10 That Do It Right: E&P’s Annual Salute to Innovators

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Our annual “10 That Do It Right” feature, now in its eighth year, has never been about the 10 best newspapers. It focuses instead on how some are performing in one particular aspect ? from marketing to online video ? that merits consideration and maybe even emulation by their peers.

And, boy, do newspapers get that idea. This year for the first time we actively solicited nominations from papers themselves, and were delighted to find not the rambling “we do everything right” boasts we kind of expected, but thoughtfully prepared case studies of successes or noble experiments from the newsroom to the accountant’s office to the carrier’s vehicle.

This is, of course, not a good year for bragging. Every newspaper that can point to this or that breakthrough has also suffered the indignities of the industry slump ? the shrinking newsrooms, Draconian expense cuts, nosediving classified revenue, and so forth. Some variation of the comment “It’s a great achievement in this economic climate” was appended to nearly every entry.

And while profit has always been as much the point of newspapers as journalism ? think of the motto founder Hosea C. Paddock gave the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago more than 120 years ago: “To fear God, tell the truth and make money” ? it’s clearer than ever that growing revenue is what papers need to get right, even if they’re not quite doing it right at the moment.

The final list of “10 That Do It Right” includes picks from papers who nominated themselves and others that emerged from E&P staff suggestions. They reflect the wide variety of areas on which individual newspapers are focused. And they range in size from the nation’s biggest, USA Today, to relative squirts like The Daily Times in Ottawa, Ill.

But first, here’s a review of some of the newspapers that nominated themselves as one of “10 That Do It Right.”

The nominations, please
Some three dozen papers were nominated, mostly by publishers or top editors but sometimes by employees with jobs that don’t get anywhere near the masthead.

An interesting for-instance came from Saul Friedman, who nominated Newsday and himself for “Act 2,” the weekly section on retirement and elderly issues that carries his column “Gray Matters.” Friedman wrote, “While other newspapers ignore or provide tokenism on issues facing the older population, Newsday and my column get down to the nitty-gritty of the so-called golden years.”

Bill Church, executive editor at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore., asserted that the paper had found “its niche by developing innovative multimedia approaches for Public Service Projects.” Its two Best of Gannett winners probed the local angle on Japanese internment during World War II and environmental concerns in Oregon posed by “invasive species.”

There were recurrent themes, as follows.

Niche products
Don’t interrupt newspapers to try to tell them print is dying ? they’re too busy spinning out more print products. The Sun in Baltimore made the argument that “b,” its new and well-received youth-oriented daily tab, deserves a nod.

The Arizona Republic pointed to the 20 separate newspapers it publishes for Phoenix neighborhoods and suburbs anywhere from two to five times a week. Delivery to selected non-subscribers and rack distribution has pushed readership among non-subscribers as high as 20% in the Ahwatukee district, says John Leach, managing editor/news and digital media.

And special sections haven’t fallen out of favor at many papers. The Bangor (Maine) Daily News now publishes an astonishing 90 special sections a year.

Pursuit of ad revenue
Some of the papers nominating themselves have previously been on the “10 That Do It Right” list. Two of them, The Bakersfield Californian and the Northwest Herald in far suburban Chicago, share another trait ? a focus on raising ad revenue in fresh ways.

The Californian is investing in research and database marketing to pump up its share of local advertising dollars. The Northwest Herald represented another theme within this theme ? an emphasis on nuts-and-bolts selling. Like many papers, the Northwest Herald has tweaked its sales compensation to encourage risk-taking and reward it, especially in bringing in online revenue.

Craigslist was a frequent bugaboo. One way The Denver Post, a “10” in 2006, and its Denver Newspaper Agency partner, the Rocky Mountain News, are protecting their garage-sale classified dominance is with first-class customer service and a bells-and-whistles Web presence for the many garage-sale junkies.

For sheer doggedness, we admired the detailed nomination from Dave Mulvehill ? an account executive in the major/national categories of The Record in Stockton, Calif. The rate card of the newly rechristened San Joaquin Media Group includes an impressive number of products and rates, from the core product to a bilingual newspaper and glossy vertical ad books. This list, Mulvehill writes, offers a great start in “assuring we are going to be here for hundreds more years,” as they now “have many more products to develop and create as the information leader in our market.”

Circulation growth
Newspapers boasting that what they are doing right is growing circulation constituted a far smaller crowd among the nominations. Still, there were some impressive achievements.

The Bulletin in Bend, Ore., for instance, has increased circulation at least 5% a year for the last three years. It’s up 20% weekdays and 19% Sundays since 2003. The reason, says Circulation Manager Pamela Coleman Denniston, is top-notch service with a complaint-per-thousand (CPT) under 1.0 and retention averaging about 75%.

