In the early days of the internet, a few early adopters were starting careers in the news industry and seeing opportunities in digital that their bosses did not fully understand. Today, digital pioneers have become the bosses.
The field was at a crossroads in the 90s. Print journalism was nearing the end of an era of money pouring into the industry, but that end was not yet visible. News leaders saw the internet as a chance to add even more revenue to an already profitable industry, said Conan Gallaty, the Tampa Bay Times CEO.
Those ahead of the digital movement saw their careers take shape in ways they never expected.
Conan Gallaty, CEO of the Tampa Bay Times
Soon after Conan Gallaty landed his first job as online editor for The Victoria Advocate in Texas in 1998, he checked out a book from the public library on HTML. It was the mid-90s, and newspapers were economically strong.
“A lot of publications were putting up websites for the first time, really without much of a strategy. A lot of those attempts were the wild west of ‘Let's try a few things and see what sticks,’” he said.
He said the digital side of news in the early days of the internet was “more like an R&D shop than a business unit.” But it was an era of brainstorming, and newspapers had the finances to support new ideas even if they failed. He said that the print industry was so strong that news leaders saw the internet as a way to grow their revenue even more.
The online editor position was new then, but it was becoming a familiar role in newsrooms. Most newsrooms had a small team dedicated to the digital side of the business.
News leaders saw the potential to grow advertisers and subscribers, and they had “excess money,” Gallaty said. News leaders invested much of their excess money into digital.
However, some news leaders saw digital as a distraction.
“They didn’t want to take their eye off the ball of the cash cow that was really creating money at the time,” he said.
The industry peaked in the mid-2000s, he said, and news leaders began merging the print and digital sides of their businesses.
“We really thought that the advertising would catch up to the audience. We thought there was a big appetite for digital, and there was, but we thought that the advertising would follow,” Gallaty said.
He said millions of people read the Tampa Bay Times online, far beyond the reach of their print product today or in the past. But the advertising dollars generated through digital advertising are a fraction of what is made through print advertising, with Google and Facebook soaking up much of the profits.
“It’s such a challenge to learn how to make local journalism sustainable,” he said.
There were a few lessons that news leaders learned during the internet’s early days, he said. The first was that the digital product required the same care and quality as the print product. The second was still being learned — how best to monetize digital publications.
“The audience is there, but the revenue is not. You had a change of very lucrative advertising in print in exchange for pennies on the dollar in digital,” Gallaty said. “It felt like you were jumping into this very large pool, but the opportunity was very shallow. Within that broad pool, there are some deeper pockets where the industry can thrive.”
He said he is grateful for starting his career at a time of innovation and experimentation because he became accustomed to the idea of change.
“Can we do things better? How can we pivot? Those were lessons early in my career that are very beneficial to me now,” he said.
Gallaty earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism and publication management from the University of Georgia, combining economics and business classes with journalism classes.
“It was a great program because it helped me understand the tenets of journalism, but also that it is a business that has to be run well and to pivot and change as it needs to,” he said.
After The Advocate, he became the online director for The Augusta Chronicle in Georgia in 1999. He continued working in digital positions for several publications until joining the Tampa Bay Times as its chief digital officer in 2018.
Gallaty was named CEO in January after becoming president in 2020. There have been some major changes at the paper since then. They cut their print publication days to Wednesday and Sunday only. Instead of printing “yesterday’s news,” the print product is a “lean-back, deep-dive read.”
He said printing “news that happened yesterday” is not sustainable.
“What's left, then, are those readers who read those publications for the journalism, and typically journalism you can’t get anywhere else,” he said. “It’s the lean-back model of print. Give me something I can dive into deep. We don’t need to be social media printed out. We need to be pieces that people can really enjoy diving into.”
Gallaty said that change happened over time as they began gearing their work in print toward readers who cared “first and foremost for the journalism inside that publication” over coupons, listings and quick briefs. The newspaper prides itself on narrative work that gives readers history, context and perspectives.
“I’d say that we’re a writers’ newspaper. We pride ourselves in creating long-form narrative, investigative work,” he said.
At the same time, they are touting the benefits of their digital product to their subscribers. “It’s never late and never wet,” Gallaty said. Readers can see election results soon after they are announced. And they can make the newspaper font as big as they want.
He said they are seeing more digital readers who dislike the infinite scroll on many news websites. Those readers want to feed a news habit where they spend a few minutes a day reading the news instead of getting their news in “snack sections.”
