By: Nu Yang
Over the years, E&P has honored many publications—big and small—in our annual 10 Newspapers That Do It Right list. As always, the series is not meant to be the 10 best papers, but instead, shine a spotlight on 10 that have performed above and beyond their duties. Whether it’s launching a successful advertising campaign or printing a hard-hitting investigative series, the papers that have appeared on our list have proved they have the right stuff.
Next spring we’ll put out another call for newspapers that are doing things right. In my experience, I’m always amazed at the creative and innovative entries that come our way, and I look forward to reading those stories again. To gear up for next year, we decided to contact a couple papers that have appeared on our list. We caught up with them as they updated us on the initiatives that first grabbed E&P’s attention and hear how they continue to do things right.
Although it was impossible to feature every paper that has appeared on our list, we would still like to hear from you. Email me at email@example.com and tell us how you’re doing.
Dallas Morning News (2013)
The Dallas Morning News was featured on our 2013 list for being “a pitch-perfect example of what a diversified media company can accomplish.” These examples included the creation of its digital marketing agency, 508 Digital; the formation of CrowdSource, an event marketing company; and the launch of Speakeasy, a social marketing agency.
Publisher and chief executive officer Jim Moroney said the theme was to “diversify sources of revenue beyond digital advertising and subscriptions.” Although the two could be good growth areas, Moroney said they wouldn’t be enough to recover from the decline of print.
A few lessons have been learned from these new businesses. Moroney said with 508 Digital, they were still able to sell efficiently with their existing sales staff, which helped lower costs. Crowdsource helped the paper “flex its marketing muscles.” Plans to expand into other cities are also in the works. Speakeasy taught them finding a good partner was key when they paired off with local advertising agency Slingshot, LLC to create the company. Now entering its second year, Moroney said Speakeasy broke even for the first time at the end of 2013.
“Speakeasy proved you can build a base with your existing customers, but also provide channels that can attract new clients,” he said.
Moroney said he is focused on “organic growth,” businesses the paper can start and build up. This strategy was evident in the past year as parent company, A.H. Belo Corp., sold off the Providence (R.I.) Journal and Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise. This game plan, Moroney said, was a chance to “restart revenue growth” and focus on putting cash back into the local economy.
The paper also erected a paywall and a premium site, but after seeing a small uptake from readers, both were dismantled. “I’m a big believer of papers that keep experimenting and who are ready to fail fast,” Moroney said. “Newspapers will keep working their business model out and I’m confident it will happen.”
Moving forward, Moroney said the paper is working on a complete redesign on its digital experiences on smartphones, tablets and desktops. He expects it to be complete by the end of next year.
The Early Bird (2014)
Although The Early Bird appeared on our list just a couple of months ago, president and publisher Keith Foutz had plenty of updates to share. The small weekly in Greenville, Ohio was honored for its “continuous effort to increase and highlight hyper-local news” and for adding editorial content, coverage and pages.
In late April, the paper’s new website at earlybirdpaper.com made its debut. “We’re on track to hit 1.8 million visitors,” Foutz said. “For a county that only has a population of 21,000, that’s huge.” Website advertising continues to climb. Foutz said it currently makes up 8 percent of the monthly revenue and he expects the number to rise to 15 percent by the end of the fiscal year in May 2015. The paper was also granted the right to compete for legal notices, giving the publication another possible revenue stream. Foutz said the paper will also expand its local sports coverage and hire at least two part-time sport writers.
The publisher also shared future plans that he hopes to accomplish in the next 12 to 36 months. “We’re looking at expanding our distribution footprint into other cities and towns. We’re also looking at increasing our distribution frequency to two or three times a week.” The paper currently publishes on Sunday only.
One big project includes bringing in a printing press. Currently, the paper outsources its printing, but Foutz sees revenue opportunities with commercial printing. He also sees it as a job creator.
When Foutz and his brother, Fred, purchased The Early Bird in 2012, Keith said they had to build it from ground zero. “There were no monthly budgets, no financial reports, it didn’t have any structure…now there’s more structure and we’re not just selling for this week’s edition, we’re selling for (next month) and beyond…in just two years we went from losing money to making money.”
Managing editor Ryan Berry, who has been with the paper 21 years, saw the drastic change when the brothers took over. “We went from 12 to 14 pages to 30 pages every week…when you compare our number of advertisers from two years ago, there’s a lot more of them.” Berry said the paper is also experimenting with digital media, adding in real-time courtroom coverage and live breaking news reports.
The secret to Foutz’s success? “I never bought in to ‘papers are dying.’ They’re evolving.”
Red Eye (2006)
Chicago’s Red Eye appeared on our list in 2006 and was recognized for attracting young readers. When Red Eye launched in 2002, many critics were skeptical of its longevity, stating that young adults ages 18 to 34 wouldn’t read a printed product. Fast forward 12 years later and Red Eye has expanded from a free weekly publication young commuters would pick up on the way to work to a lifestyle brand that encompasses print and digital.