The Dothan (Ala.) Eagle’s circulation increase in the March Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) reporting period qualified it as the fourth-fastest growing daily in the United States (a step up from being fifth-fastest in the September 2007 period). At the same time, the Eagle grew its Web traffic 43% in 2007 ? the best among its Media General Inc. community newspaper peers ? and it expects to be up another 25% to 30% this year, says Publisher Jim Whittum.

By all rights, this shouldn’t be a good year for circulation at The Daily Citizen in Dalton, Ga., a town whose lifeblood is carpet manufacturing ? a hard sell in a housing slump. Yet the paper grew its daily circulation 6.3% and Sunday circ 2.2% in the most recent ABC report. It also publishes a weekly 10,000-free distribution Spanish-language paper and five free niche magazines.

More papers, of course, had stories like The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif. Its circulation fell for any number of reasons. The paper is in the very eye of the California housing collapse, and the newly spun-off owner A.H. Belo Corp. has committed to quickly ridding its papers of unprofitable and unwanted circulation.

But its “10” nomination noted that it had increased its overall print readership 5.5% to 825,000 during this period of slipping circulation. It was precisely the decision to cut distant and third-party circ that led to that boost, the paper argues: “The newspaper has created a more engaged readership, and in turn, this reader base is highly responsive for advertisers.”

Then there’s The Dispatch of Moline, Ill., in the Quad Cities, which instituted a successful “DeliveringQC” retention program starting with coupons and gift certificates from local merchants.

Community outreach
Editors and publishers these days are acutely aware of the danger to their papers’ credibility ? and financial performance ? of being regarded as the strangers in town. Several papers lauded their community forums, and efforts to open up their newsrooms.

One of the papers best known for opening its workings to the public is the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. Editor Steve Smith laments in his nomination that its Transparent Newsroom Initiative has “gained little traction” among his U.S. peers. “But we’re huge in Europe,” adds Smith, who’s lectured on the paper’s practices in Sweden, Norway, and the Ukraine.

And now, the first three of the 10 Terrific. Check back here at E&P Online Tuesday for more.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, once employee-owned and now part of a publicly traded corporation, is not immune from industry woes ? including staff losses in the newsroom. Late last year, 55 people exited the paper in a buyout program that included about two dozen journalists.

Yet the 218,000-circulation daily employs what is perhaps the largest team of investigative reporters for a paper its size. “When I was offered this job, they told me they were building a 10-person team, which sounded amazing in this climate,” says Mark Katches, who as assistant managing editor/projects and investigations, heads up the newspaper’s Watchdog Team.

When Katches took the job in November 2006, the first person he recruited to the team from the newsroom was Dave Umhoefer ? who went on to win the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for a series on how county employees were padding their pensions. “In these times, with the buyouts and people leaving, it just lifted the whole newsroom three feet off the ground,” says VP/ Managing Editor George Stanley.

It was the most visible payoff of the strategy adopted by Stanley and Senior VP/ Editor Marty Kaiser to extend beyond the paper’s well- regarded explanatory journalism projects (the Journal Sentinel was a finalist for those kinds of stories in 2003 and again in 2006) into more aggressive investigative reporting. “Even though we have had to face the same sort of staff reductions everyone has to face, we thought, what’s going to keep us going is the news and information they can’t get anywhere else,” Stanley says, “And we’re the only people really in the state of Wisconsin that can give readers the good, in-depth investigative journalism that really gets to the bottom of things.”

Kaiser got to know Katches, then the investigations editor for The Orange County Register, when they were judges for the Selden Ring journalism award. Attrition was shrinking the Register’s investigative team just as the Journal Sentinel was planning to bulk up its own. But Katches did not create an elite team off by itself in the newsroom. Instead, the reporters maintain beats to stay tapped into sources, and they work constantly with reporters outside the group. And they don’t lavish all their attention on projects with a capital “P,” for journalistic and career survival reasons.

“A lot of watchdog teams focus on a six-month project ? but if you just do that type of story, you run a serious risk of swinging and missing,” says Katches. “And if you swing and miss too often, when buyouts and layoffs are coming, people will look at that bloated watchdog team and say, ‘Man, they swing and miss a lot.'”

So the team also tackles quick-hit investigative pieces. They blog. They write and post on consumer protection issues on Citizen Watchdog. They create databases ? including a state salary search that is consistently among the most visited on JSOnline.com. The Watchdog team, though, works knowing that management has their back, Katches says: “It takes a lot of courage at the top, I think, to maintain a team of this size at a time when everybody’s hurting.”

Carlsbad (N.M.) Current-Argus
For all the advanced newsgathering, editing, printing, and packaging technology newspapers have implemented over the years, the actual task of getting the paper into readers’ hands usually comes down to finding a guy with a valid driver’s license and a car that’s a half-step in class above a beater.

