IPA’s Ray Carlsen Nears Retirement, Still Upbeat on Newspapers

By: Mark Fitzgerald

When Ray Carlsen became executive director in 1986, the Inland Press Association had a lot of history ? it had just turned 101 ? but not a lot of members. Then known as the Inland Daily Press Association, it seemed limited not only by the exclusionary name, but geographically. Only a handful of members published outside the Midwest.

“There were probably 350 to maybe 400 members,” he recalls. “It was definitely geographic in scope. We had the Albany Times Union and a couple more that were outside the Midwest.

“There was never any conscious decision to expand geographically. What we did was provide a focus on good, cost-effective services to help newspapers in their operations. We set participation fees for those services such that it would drive membership. Newspapers came from all over to us, to use our services, and so the expansion occurred because of the leverage of these wanted and needed services.

“Well, we’re now in every state, we’re in Canada and in Bermuda. We hit our peak last year at 1,262 members. We’re now at 1,158. We have all of GateHouse Media’s [papers]. All of E.W. Scripps, and, until January, we had all of Lee Enterprises. Those are the big groups. There are numerous smaller groups.

“We’ve actually been blessed that our design was not to grow members. Our design was to provide services to newspapers. There was no magic, no promotion really, no great sales pitch. It was, here’s the services we provide. If you want them, it’s better to be a member than not.”

As Carlsen prepares to retire after the group’s 124th annual convention in Chicago on Oct. 25-27, Inland is a different place ? and not, as with several other newspaper associations, because it has shrunken in membership or ambition, or disappeared altogether. In an interview with E&P, he reflects on the past and the future of Inland, newspaper associations and the industry.

Q: Inland has always prided itself on relatively cheap training sessions and seminars. But now budgets are squeezed even more. Has that advantage been blunted?
Inland’s course of action has been to find even more cost-effective ways to present, like moving from live training to a substantial number of Webinars. Newspapers are able to exploit that cost structure. They pay $75 to rig up a Webinar in a conference room and bring in 35 or 40 employees. We’re also moving to even less expensive facilities for live meetings.

Q: In the past two decades-plus, Inland has moved beyond the Midwest, but it seems to retain that Midwest nuts-and-bolts sensibility.
It doesn’t mean that we don’t support the journalism of newspapers, the freedom of the press and First Amendment. That’s vital. But we’ve moved well beyond that into operations of news- papers. For example, newspaper circulation directors are often local hires who work their way up into newspaper management. We give them the training on things like single-copy marketing, home-delivery customer service, the legal status of independent directors.

We do more in the area of human resources that had been done by the Newspaper Personnel Relations Association, which no longer exists. Our compensation survey pretty clearly is the industry standard. We have some very useful studies beyond even the cost and revenue study, such as the monthly margin report, and we can do customized derivative studies ? all very confidential ? that help newspapers understand themselves.

Q: Understand themselves?
For instance, when Knight Ridder was in the process of selling some newspapers, we did a substantial custom study comparing their largest newspaper with other papers in size, union status, etc., so they could show that things were not as bad in the overall marketplace as people believed them to be then.

Our financial studies have saved newspapers of all sizes considerable sums of money. One metro daily used our studies to convince an arbitrator in a labor case that the mailroom was overstaffed. That publisher later told me Inland had saved them millions. We think we’ve found a good niche.

Q: Another niche seems to be family-owned newspapers.
We have become sort of a circle-the-wagons point for the family newspaper and family owners. We have an annual conference for that group, and provide special attention for them. Much of our board is drawn from the ranks of family-owned groups and family-owned stand-alone newspapers. And because my background is as an independent family newspaper owner, I think we have a special empathy for that constituency.

I should point out that family owners are a very optimistic group. This is a group that still invests in its news- papers. This group doesn’t have to talk to Wall Street.

Q: You’ve told me you’re bullish on newspapers, but …
I feel newspapers have not been as proactive as I would like to see them be, on addressing the issues of their strengths. Back in my days with Proctor & Gamble, if we had a problem with perceptions we would deal with it aggressively. For instance, when Crisco wasn’t selling well in the South because people were still using lard, we sent home economists out to talk shows to talk about recipes using Crisco.

Newspapers have a strength that I think is really undersold. It is still by far the most effective medium on behalf of the retail merchant. That Friday after Thanksgiving, [shopping traffic] is not built by the Internet, it’s not built by radio advertising. It’s built by newspaper advertising. We need to get the message out more effectively that it still works, and that retailers still depend on it.

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