Chicago Tribune managing editor and vice president Jane Hirt served as Red Eye editor from 2002 to 2008. When the Tribune saw the changes in readership in 2002, it decided to launch a product targeted specifically at millennials (or “Gen-Y” as it was called back then, Hirt said). In 2002 and even in 2006 when Red Eye appeared on our list, Hirt said Red Eye was probably considered “disruptive” for publishers.
Although Hirt had already left Red Eye by the time Twitter’s popularity rose, she watched Red Eye react and shift its target to reach that audience.
“(Red Eye) realized it wasn’t the only news source, but it still had a place,” she said. “It’s still intensively focused on Chicago.”
General manager Amy Guth doesn’t consider Red Eye as just a paper, but more of a brand as it expands into event marketing. Red Eye events include film screenings, a Battle of the Bands, a Best Bartender contest and a Battle of the Burger that featured 15 local restaurants. A recent sailing event attracted 50 participants.
“It’s a fun time for everyone,” Guth said. “It also gives us time to talk with our readers and for them to connect with the journalists.”
Red Eye has also ventured into video. It recently produced a five-part documentary series that followed an up-and-coming local rapper. Guth wants to continue to explore video, not just in production, but also with advertising.
Many readers have grown with Red Eye. Guth said neighborhoods that read Red Eye when it first launched are now filled with families and baby strollers. Hirt said there will always be a supply of new readers as young people move into the city.
“When we launched, critics said young readers don’t read, but Red Eye has proven that they will,” she said. “They read more than we expected. It just has to be in different ways.”
The Register Citizen (2011)
In 2011, we recognized The Register Citizen’s Newsroom Café for tearing down the walls between the newsroom in Torrington, Conn. and its public. According to former Citizen publisher Matt DeRienzo, when the café launched in 2010, its purpose was to open doors to create trust and transparency with readers.
DeRienzo, who now serves as Connecticut group editor for parent company Digital First Media, said that sort of engagement has helped the paper improve its journalism. For example, a story about two local high school football players who had been arrested and accused of statutory rape made national news last year. Earlier this year, the Citizen also covered Torrington’s epidemic of heroin overdoses.
“We did some of our best journalism,” DeRienzo said. “It’s a testament of our open process, our open doors and our ability to connect with the community.”
One of the biggest challenges for DeRienzo is the fact that big journalism does not always match revenue. “There’s disconnect there,” he said.
As Digital First Media announces planned layoffs and cutbacks, “The size of staff support for these kind of programs may downsize, and that’s unfortunate,” DeRienzo said. “I still would like to see a similar project on a bigger scale at one of our larger papers.”
The Richmond Times-Dispatch (2008)
When I spoke with publisher Tom Silvestri, he mentioned the original E&P article from 2008 was hanging on his office wall. Recognized for its Public Square community discussions six years ago, the paper had just hosted its 19th event. This year, the paper surpassed its 50th Public Square. “You called at the right time,” Silvestri said.
Started in 2005, the paper celebrated its 50th Public Square in February with a daylong public conversation focused on same sex marriage, mental health, plans to a build a local baseball stadium, restaurants and discussion on future topics.
Public Squares are hosted six times a year (three in the spring and three in the fall) and are primarily hosted in the newspaper’s downtown headquarters. The forums are free and open to the public. According to commentary editor and Public Square co-chair Bob Rayner, attendance ranges from 50 to 200 audience members. In addition to the public, state legislators and other government officials have also attended.
Silvestri said initially, Public Squares were started to open their doors to the public, but it has now found ways to “stage conversation that goes beyond letters to the editor.”
Rayner said, “It gets people to come to our building and demystifies our organization. It puts them in a comfortable environment and has brought us closer to our community. (Public Square) is now a brand that allows everyone to speak civilly and treat each other with some respect.”
Despite the rise of social media and the chatter it creates, Silvestri said there is still a need for this kind of platform, where people have to show-up and have conversations in person. Rayner agreed, saying, “People are still attracted to talking about issues while having to look someone in the eye.”
The Star Tribune (2000, 2009, 2011)
The Star Tribune is no stranger to transformation since first appearing on our list 14 years ago. This year alone, the newspaper announced a new owner (billionaire Glen Taylor) and plans to move its headquarters to downtown Minneapolis in 2015.
In 2009, E&P recognized the paper for its Ballot Challenge project, centered on the recount of a Minnesota U.S. Senate vote. At StarTribune.com, users could inspect all 6,600 ballots and “highlight the many illegally frivolous challenges.” Vice president of marketing and public relations Steve Yaeger said as a result, the paper made several back-end improvements and significantly ramped up promotion of MyVote, a website that provides interactive data and ballots specific to that voter based on his/her address and zip code. Yaeger said its goal is to provide voters a set of tools so they can have a better voting experience.