He said he believes print journalism will survive, but news leaders need to find their niche and focus on what makes them successful.
“There still is a long runway for print, I believe,” he said. “But it has to do what it does with excellence instead of being a little bit of everything for everyone,” he said.
Lisa DeSisto, CEO and publisher of Masthead Maine
Lisa DeSisto applied for a job at The Boston Globe in 1995 as the newspaper launched its digital branch, Boston Globe Electronic Publishing.
She was hired as the marketing manager and started two days after the website launched. A key part of her role involved educating advertisers and consumers about the internet.
“Everyone was really intrigued by it. It was brand new. No one knew about it, and, of course, you’re having crazy years of growth in front of you as more and more people visit The Globe’s website. Advertisers were really curious how to take advantage of this new medium, so it was ridiculously fun,” she said.
She said her experience was in marketing, specifically in audience growth and engagement, so digital was a natural fit for her.
Today, she is the CEO and publisher of Masthead Maine, a network of news outlets in the state. Her role involves overseeing the companies that publish five newspapers and their websites: the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Morning Sentinel, the Kennebec Journal, the Sun Journal and The Times Record. They also publish 17 weeklies and run a commercial printing operation. She joined MaineToday Media in 2012.
DeSisto said she entered the industry at a time of massive growth.
“It definitely helped me advance because everything was exploding. As fast as you could learn it, you could do more,” she said.
About 10 years after The Boston Globe launched the electronic publishing company, it was clear that the digital and print sides of the business should be together — one strategy, one building, one collaborative team.
The New York Times, which owned The Boston Globe at the time, emphasized executive development and training. She said she still uses the skills she learned in their training and has connections with others in the industry she met 25 years ago.
“One of the things I love about our industry is how much people collaborate,” she said. “People are always willing to pick up the phone and have a conversation about how things are going and share their ideas.”
DeSisto said that collaboration has been essential as news leaders navigate the digital world, and collaboration is the biggest piece of advice she would give to other news leaders.
“Continue to collaborate with others in the industry. The best thing we did to advance our digital growth was participating in the Google News Initiative Digital Subscriptions Lab in 2019. They really helped us build a playbook to acquire more digital subscribers by reorientating us even further into the modern metrics of e-commerce and digital marketing," she said. "There's plenty of information, best practices and case studies out in the industry. Make it a priority to engage with others and learn from them.”
DeSisto said journalists and news leaders had mixed opinions about the internet and its impact on the industry in the early days of the internet.
“I think people were excited about it, but they also recognized the threat it posed to their core business. I think there was both, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s so much potential,’ but there’s so much to lose as well,” she said.
Today, the challenges continue and finding the proper balance between growing digital audience and supporting loyal print readers is a big one, she said. In March 2020, she said they decided to launch digital-only Mondays at the Portland Press Herald, MaineToday’s largest newspaper. She said readers value the print product, but cutting the cost of printing the Monday paper provided the savings the newspaper needed at the time without making cuts in the newsroom.
DeSisto said she has been surprised by how much readers love the ePaper (replica) experience. She said they appreciate that it has a structure and hierarchy based on news value and a starting and ending point. Getting print readers to adapt and connect their subscriptions to get all the benefits of our digital offerings has been a constant focus.
“Subscription revenue is the biggest piece of what we do right now, and we are demonstrating to readers the value in a digital subscription, so I feel like all these years later, we’re finally getting that print/digital balance correct.”
DeSisto continued, “I valued my time at the Globe and specifically working for great mentors and innovators, including Martin Nisenholtz and Lincoln Millstein. I am still driven by fine-tuning the business model that funds the critical work our newsroom produces across all platforms in service to our readers.”
Grant Moise, CEO of DallasNews Corporation
Grant Moise started his career in 1998 selling advertising time for CBS Sports in Denver. The TV station built a website, but its digital advertising generated so little revenue that they told him not to spend time on it.
“It was just the beginning of websites, so that was kind of interesting,” he said. “I literally saw the infancy of our CBS TV station creating its own website and trying to create an advertising model for that website, and it was a rounding error back then. There wasn’t enough revenue generated from that even to matter.”
The moneymaker was ad spots for NFL games, he said.
“We were getting such big audiences for Denver Broncos football games that they didn’t even want me trying to sell [digital] advertising. They didn’t even want me spending time on it,” he said. “Think about how ironic that is now, with people watching the games on their phones.”
