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.
On Monday, we saluted three of the top 10 newspapers — the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Carlsbad (N.M.) Current-Argus, and the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch. Here are honorees No. 4 through 10:
America’s many business travelers ? an ever-changing horde that fills planes, hotel lobbies, and convention centers and then moves on as new arrivals take their place ? constitute a virtual big city in the sky and ground. And USA Today is their local paper. So when The Nation’s Newspaper decided to experiment with social media, it started with the crowd it knows best: travelers.
USA Today’s social media sites ? “Cruise Log,” hosted by Gene Sloan, and “Today in the Sky,” with Ben Mutzabaugh hosting what the paper calls the nation’s “flight community” ? began as blogs, but with the redesign of usatoday.com last year became true social media sites, with interactivity among hosts and readers.
“I’ve started to promote a slogan internally that describes what I think we’ve achieved with Today in the Sky and Gene’s Cruise Log: ‘Author, Organize, Connect,'” says Kinsey Wilson, executive editor for USA Today and its home on the Web.
Everyone can be an author and distribute content easily, but USA Today adds the judgment and guidance that traditional journalists have always provided, Wilson says. The site connects people and collects insights and directions for content that the journalist might not have thought of. “It’s been interesting to see how strongly the audience identifies with the individual bloggers,” Wilson says. “The human voice, the individual touch that we’re able to bring even to other people’s news stories is critically important.”
At 25 years old the most successful newspaper startup in American history, USA Today has numerous claims to “Doing It Right” status, including circulation growth when nearly every other metro daily is shrinking. And it can now claim growth in social media as well.
“When we converted Cruise Log from simple blog to a cruise community, there was an immediate seven-fold increase in traffic,” Wilson says, “with half of that coming from search engines, meaning we’re getting new people.”
Las Vegas Review-Journal
Yahoo and maybe even Wal-Mart’s new free-classifieds experiment might turn out to be the savior of newspapers’ increasingly enfeebled help-wanted advertising, turbo-charging their reach and aggregating so many eyeballs as to make papers indispensable again.
It’s just that a lot of New Media experts don’t think so. As young as the Web is, the business model of getting richer by gathering an ever-bigger audience is already dying of old age, say industry mavens like Ken Doctor and Alan Mutter. Instead, they argue the future is job-specific, narrowly targeted recruitment sites ? a future that’s already arrived at the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
In designing its many job sites, the R-J didn’t listen to advice from other newspapers, but attended conferences for people who actually do the hiring ? HR executives. “What they are telling us is, they don’t want these massive job sites,” says Chelle Bize, the paper’s recruitment advertising manager.
Bize and Recruitment Supervisor Shane Kelly scoured the paper’s 45 career classifications, and picked the 20 they believed could capture the most ad share in a crowded market with competition from Craigslist. Using database technology from Adicio, they created standalone sites for specific careers, such as LVCasinoJobs.com and LVEntertainmentJobs. com. “They look totally different from main [R-J jobs] site,” Bize says. “And we wanted them to reflect the colors and designs in the industry. So there is no pink in the construction site.”
The sites, launched last October, almost immediately exceeded revenue projections by about 40%, earning about $40,000 a month. They paid for themselves in the first month, Bize adds.
But the virtual freefall in Las Vegas’ housing and construction economy since the beginning of the year has hampered faster growth. “We’re No. 1 in foreclosures, and that’s affected the construction and casino categories,” Bize says, noting that construction alone is down 50% in ad count. “It’s been a tough six months” that would be tougher, she adds, without the career-specific sites.
The Huntsville (Ala.) Times
Newspaper Webcasts are not exactly cutting edge these days, and it’s inarguably true that dozens of papers do video a heck of a lot better than Jon Busdeker and Chris Welch, two arts and entertainment writers with The Huntsville (Ala.) Times weekly tab “Go: Your Good Times Magazine.” Among the other examples, the hilarious political parodies created by The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle’s opinion writers are more likely to flourish on YouTube, for example, and The Miami Herald’s “What The Five” bantering couple are far more camera-ready.
Yet there’s something so disarmingly charming about the clips the Alabama pair posts every Wednesday in advance of the Thursday section that they had us at the first drawled “hello.” (It’s something of a shock to learn the 25-year-old Busdeker grew up in the Detroit suburbs.)
Busdeker and Welch perform parodies of Blue Man Group performances, wield mops as swords to preview movies, and exchange white-trash talking with actors from “The American Trailer Park Musical.” They’re occasionally aided and abetted by “Go Gals” Lacy Pruitt, Nickie Allison, and Christie Vail, three employees of the paper’s ad department whose authentic accents put an interesting Alabama twist on their preview of the Manhattan-centric movie Sex and the City.
