staff the sports department, but on any given Friday night, there may be 34 or more games to cover. How is that possible?” Cooper asked.
Partnering with citizen journalists is a win-win. It helps the newsroom process and deliver more information, while fostering a sense of “we’re all in this together” within the community.
“We help inform day-to-day lives, be it about politics or the town budget, or about what to do on Friday night,” Cooper said. “And the sooner we recognize that role, the sooner our industry will adapt and provide relevant news and information in a timely fashion, and better our chances for success. Those who are already doing it? They’re going to lead the pack.”
In and Around the Community
The Boston Globe
Fresh out of Yale University in 1984 — computer science degree in hand — Christopher Mayer landed an IT job at The Boston Globe. Fascinated by the manufacturing processes, Mayer also gravitated to publishing because it was — much as it is today — an industry that embraced technological innovation. Then, it was the introduction of PCs into the workflow. Today, the business of newspapers is challenged by “a different type of technology disruption,” said Mayer, who was appointed publisher Jan. 1, 2010.
“I’ve always looked at the business … as kind of a just-in-time manufacturing operation, for a product with a very short shelf life,” Mayer said.
The introduction of e-publishing challenged the industry to adapt the business model or perish, he said. “We have to reposition what we do, how we do it, and in a way that is going to be new and exciting, yet still consistent with the journalistic mission, with our values, and with the … core beliefs that we have about what role a media company — this media company — should be playing in the market.”
Though The Boston Globe’s mission has remained consistent over time — to produce quality journalism and to help facilitate the conversation in and around the community, according to Mayer — the paper endured some tough times in recent years. In early 2009, financial news and opinion website 24/7 Wall St. made predictions about the top 10 major newspapers that would likely meet their demise or abandon print.
Of The Boston Globe, Douglas A. McIntyre wrote, “Boston.com, the online site that includes the digital aspects of the Globe, will probably be all that will be left of the operation.”
But that was not to be its fate.
“In ’09, we made a series of decisions that were kind of predicated on essentially betting on the value of — of the belief in the value of — journalism,” Mayer said.
The most obvious impact on the audience came in the form of higher prices across the circulation. An exceptionally loyal readership understood and stayed true. At the same time, the newspaper’s operations were streamlined, including the closure of one manufacturing site and consolidation of another.
These strategies, though necessary to heal the organization, still did not address some of the greater challenges publishers face. “But, what they really allowed us to do was to position ourselves so that we could then pursue the next piece of the strategy, which is to … focus on audiences and the brands. What brand do we have to connect with audience segments?” Mayer asked, and offered Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com (two of the newspaper’s complements) as examples of targeting and tailoring content, and delivering that content to expansive, yet distinctive audiences. Boston.com is — and will remain — a free site with local flavor, while BostonGlobe.com, slated to launch this summer, will be a monetized digital extension of the newspaper itself.
And it’s essential, according to Mayer, to ingratiate the newspaper with the community. This should come naturally, he said, for the Globe always encouraged dialogue with readers. Letters to the editor is only one example. What’s new is a deeper strategy, such as hosting and participating in forums, discussion sessions, and even think tanks designed to generate community-improvement ideas.
“We started to make a commitment to get out and back into the community, to meet community leaders, to build relationships and connections … to talk about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, the direction that we’re heading, and to really assure people that not only are we here, but we’re committing to the same level of quality journalism that’s really always been the hallmark of the institution — and that it doesn’t matter whether it is delivered in print or in digital format,” Mayer said.
“We’ve always been interactive local media,” he said. “Up until 1995, what that meant — ‘interactive and local’ — was that we would send people out to talk to people. So we would publish; we’d write stories as late as possible, print it as quickly as possible, get it delivered as early as possible the next morning, so that it was as timely as possible.”
The introduction of electronic publishing and the Web hasn’t changed the nature of the news agency’s role in the community; rather, it’s merely provided tools for interacting in new ways. “Now, our responsibility is to engage the audience on their terms,” Mayer said.
And, newspapers have to be much better self-promoters, he said.
“There’s a difference between what the media company produces and edits and distributes as news, versus what is perhaps the first search result that you’d get. I think that’s what we need to reinforce,” Mayer said. “There’s real value in what we produce every day. And we need to tell those stories.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
In the months that led up to a Chapter 11 filing in 2009, the future of the Minneapolis Star Tribune seemed bleak. 24/7 Wall St. speculated that it would also be among those newspapers destined for reincarnation as a digital-only publication.
Though the digital publishing platform continues to be a growth opportunity, the print anchor not only endures, but Sunday circulation is growing.
Terry Sauer is assistant managing editor/digital at The Star Tribune Media Co. “My responsibility is to transform the newsroom, which had been a print-centric operation for generations, to be a conduit to get new platforms developed and new workflow built based on how reporters and editors do their work today,” Sauer said.
Part of that challenge is technical — how to deliver content to the Web or mobile devices, for example.
“We’ve had to retain our revenue, retain the size of the reporting staff, and at the same time, start feeding all these platforms, whether it’s print, or tablets, or mobile,” Sauer said.
But a greater part of the challenge is inspiring the organization to think about publishing in a whole new way.
“Much of that is thinking quicker,” Sauer said. “We need to work and respond outside of the news cycle to which we’ve become accustomed. Many on our staff have been in the industry for 10, 20, even 30 years, and they were totally print-centric for the first part of that career. And now it’s a whole different game for them. Some have adapted very quickly; some find it a little more difficult.”
Like his counterpart in Boston, Sauer also cited the tearing down of the “wall” that once separated the newspaper’s personnel from its audience. While letters to the editor once inspired a dialogue between the two, the depth and frequency of conversation between them is exponentially greater in the online space.
There is also the editorial challenge to create content that fully leverages the dynamic nature of the digital platform. Star Tribune will soon launch an Apple iPad application that will offer some redundant content to the newspaper, but it will be presented in a fresh way, such as stories that update in real-time throughout the course of the day.
Sauer said that he and his colleagues spent a lot of time discussing the value of content, the value of journalism. “I applaud the Times for jumping in there and being first,” he said of The New York Times’ digital subscription news. “And the initial reports I’m hearing is that it’s going pretty well. But I think that we’ll all have to follow them in some form, probably sooner rather than later. In the next few months, we’ll see a number of newspapers jumping in with either metered content or paywalls.
“Everybody knows that commodity-type content is going to be out there, and it’s pretty hard to charge for it, because people can get it free in many places … but inside scoops, strong enterprise content, columns, blogs, and deep reporting? That’s what newspapers believe users will pay for,” Sauer said. “And that’s certainly going to be part of our strategy moving forward.”
Another strategy? To renew the newspaper’s commitment to journalistic standards.
“The Web came upon us so quickly, and there was information overload,” he said. “And now … I think that there will be a little bit of a return to appreciation for journalism — whether it be TV, radio, or newspapers.”
Sauer and his colleagues remain optimistic about the newspaper’s revitalized health. “As a company that just emerged from bankruptcy a couple of years ago, the attitude is very upbeat,” he said. “We lived through a really difficult time, when people did not want to come to work. They couldn’t plan for the future, but they didn’t know what the future held. And now there are all sorts of new ideas emerging here, and it’s a really fun time.”
For more than 15 years, Gretchen A. Peck has written about the business of publishing, printing and graphic communications. She formerly served as editor-in-chief and editorial director for Book Business and Publishing Executive magazines. Her byline has appeared in more than 50 international magazines, newspapers, and online publications. Peck holds a master’s degree in writing.