Like with many other professions, newspaper publishers have learned to take any business advice given to them with a grain a salt: “Put up a paywall…tear down that paywall…let’s call them pay meters instead.” How about “Native advertising is bad….well, sponsored content sounds better, right?”
These are only a few examples of how today’s publishers are being pushed and pulled in every direction. No wonder their heads are spinning—and just as they’re getting their heads on straight, something else emerges to make them turn their heads again. Now more than ever, publishers have to be prepared for what’s next.
E&P spoke with some of these publishers and asked them what 2015 taught them and what they’re planning for 2016. What we found is that they’re trying different ways and finding success; they’re being challenged but also rewarded for their perseverance.
In 2015, Canada’s Toronto Star dropped its paywall after two years and launched its tablet app, Star Touch. The free app was designed to reach a younger audience, and so far has seen 150,000 downloads, according to publisher John Cruickshank.
“Looking back, we would not have done the paywall at all,” he said. “It was an experiment. The only ones who were paying were readers we already had, and we were looking for new ones.”
To do that, Torstar Corp. enlisted the help of Montreal’s La Presse, which launched its own successful tablet edition in 2013. La Presse recently stopped printing its Monday to Friday print edition and replaced it with its La Presse+ app.
According to reports, Torstar Corp. spent between $13 million to $15 million on the Star Touch project and hired nearly 70 new people to develop the app—and it seems to be paying off. Since launching the app last fall, Cruickshank said readers are already spending about 11 minutes on it per visit. Not only are visitors interacting more with the content, but they are spending more time on ads, said Cruickshank.
“It creates a unique experience for readers and markets,” he said.
“Enormous training” went into selling the platform to advertisers, and in the newsroom, Cruickshank said the launch of Star Touch was in preparation for their big move into digital as “screen base reporting” became more prevalent. The app also taught the newsroom about different audiences and what news item goes on what platform by providing a “customized stream of news” to readers.
Also in 2015, the Star turned off commenting on its website. According to editor Michael Cooke, the paper will now be “promoting and showcasing the comments (their) readers share across social media and in their letters and emails to editors.”
“We weren’t the getting the right people,” Cruickshank said. “It was a disadvantage for us to keep comments open and I don’t see us opening it up again.”
On the advertising front, Cruickshank said national advertising in Canada is on the decline, so there has been a big push for more local and regionalized sales.
“Big, metro papers like us have had to adjust to find more efficient ways to find new sources of revenue,” he said. One cost saving measure the Star has done was to form a joint distribution partnership in 2012 with The Globe and Mail. According to Star reports, the partnership also allows them to distribute other newspapers and third-party products, and helps contain overall costs and create more efficient distribution operations.
Last year, Canada wrapped up a federal election, and Cruickshank expects the same kind of excitement in the U.S. this election year.
“We saw openness from younger readers in what we do,” he said. “We have to be part of the dialogue and conversation of public life on both the local and national level.”
My wish list for 2016: Grow engagement with a younger audience; to see a more vibrant economy.
Digital was a big play for Jack Pate, Evansville (Ind.) Courier & Press publisher last year. In 2015, the company saw double-digit growth in digital and launched a digital agency to better serve customers.
In an already-saturated market, Pate saw the digital agency as a way to stand out. “We’re all selling the same thing, but we can help leverage digital to help print.” In addition, Pate wants to transform his traditional-thinking staff members and move away from having a separate print and digital sales team.
This year, Pate said he “wants to move the needle” and see his staff become digital experts. In the newsroom, reporters are utilizing podcasts and transitioning to multimedia journalists. He wants to sell more digital subscriptions, but admits he’s still trying to figure out the best way to promote and sell them, like many other publishers in the industry.
Digital isn’t Pate’s only source of non-traditional revenue. The Courier & Press saw a big boom in event marketing. According to Pate, they usually sell at least 300 booths at an annual home show which attracts 15,000 people. Other successful events include a wedding and prom show, a reader’s choice celebration, a “20 Under 40” event, and another one honoring star students. In the next few years, Pate said he also wants to utilize the newspaper building and rent out some its space.
But Pate hasn’t forgotten about his core business, where 70 percent of his readership is still tied to the print product. Commercial printing is a big investment for Pate. The company provides these services in Evansville and offset in Kentucky.
“We received two presses and supplies (from another Journal Register property) worth about 1 million dollars,” he said. “Both of which will add capacity and capabilities to our existing commercial printing operation (Audubon Printing) in Henderson, Ky.”
In October, it was announced Journal Media Group, the paper’s parent company, would be sold to Gannett. Starting a new year with new owners would make any publisher nervous, but Pate said he looked forward to hearing Gannett’s plans.
“Our challenges will remain the same,” he said, and added that a huge benefit for them being associated with Gannett would be the fact that they have “scale” as a larger company.
“As a result of the ownership change to Gannett is our ability to enhance our national and regional content from USA Today and to share content from other regional locations such as Indianapolis, Louisville, and Nashville,” Pate said. “As an example, instead of sending a reporter up Bloomington or Purdue to cover a game that Indy is already covering, we could deploy those resources locally to enhance our local content.”
My wish list for 2016: Continue to play offense; increase digital subscription, revenue and clients.
In 2015, the State Journal Register found news ways to connect with its audience. Publisher Clarissa Williams said the paper created space in its building to host several events, forums and debates as a way to reach not only new readers, but also former subscribers and advertisers. New sponsorship opportunities also opened up as a result.
