CHATTANOOGA FREE PRESS president Frank McDonald has some trepidation about taking the reins of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association at its convention next week in Colorado Springs.
After all, recent SNPA leaders include such big fish as Cox Enterprises president David Easterly, Multimedia Newspapers president Bern Mebane and Houston Chronicle publisher Gene McDavid.
"Sometimes I wonder if they haven't gotten me mixed up with somebody else; I'm just a country newspaper publisher," says McDonald, whose afternoon paper has a circulation of about 42,000. "I guess I'll just have to work awfully hard to make sure they made the right choice."
Not that the Tennessee newspaperman plans to tinker much with Atlanta-based SNPA, which represents 420 dailies in 14 states.
"When you have a group that serves its membership as well as SNPA, it doesn't need a lot of fixin'," he explained.
McDonald heads up the association as newspapers are prospering, despite skyrocketing newsprint prices and ever-increasing competition from media of all sorts.
The nation's biggest publicly traded newspaper companies saw greatly improved returns for the second quarter and first half of this year compared with 1994. Southern companies such as Multimedia Inc. of Greenville, S.C., and Dallas Morning News parent A.H. Belo Corp. were among those to have watched their earnings rise.
And U.S. newspapers this year posted their best first-half advertising revenues ? amounting to $16.7 billion ? since 1988, according to the Newspaper Association of America.
But all this good news doesn't mean SNPA members are going to break out the party hats and horns.
The publishers, although they'll be mixing and mingling on the golf course and at cocktail parties, also will commiserate with each other about their many ills.
The annual convention "allows publishers to meet with each other to discuss the mutual problems we have," McDonald said.
"We talk about circulation, advertising, editorial matters. We're all neighbors and we share many of the same problems ? and we do an unusually good job of handling them."
At the top of this year's agenda will be the runaway paper costs that have plagued the industry.
The newsprint crisis "has caused us to reinvent the way we publish a newspaper," noted McDonald ? and it's been a challenge, he added, conserving paper while maintaining customer service.
"We've had to edit tighter, examining the content to make sure it justified the space, and we've had to cut back some features," he said. "And, because of the good advertising climate, we've needed even more newsprint in some cases."
McDonald believes the hunkering down has, in some ways, improved newspapers.
"We've done some things that maybe we should have done before to make a more readable product," he explained. "With all the talk out there about penetration, it may be that what we're most concerned about is competition for readers' time."
Meeting at the plush, 700-room Broadmoor resort at the foot of Pike's Peak, conventioneers will consider newsroom topics during such panel discussions as "Oklahoma City: Reporting on a Disaster" and "O.J. on Trial: What About the First Amendment?"
They'll also discuss where they're headed in cyberspace.
During one session, they'll get an update on the New Century Network, a consortium of newspaper companies working to create standards for publishers wanting to establish online services, by NCN chief executive and Cox Newspapers vice president Peter Winter.
SNPA has joined the array of groups and publications that have set up home pages on the World Wide Web. Members this year were able to register for the Colorado convention via the Internet.
"We're beginning to experiment with online," McDonald said. "SNPA wants to stay on top of just how people are using electronic publishing."
Despite the hoopla surrounding the information superhighway, the new SNPA president is among a growing contingent voicing skepticism about newspapers' future in cyberspace.
"I can't say anybody's making any money at it, but perhaps it will be part of the great service newspapers will provide," McDonald said.
"Somebody has to pay the rent, and I think if any of these newspapers that have gone into it in a rather elaborate fashion, if they can't justify the expense, then they're going to have to quit it," he continued. "If that time comes, [online products] will die a natural ? and deserved ? death. But I don't think we're anywhere near ready to plan the funeral."
Since entering his family's newspaper business in the 1960s, McDonald has been involved in what he calls "the competitive fight."
The Free Press, formerly known as the Chattanooga News-Free Press, started a joint operating agreement with the Chattanooga Times after World War II.
In 1967, the relationship dissolved, and the dailies remained tough competitors until 1980 when they established another JOA, an arrangement that exists today.
"We were in a classic donnybrook," recalled McDonald, who started in the sales and production departments and worked his way to the executive suite. "It's been a colorful history."
The battle of the Chattanooga dailies may have cooled, but the Free Press, like every other newspaper, still is being hit with arrows from all directions ? outdoor advertising, radio and television, shoppers and, most significantly, direct mail.
McDonald says his company ? in "fine American competitive tradition" ? has kept pace with its adversaries by adapting. The paper, for example, now offers its own alternate delivery service.
"I never dreamt I'd be delivering magazines," he related. "Then, suddenly one day, we're delivering 25 titles. That's what competition does. It keeps us pretty sharp."
McDonald is upbeat about newspapering in the new millennium, even as the business faces new challenges.
"The largest single identifiable audience is newspaper readers, and newspapers are absolutely the best way to get information into the hands of consumers," he said. "We're still the dominant medium. Television is big, but television can't do what newspapers do.
"Newspapers are enduring and they have a great future," he went on. "The business changes, but we can't stop that. We can change with it, though, and I think newspapers are going to do very well."
?("Newspapers are enduring and they have a great future," he went on. "The business changes, but we can't stop that. We can change with it, though, and I think newspapers are going to do very well.") [Caption]
?(Frank McDonald, president of the Chattanooga Free PRess and incoming president of SNPA) [Photo & Caption]
By: Tony Case Chattanooga Free Press president Frank McDonald takes the reins sp.