But the goofy videos also reflect a certain marketing acumen in the writers. They refer back constantly to the print tabloid and its benefits such as free movie passes and concert tickets. “It’s geared for people more my age,” says Busdeker. “And it’s another way to boost the paper side.”
The Times videos also reflect the spirit of experimentation the Internet demands. “The Newhouse people are pushing us toward the Internet … and incorporating video. So me and Chris just said, ‘OK, let’s start doing stuff on camera.'” They moved from shooting at a studio, which resulted in segments that Busdeker describes as “kind of like ‘Wayne’s World,'” to taking their act out into the community.
Not that the quality got dramatically better, he admits: “I know the videos won’t be up for any Oscars, but we’re OK with that. We keep the production values low and the comedy high.”
Portsmouth (N.H.) Herald
It’s safe to say that Portsmouth (N.H.) Herald Publisher John Tabor is a big Newspaper Next fan. When its trainers came to the paper, he says, “We closed the whole shop for a day, and trained as many employees as we could.” Of the 128 full-time employees, more than 100 showed up for the N2 sessions.
The Daily Beachcomber, a free tabloid that launched last year for the Hampton Seacoast beach season, isn’t the only product to emerge from N2’s brainstorming training ? but it was a notable success right out of the blocks. The Tuesday-through-Saturday paper turned a 28% profit margin (exclusive of about $7,000 in launch marketing expenses) in its first year. Now Herald parent Seacoast Media is targeting $128,000 in revenues for its summer papers, and by the end of May had signed contracts worth $78,000.
The Beachcomber also gets them back into a region it had neglected as it clustered its dailies. “It’s paid great competitive dividends for us,” says Tabor, putting it in a better position against the established weekly Beach News because “dailies trump weeklies.” The paper has also given the Herald circulation department an opportunity to learn the very different logistics of distributing younger-skewing free tabs ? and the marketing department experience with buzz promotion, including roller-skating hawkers.
Hampton’s beaches are a big market between the end of the school year and Labor Day. As many as 120,000 show up on a good beach day, and the Beachcomber acts as “a GPS (global positioning system) to get you where you want to go on the beach,” Tabor adds. It’s edited by Patrick Cronin, a writer, Tabor says, “who loves beach life, and beach culture from the sand castle-making contests to the club scene.”
Every image in the Beachcomber is in color, and odds are very high that the photo is of a local beachgoer ? and pretty good that he or she is showing off a tattoo. “It’s got a chirpy little attitude,” Tabor adds.
As a student at St. Ignatius College Prep in the 1970s, every day Dan Haley saw the decline in the surrounding Chicago neighborhoods as crime blighted public housing projects in the West Loop, and abandoned manufacturing plants left the South Loop simply empty. “When I was a young man going to Ignatius, it was an odd, fascinating, and somewhat dangerous place,” he recalls.
But as the publisher of a handful of successful weeklies in the city’s suburbs in 1999, Haley began to see the stirrings of a comeback in the neighborhoods. A community was taking root there ? and Haley wanted to publish the newspaper that would give the nascent neighborhood its identity. “We think of ourselves when we’re doing it well as playing the role, we think, a good local paper has always played in creating the community,” he says.
The result is the Chicago Journal, a feisty tabloid that provides sharp writing and reporting on neighborhoods overflowing with all the issues that accompany urban pioneers: questions of gentrification, appropriate development, competition for city services, and schools flooded with children of a changing demographic group.
“It’s a mix of hard news reporting, a little boosterism, some editorial leadership, some calling people out,” Haley says. “We’re not apart from the community, we don’t hold ourselves apart or above [it].”
Young adults are filling the condos, boutiques, and restaurants that fill the once-empty lots, so the Journal takes a young tone without resembling an alt-weekly. “Our sense from the beginning was that it was going to be hard to nail this sense of community in a compelling way,” Haley says. The solution was to hire a few good writers who focused on the street-level manifestation of the big urban forces at work. “So we’re going to write about the alderman, but not the City Council,” he adds. “We’ll write about Jones Prep (public school), but not the Chicago Public School system.”
Eight years after its launch, the Chicago Journal is as ubiquitous in the neighborhood as True Religion jeans. A slowed but still active real estate market fills the tab with ads, but industry forces have had one visible effect on the paper: it’s no longer printed on eye-catching salmon newsprint. “Everybody had their own name for the color,” Haley says. “We called it peach. It was a cost issue, solely.”
The Times, Ottawa, Ill.