For Williams, the past year could be summed up in three words: connectivity, change and continuity. By hosting events, the paper has already started connecting and engaging with readers. Illinois currently does not have a state budget, and Williams wants the paper to continue to build trust with its editorial coverage during these uncertain times.
As for change, Williams said when it comes to the industry, the key is to not get comfortable because “the only thing that stays the same is change.”
Williams said due to the state’s budget issues, it has impacted small business owners and they have had to cut back on spending. That has forced Williams to find other revenue opportunities, and as she enters 2016, she is optimistic about finding it in the paper’s mobile audience, where she sees significant growth. She also has seen great success with sponsored content and premium editions.
Not only does Williams want to reward organic innovation, she wants to continue to create compelling content with niche and targeted enterprise reporting—and that means connecting with print and digital audiences on both platforms.
Williams plans to invest in training her editorial and advertising teams. Next year will be focused on defining audience and developing strategies and executing data drive solutions.
“We want to continue to learn to use data to refine our audiences,” she said. “By talking to the millennial age group, we can create a great opportunity. It’s a deeper dive that will transcend traditional media as we gravitate toward innovation with our younger leaders…it’s about cultivating the next generation.”
My wish list for 2016: Grow and engage with our community, and showcase what we believe in.
If you ask Naples (Fla.) Daily News publisher Bill Barker what some of his successes were for 2015, he’ll point to the development of his senior leadership team.
“This was evident in all major revenue categories being up for the second year in a row. These include advertising and marketing services, circulation/consumer, commercial printing and event revenue,” he said. “As a result, overall revenue was up 3.8 percent year over year.”
The Daily News also revealed a new website with a modification to its paywall allowing for increased socialization of content. To extend the paper’s brand, it also launched new events, such as a “25 Over 50” expo and a “One Day University.”
The paper also drove a deeper connection with the local community in several ways, Barker said. Among them: building an investigative team using current staff, producing quality video projects, winning regional and national Edward R. Murrow awards as well as a regional Emmy award, and building a robust editorial page by launching an advisory board.
“Naples has a unique market in the fact that the population doubles in our coverage area from the low of summer to the peak of January through Easter,” Barker said.
As a result, the paper find itself challenged, but aware of seasonality, and Barker and his team routinely has to refine operations and strategy to leverage growth while maintaining customer and client satisfaction.
The paper’s advertising department has also placed more focus on local accounts. “Over the years we’ve worked to decrease our dependability on national advertisers due to consolidation and industry shifts and focus on a consultative selling approach locally,” Barker said. “We have deployed a hybrid approach where we address larger regional and category advertisers with well-trained category and specialty sellers. We go after the balance of the market through a geography team approach. The consultative approach, where we ‘help businesses grow’ rather than push products, really builds upon our credibility and greatly helps us retain accounts. It has even resulted in us becoming the agency of record for a meaningful local real-estate developer.”
Barker said as a result, local business growth has more than offset their losses in national ROP and pre-prints.
Looking ahead, Barker said 2016 will be a “meaningful political year locally,” and the paper plans to leverage its editorial advisory board and host political debates.
“I think 2016 will be a year when we begin to increasingly realize our industry not only has a place but can shape its place in the overall media landscape,” he said.
My wish list for 2016: Driving deeper user engagement and then finding ways to monetize it. Routinely hire, retain and develop the best talent available. Create a culture of disruptive innovation. Continue to realize the results of a developing leadership team and culture that gains value from a working partnership between our news and business sides to grow the business and brand without jeopardizing our journalist integrity and public trust.
Michael Klingensmith, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Last March, more than 600 employees of the Minneapolis Star Tribune moved into a modernized newsroom after nearly 100 years in its former building. E&P reported that the new location in downtown Minneapolis now included a video and photography studio and an L-shaped newsroom, designed for easy communication between editors.
Publisher Michael Klingensmith said one of his biggest challenges last year was relocating their headquarters and newsroom operations without disrupting any business.
“The new space has been a boon for workflow and collaboration,” he said. “It’s also allowed us to start experimenting with hosting events at our headquarters, which so far has been very successful.”
Klingensmith said also in 2015, the paper’s partnership with the Washington Post began to pay off.
“Digitally, we were first among all partners in terms of the number of our subscribers who activated their free subscription to Post content online,” he said. “In print, we were among the first to launch the Washington Post National Weekly supplement. We’re tops in subscribers there, too, and it’s been very good for our bottom line.”
Acquiring City Pages, a well-established Minneapolis alt-weekly, also gave the Star Tribune an additional source of revenue, Klingensmith said, and access to readers and subscribers they might not have been able to reach otherwise.
“We also expanded our commercial printing operations, picking up the St. Paul Pioneer Press and USA Today,” he added.
When asked what key revenue strategies he plans to hit this year, Klingensmith said, “We’ll expand our digital franchise both in digital subscriptions and in marketing services for advertisers. We’ll continue experimenting with paid add-on products for subscribers, with events and with selling merchandise on our website. And we’ll expand StribExpress, our Sunday opt-in product which helps keep our preprint distribution robust.”
As the industry continues to navigate into 2016, Klingensmith said the one thing newspapers have an advantage on over local media is their direct relationship with consumers.
“Our traditional media competitors—radio, TV, outdoor, certain aspects of digital—don’t typically know who their consumers are,” he said. “We’ll continue to find ways to know our consumers better, to deliver more value to them, and to make them more valuable to advertisers.”
My wish list for 2016: The Minnesota Twins winning the American League, and of course, winning championships still sells newspapers.