He went to graduate school and started with The Dallas Morning News in 2004. He planned to go from The Dallas Morning News to television and work in digital through the parent company’s MBA rotation program. But when the program ended, he stayed in print. He sold print and digital advertising and later worked in the digital side of the business, including in digital product development and digital subscriptions. The role later developed into mergers and acquisitions.
In May, Moise was named CEO of DallasNews Corporation, the parent company of The Dallas Morning News. He became president and publisher of The Dallas Morning News in 2018 to lead the publication’s digital strategies.
Medium Giant, the company’s marketing agency, has clients in more than 30 states.
“This business has grown in ways I would never have imagined,” he said.
He said that the digital side of the industry removes geographic boundaries for advertisers and gives information to drive storytelling on the journalism side.
“What we’ve really found is we’ve just got access to so much information about what the digital reader wants. It helps us make better decisions, not just in the beats we cover, but it also impacts story length,” he said.
A perfect example of that is sports. While the Dallas Cowboys is one of the world’s biggest sports teams, giving The Dallas Morning News a large audience, the newspaper has more digital subscription opportunities from high school and college sports.
“They can get information everywhere on the Cowboys, but not on high school sports or the SMU Mustangs,” he said.
On the advertising side, he said the data shows clients what they receive for the money they are paying.
“I’d say the common theme between them is the data,” he said. “We’re following the data,” he said.
Robert Granfeldt, general manager of the Midland Reporter-Telegram and Texas Panhandle properties for Hearst Communications
Robert Granfeldt found his calling when he decided to take some time off and move out of the country.
His family owned a hotel and restaurant in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), and he decided to make a website. When he moved back to Lubbock, Texas, he was hired as the new media director for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in 1996.
“I flourished. I absolutely loved it,” Granfeldt said.
His first job at the newspaper was in 1984, before he moved to the BVI, working in the circulation department.
“We didn’t even have voicemail or cellphones or fax machines,” he said.
He planned to stay in the newspaper industry but expected to remain in circulation. After nearly 10 years at the Avalanche-Journal, he moved to The Florida Times-Union in 1993 and then to the BVI in 1994.
Back in Texas, the parent company of the Avalanche-Journal took notice of the newspaper’s high performance on content, and he was hired as the vice president of revenue development for Morris Communications in Augusta, Georgia. He held several other positions focused on digital revenue before he was named the general manager of the Midland Reporter-Telegram and Texas Panhandle properties for Hearst Communications in June 2020.
He said he does not think his success would have been possible without his early experience in digital revenue with his first website. Before the website, guests in the states had to book reservations by calling an international 800 number, which was one of the hotel’s biggest expenses.
Granfeldt found a way for guests to book their stays for free. Google was not around then, but they began booking reservations through aol.com. He found guests through travel chat forums and booked tens of thousands of dollars in travel reservations. When he saw people talking about Caribbean travel, he offered to help them. He said the business had almost no competition in the digital space.
“It showed me, ‘Wow, this interesting thing is not like a CB radio. It’s here to stay,’” he said.
The Avalanche-Journal website started around the time he returned to Texas, and they quickly learned how to sell online advertising through sponsorship packages, including one sponsor that paid $2,000 per month.
“Back then, everything was so newspaper centric. They weren’t as sure about this digital thing. Once we started bringing in money, they said, ‘Wait, I think we have something here.’”
He said there was some hesitation because newspaper leaders wondered why someone would pay for the print product if they could read it for free online, which he called a “circle of life” development.
“There was definitely some hesitation, but as the revenue started rolling in, a lot of publishers came around and said, ‘I better get on this train or it’s going to leave without me,’” he said. “One of the toughest things that digital had to deal with is that newspapers were slow to change, and, quite frankly, I respect that 100%.”
He said the newspaper leaders moved from skeptics to adopters. He learned about the newspaper side of the business from them, and they learned about digital revenue from him.
“I think it was a natural progression for me to start running newspapers,” he said.
Granfeldt said that newspapers will survive by driving revenue to the content that matters to their readers.
“I think the key is understanding what our readers want and then delivering it to them in volume. Reporters have to do what they do, but we have to clearly track which stories are being read and engaged with,” he said.
He said that watchdog journalism is critical, and newspapers must find a way to monetize it.
“I think that our future is determined by watchdog, enterprise work.”
Granfeldt said analytics are vital to showing where to focus resources.
“I really think that our future is bright,” he said. “We just have to be smart and measure everything.”
Alyssa Choiniere is an Editor & Publisher contributor. She is a journalist based in southwestern Pennsylvania covering a variety of topics including industry news and criminal justice.
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