Starting a newspaper subscriber loyalty program is a no-brainer. Unfortunately, that’s often as much brain power as many papers invest in creating and operating the program. Loyalty programs are ubiquitous among newspapers, and they are also nearly universally ignored by subscribers ? many of whom don’t even realize their paper is offering any benefit for being a good customer.
But when John A. Newby was circulation director at The Dispatch in Moline, one of the Quad Cities on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, he came away from a Newspaper Next session with a brainstorm for a retention program that not only rewards loyal subscribers, but also attracts many advertisers who would not otherwise advertise in the paper.
Launched in the winter of 2007, DeliveringQC offers easily understood loyalty rewards: coupons from local merchants available only to subscribers. It also, through a feature called Value Vault, lets non-subscribers in on the action by allowing anyone to buy gift certificates from those local businesses at a deep discount. The newspapers pocket the payments from users.
What’s in it for the merchants? A chance to advertise and get business without laying out any cash because they pay for the program with gift certificates, and they’re not out anything until a customer walks in the store ? a customer as likely as not to spend more than the face value of their certificate.
Now Newby is publisher of another Small Newspaper Group daily, The Times, a 15,000-circulation evening daily in Ottawa, Ill., and he’s pumping up revenue with a philosophy of finding money outside of print ? and even online.
“Print is great, and we have to have it,” he says. “But online is a very crowded playground with everyone trying to figure it out. That’s why we’ve gone to plasma TVs and tabletops ? there’s no competition there.”
Rather grandly titled “Total Mind Absorption,” or TMA, the program encourages smaller businesses to advertise on the Web, and a bit in print, too, with a package of ad opportunities. These include tabletops with advertising built right into them that are placed in sports bars or mall food carts, and plasma TVs strategically placed in restaurants or bars and framed with advertising from the Times Web site. And like DeliveringQC, it allows subscribers exclusive access to coupons.
The package is then sold for the same price as advertising solely on the Web site. When Newby arrived at the Times, its site was selling about 30% of its inventory. That figure jumped to 80% by Memorial Day 2008, and he expected to be sold out by the end of June.
TMA, which the Times has sold to six other papers and expects to land a major chain soon, has proven a cushion against big hits in auto and help-wanted classified revenue, says Newby. Ad revenue in recent months has been up 3% to 10% above 2007. “We did $120,000 in June online, which is good for a paper our size, and a lot of it is bundling.
“We always say when someone figures out online, we’ll copy them,” he adds. “In the meantime, we’ve got this playground to ourselves.”
Santa Barbara (Calif.) Independent
Virtually since launching the Santa Barbara Independent in 1986 from the merger of a political newsweekly and an arts-and-entertainment listings publication, Editor in Chief Marianne Partridge and Publisher Randy Campbell have told anyone who asked that the paper was not really an alternative. Sure, it was a free weekly and a member of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, but it aspired to be the No. 1 source not only of leisure time listings, but of in-depth news in the picturesque Southern California resort town.
If that once might have been “delusional,” as Partridge laughingly puts it now, the purchase of the local daily Santa Barbara News-Press by mercurial billionaire Wendy McCaw gave the Independent a real chance to realize that ambition.
In the summer of 2006, after nearly six years of increasingly fractious relations with her own newsroom, News-Press owner McCaw not only handed the Independent the kind of juicy media story rare in small markets ? she also drove some of the paper’s best journalists to the Independent. The exodus started July 6 when News-Press Editor Jerry Roberts, protesting what he said was McCaw’s meddling with the newsroom, left the paper along with four other top editors and Barney Brantingham, the daily’s beloved columnist of 46 years. Over the next year, about 70 journalists would follow them out the door.
Brantingham and popular sportswriter John Zant were just the first of the journalistic gifts McCaw bestowed on the Independent. “We got a lot of their solid, longtime reporters,” says Partridge.
“Here’s the deal, I think: When you talk about the paper of record, you really are assuming that’s the paper that has the institutional memory,” she adds. “The fact is, it’s our paper that has all the institutional memory.”
As it happened, the Independent was just then ramping up its Web site (which this year won an EPpy Award in May for Best Weekly Newspaper-Affiliated Web Site). The rest of the newspaper industry came to see the paper as an indispensable source of information as the News-Press newsroom seemed to be imploding. “It was a brilliant moment,” Partridge says now. “It couldn’t have been more advantageous to us.”
Since the summer of 2006, between a union subscription boycott, some residents’ hard feelings towards McCaw, and the unavoidable headwinds of the newspaper economy, the News-Press has slipped in daily circulation to 35,000, while the Independent’s audited pickup every Thursday is 40,000. So which one is now the “alternative”?