Romaner rides high as Web jockey

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By: Carl Sullivan

Some 2,000 miles from Califor- nia’s Silicon Valley sits unassuming Augusta, Ga., best known as the site of the Masters Golf Tournament. But this quiet city on the verdant banks of the Savannah River is also home to high-tech innovation ? at, of all places, a family-owned mid-sized newspaper publisher.

Morris Communications owns 26 dailies plus other media assets, but the chain has become increasingly known for its Morris Digital Works (MDW) division, a frequent award winner and a vendor of software and online services to other publishers since 2000 (accounting for about 10% of MDW’s revenues). Heading a team of 70 in Augusta is MDW President Michael Romaner, who launched the group in 1995. Another 100-plus Morris employees work in the online space, but report directly to their local publisher ? with dotted-line responsibility to Romaner.

Across all its divisions, Morris’ efforts in Internet publishing first became profitable in 2002. The privately held company won’t say how profitable, but Romaner cites 30-40% revenue growth for many of the past years, with profit growth in the hundreds of percent. Morris Communications President Will Morris adds, “I wish everything else in my company was growing that fast.”

This growth is due, in part, to Morris’ two-tier Internet business plan first drafted by Romaner in 1995. Part 1: centralized infrastructure, Web hosting, software development, training and deal-making headquartered in Augusta. Part 2: decentralized Web site design and development, local sales and marketing.

“I felt strongly that the ultimate success for Morris was going to hinge on every single solitary person in our company learning the Internet,” Romaner says. “The only way for that to occur was for the local publisher to own a significant part of the responsibilities including design, sales, marketing, content… If we were doing it all here centrally things might have moved faster, it might have been less expensive and the quality of some of the efforts might have been higher, but it would have defeated our goal of making us an Internet company.”

By now, Romaner should have a good grasp on what’s right for Morris. The Stony Brook, N.Y., native joined the company in 1982 as a reporter at The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville while pursuing his master’s in journalism. About a decade later, Romaner attended a one-day Internet workshop which featured newspaper futurist Roger Fidler. Romaner went back to his paper and said, “I just found the future.”

When the World Wide Web came along in 1993, Romaner and some pals started a Web development business in Jacksonville ? perhaps the first in the state of Florida ? while still working at the newspaper. In 1995, Romaner met Will Morris’ father, Billy Morris, currently chairman and CEO of the company, and before long, found himself in Augusta, heading up the company’s fledgling Internet group. The company’s flagship, The Augusta Chronicle, was the first Morris paper to hit the Web.

In the nine years since, Romaner has quietly built an Internet brain trust in Augusta. MDW Business Development Vice President Connie Ling describes the group’s culture as a place where “spotted purple fuzzy ducks who don’t swim” can fit in. “Turnover is almost unheard of,” she says. “Michael focuses on career growth, opportunity and employee development.”

Rob Curley, one of the few who did leave MDW, has nothing but praise for his former boss. “To say that he was my mentor would be a gross understatement,” says Curley, who now works for the Journal-World in Lawrence, Kan.

The devotion of employees no doubt helps the company produce its impressive online products, especially when you consider the chain’s size. “They have been far-sighted,” says David Carlson, the Cox/Palm Beach Post professor of new media journalism at the University of Florida. “For relatively small and not well-known news- papers, they have fabulous Web sites.” In terms of Internet investments, Morris is probably somewhere in the middle of media companies in terms of spending. “We’ve been pretty successful in generating revenue,” Romaner says. “I often worry that we generated a profit too early as a company. We might have been better off not thinking about profit and putting everything into [research & development]. On the other hand, we have a business discipline.”

In his strategic plan for next year, Romaner hopes to create a full-time R&D unit. “Our future in newspapering is tied to what we do in electronic publishing,” he says. “I want to make sure we at Morris are pushing the envelope by trying new things and developing solutions.”

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