At Inland Annual Meeting -- Cuts, Content and Quips

By: Mark Fitzgerald Inland Press Association kicked off its 124th annual meeting in Chicago Monday with surprisingly robust attendance, but plenty of discussions, in and out of the meeting rooms, about the industry's preoccupations: monetizing online content and casting about for a new business model that works.

Inland also said goodbye to its longtime executive director, Ray Carlsen -- who got off the best quip of several quotable quotes from convention speakers.


An expert, so the old joke goes, is someone from 100 miles away. Inland has any number of them at its convention in the Renaissance State Street hotel, but the perplexing industry crisis had these experts if not humbled, then speaking with plenty of disclaimers.

"INMA doesn't know what's going to happen next, Rupert Murdoch doesn't know what's going to happen next," Earl Wilkinson, CEO and executive director of the International Newsmedia Marketing Association, said as he wrapped up the opening presentation.

"My favorite three words these days are, I don't know," Providence (R.I.) Journal Executive Editor Tom Heslin said when asked about the best way to charge for online content.

"Anybody who says they know where things are going - steer away from them," former Playboy Enterprises Chairman and CEO Christie Hefner warned in here talk on the dangers and opportunities of the new media era.


Nevertheless, the advice and observations did flow freely at Inland.

Hefner declared that the lower staffing levels are a permanent part of the news and entertainment media landscape. One of the first things she discovered when taking over at the publishing company of the iconic Playboy was that the magazine's foreign editions were published with much lower headcounts and expenses -- and yet matched the quality of the U.S. flagship. She noted that the current total size of America's daily newsrooms, after the draconian cuts of the past two years, now is just about the same as when she graduated college in the mid-1970s.

And while INMA's Wilkinson did not pretend to know the future, he did say he believes the newspaper industry is in for another 12 months of pain and "danger" -- followed by "12 month of opportunity to change what you have to change." Just as he said in an E&P article on the industry after the Great Recession, Wilkinson recommended more investment in marketing the product and becoming "a signal in the noise" of exploding media access.


Isn't the secret to The Wall Street Journal's success in monetizing its online content the very nature of that financial content and its natural business-oriented audience? Nope, said Bill Grueskin, the former managing editor of who is now dean of academic affairs at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.

"Instead of the conventional way of trying to get more and more readers and sell that audience, we were very focused on the engagement of the readers that we already had," Grueskin said. "It's unfortunate that the metrics that most people use are page views and visitors. We looked at page views per visitor and time on the site for visitors."

Getting 300,000 new visitors from aggregators like The Drudge Report or Google News might pump up audience, but those visitors are fleeting. By providing content that engages its smaller audience, the Journal has been able to sell online subscriptions with a churn of just 15% to 20%, he said.

And online ends up getting more readers into the Wall Street Journal "tent," Grueskin added: "It helps us reach the person who says, 'The Wall Street Journal is for senior executives and I'm a 28-year-old in Silicon Valley.'"

Keys to getting people engaged are news alerts, tools such as stock and mutual fund trackers, and knowing what to charge for and what to keep free. (Hint: in an cyberspace of Know-It-Alls, don't ever charge for opinion.)


Catherine Scott, who has been Inland operations director and chief of staff for the past eight years, became executive director at this year's annual meeting -- but not before the association gave a rousing and emotional send-off to the retiring executive director, Ray Carlsen.

Carlsen, who took the CEO role in Inland in 1986, was awarded Inland's Distinguished Service Award by Shaw Newspapers Chairman Tom Shaw, who told Carlsen he would be the last recipient of the award. "Because the board has renamed the award the Ray Carlsen Distinguished Service Award," Shaw said.

After a long standing ovation from the luncheon crowd, Carlsen recalled his start in newspaper publishing as the buyer of a small group of Ohio weeklies so run down that he was the only one to show up when they were auctioned. The seller even lent him and his wife Blaze some money to upgrade the obsolete typesetter. "Blaze and I spent about 10 years saving newspapers," Carlsen said.

Inland's growth exploded during Carlsen's tenure, expanding well beyond its Midwestern roots, and becoming, in his words Monday, "the gathering point for the family and independent owners" of newspapers.


Ray Carlsen said he would stay in touch with those he's got to know in the newspaper industry, and echoing Gen. Douglas MacArthur's famous farewell said, "Old publishers don't die -- they just have trouble with their circulation."

This story has been corrected. An earlier version had the wrong surname for new Inland Executive Director Catherine Scott.


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