For most newspapers, finding that guy is a year-round job, because the unglamorous work of delivering inky papers before dawn for low pay is notorious for its turnover rate. With gas now heading north of $4 a gallon just about everywhere, finding reliable carriers has become even harder.

When Michael Tombs arrived as the new circulation director of the Carlsbad (N.M.) Current-Argus in August 2007, he found a familiar carrier situation. District managers were delivering seven of the 39 routes because carriers had quit, and another seven or eight routes were contracted to carriers who were regularly late with deliveries ? when they showed up for work at all. Carrier turnover was as high as 20% a month, and complaints-per-thousand at the 7,000-circ daily averaged a way-above-industry- standard 4.59.

Little Carlsbad, isolated in the corner of the state, has virtually no unemployment even now, thanks to a low-level nuclear waste facility and a boom in potash mining and oil drilling. “Any idiot on the street could come in with a driver’s license and an insurance card and get a route,” Tombs says, “and it seemed that the whole town knew we were desperate and would take anybody.”

Tombs set out to change the carrier force entirely, with a strategy that sounds as if it couldn’t possibly work: recruit carriers who don’t need the job.

As Tombs and other circulation managers went about their daily life in Carlsbad, they mentioned the carrier jobs to people with real jobs like bank tellers, receptionists, clergymen, and school principals ? working people who could use the extra $500 to $700 a month they could pull in with a route.

“We didn’t just wait to have the classified ad answered by a bunch of unemployed or unemployable people trying to feed a household on what they make in this route,” Tombs says. Instead, the paper vets carrier candidates carefully, checking their credit history and even conducting interviews in their homes to see how they live. “These are people who tend to be driven by a specific financial goal rather than just needing the cash,” he says. “They’re just a better quality of worker who do what they say they’re going to do.”

The paper also eliminated the task of collecting, so the carriers know they won’t have to spend Saturdays chasing late payers. Now, the Current-Argus carrier force includes a chiropractor, a bank loan officer, a teacher, and a correctional officer.

And the paper is blunt with rejected candidates, Tombs adds: “We told them exactly why we wouldn’t contract with them, as if to say, ‘Go spread the word to the losers out there that Current-Argus paper routes aren’t for you anymore.'”

With the new carriers, complaints-per-thousand averaged 1.29 from March through May. Perhaps more remarkably, turnover has essentially disappeared ? even though, as fuel costs soar, the paper is offering most carriers no gas subsidy at all. “I’ve been in the business since 1995, and this is the lowest-paid group of carriers I’ve ever worked with,” Tombs says. “But the routes make enough to help good people meet their financial needs, which is all you really need.”

Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch
In their fervor to go local, local, local, and do it now, now, now, some metro dailies have confused longtime readers by suddenly banishing from the front page stories about Iraq or the presidential campaign, and replacing them with spreads about a controversy among parents at an elementary school or the heartwarming story of a stranger’s kidney donation to a sick child.

But the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch has its own definition of local ? and it can include the national and international news that the Internet has supposedly made nothing but a commodity.

“We define local news as topics that people are talking about,” says Times-Dispatch President and Publisher Thomas A. Silvestri. “So presidential politics can become local issues. Affordable housing is a classic case of a national issue becoming local. And we have so many troops from our state going to Iraq or Afghanistan, it becomes a local issue.”

That explains why, when the Times- Dispatch holds one of its “Public Square” community discussions, the topics can be immigration, the state of the James River, or the city of Richmond’s proposal to win back a departed minor-league baseball team with a new ballpark located off the Interstate ? as well as “celebrities gone wild.” The newspaper has held 19 of these Public Square discussions since deciding in 2005 to position the paper as a community leader.

In addition, the paper’s editors and reporters have hosted eight News Roundtables to hear criticism, observations, and recommendations about its coverage. That’s on top of the monthly Listening Tour, when Silvestri and other top executives and editors visit one of its 20 core communities to get to better know newsmakers and readers.

The payoff for the paper ? in addition to the launching of a couple of niche products that were first suggested by Listening Tour audiences ? has been increased goodwill, a better reputation, and more credibility among the community.

“You’d think, our being newspapers, that people would know we’re involved in the community,” says Silvestri, but the paper has learned there’s no substitute for showing up. People have thanked him for holding Public Squares they didn’t even attend in appreciation, Silvestri believes, of the paper listening to what ordinary people have to say.

“I’ve been amazed and so heartened by how the community has embraced this,” he says. “Some of the most poignant observations are made by people who are self- acknowledged non-public speakers ? but they have something to say.

“Newsmakers make headlines,” he adds, “but the people in the community, they’ve got to have their voices heard, too.”

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