“It allows them to see their ballot in advance and get familiar with it,” Yaeger said. “All the information is up front and simple to digest.”
Two years later, the Star Tribune’s online hub sites dedicated to high school sports made the list. Launched in 2010, the hubs focused on four different sports and have now grown to 19 sites and five mobile apps. The hubs have also created new revenue streams with sponsorships and promotions.
In addition to the upcoming move, Yaeger said the paper is also excited about “a complete re-platforming of (the) website” that will launch in April 2015. Digital subscription numbers have also delivered good results since the paper’s metered paywall launched in 2011.
But the paper hasn’t lost sight of its core product. “We will continue to invest in journalism in new ways,” Yaeger said. “But our commitment is to print seven days a week.”
The Times-Georgian (2012)
In 2012, the Times-Georgian was recognized for increasing its 2011 revenue 16 percent from its previous year. The reason? The paper had scrapped its per-column-model of advertising rates and developed a new system based on modular package sales. Instead of selling a one-size-fit-all package, former publisher Leonard Woolsey said each four-week package was crafted for each advertiser with a popular price point in mind. Since developing this system, the program has been adopted by all of parent company’s Paxton Media Group’s U.S. titles and has been replicated at newspapers across the country.
Woolsey, who now serves as publisher of The Galveston County Daily News in Texas, said by changing the program it allowed the advertising system to “go back to its roots, where SMBs controlled accounts.”
“Instead of relying on national advertisers, local advertisers could make an impact,” he said. When Woolsey moved to Texas earlier this year, he implemented the program in just a few weeks and says it’s also working there.
Times-Georgian publisher Marvin Enderle reported that even though advertising is trending with a 3 percent decrease, it might have been a larger figure if the program had not been in place. Moving forward, Enderle plans to tweak the package so advertisers can lock-in to quarterly and annual packages. “The longer they lock-in, the better the rates,” he said. Enderle also wants to explore regional advertising packages.
At the end of March, the paper dropped its Saturday edition, shifting their publishing schedule from six days to five. With this change, Enderle knew he had to “be flexible with advertisers” and offer them “more appealing packages.”
This year, the paper also introduced a hard paywall, which is bundled in with a print subscription. Although there was some backlash, Enderle saw more of a circulation decline when the paper dropped Saturday, but it has since flattened out. Long-term, Enderle thinks the bundle will pay off and attract more subscribers.
The Wichita Eagle (2006)
When Wichita Eagle’s WichiTalk appeared on our list in 2006, we highlighted the process that went into bringing the tabloid to life. “It was a 70-hour lock-in, almost,” editor Sherry Chisenhall said at the time. Chisenhall said staff members from different departments collaborated on the project that created lifestyle features targeted at working moms.
Today, WichiTalk is no longer a tabloid. It still publishes four times a week: Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, but was replaced on Tuesdays by Healthy Living. “WichiTalk always had a day of health-themed content, but we wanted to expand that health-news section and give it its own brand,” Chisenhall said.
When advertising decreased in the section around 2008, so did the space. Chisenhall said the paper decided to make WichiTalk a standalone, single-sheet features page. Originally, WichiTalk was 10 tab pages; today, it fills two broadsheet pages.
From a business standpoint, Chisenhall said there were lingering effects from the project. “It used to take six to eight months to launch a new section. That kind of pace can’t succeed in today’s environment. We need to move faster.” For example, the paper recently put together a cookbook that only took about six weeks to write and produce.
That speed is also a reflection of the audience as more readers migrate to mobile.
Over the last two years, Chisenhall said the paper has completely changed its workflow to become digital-first.
“We’re going to keep refining our process so our newsroom will be ahead of the curve,” she said. This includes a new CMS system and putting more focus on video.
A new business section mentioned in 2006 also launched that year. Called Business Today, Chisenhall said the paper expanded the brand beyond its original Thursday publication date into a daily section except for Monday. “It’s been a very successful section, as much, if not more, than WichiTalk.”
We asked: How would you define a newspaper that’s doing it right?
Jane Hirt: People who have the courage to create disruptive innovations, who can take a risk and push the whole industry forward.
Leonard Woolsey: One who asks, “Is there a better way to do this?” If so, act on it.
Keith Foutz: Papers that believe and invest in the people, product and community; who don’t just use words, but demonstrate their actions; those who communicate internally and seek input from staff; who make sure to fit the round pegs in round holes, meaning look at your staff’s strengths and match them with a position they can grow in.
Sherry Chisenhall: Those who filter out the noise and work on their own ideas.
Marvin Enderle: The ones who are using digital and social media to help bring readers to print.
Jim Moroney: Papers that are experimenting to find new and diverse sources of revenue.