How newspapers can still grow in hard times
It takes imagination, innovation and embracing risks
February 15, 2013
There has lots of gloom and doom talk about the newspaper industry in recent years, with steep drops in advertising and falling circulation. But for some papers those trends have provided a spark to innovate. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism recently examined four newspapers that have defied the trend of declining circulation and revenue. The four newspapers profiled (The Deseret News, The Columbia (Tenn.) Daily Herald, The Santa Rosa (Calif.) Press Democrat and The (Fla.) Naples Daily News) have used different strategies to grow their circulation and advertising. The common theme has been trying new approaches, whether reorganizing the editorial focus, as in Deseret, or reaching out to teach small advertisers about digital, as in Columbia. Clark Gilbert, president and CEO at The Deseret News, and Mark Palmer, publisher at The Columbia Daily Herald, talk to Media Life about how their papers bucked downward trends, where they found inspiration for their innovations, and what the hurdles have been.
What were the biggest challenges in revamping the newsroom structure?
Gilbert: Sometimes letting go is harder than starting something new.
Initially our teams wanted to try to do everything with less resources. Over the last two years, our best journalists have begun to see how having an editorial focus allows them to go deep and do the type of award-winning journalism they love to do in the first place.
Why is your transformation unique to Salt Lake City and to your ownership?
Gilbert: Certainly I don’t expect people to have the same editorial focus as the Deseret News. The concept is universal — decide what you can be the best in the world at, invest in those areas, and lower your cost in more commodity news.
We want to be known for faith and family like The Washington Post is known for politics.
We see smart publishers doing this on topics that resonate with their own audiences. For example, Chuck Peters in Cedar Rapids is doing this on healthcare and education, the Sarasota Herald Tribune did this by focusing on seniors and insurance, and won a Pulitzer for it.
On the business model side, there is nothing we are doing that some other newspaper group isn’t doing somewhere else.
For example, our channel innovation is similar to some of the work happening at McClatchy. Our digital agency is modeled off of some of the innovative work happening at Morris and Gannett. Our travel and bookings business was inspired by the Las Vegas Sun and their investment in vegas.com. Our content innovation model reflects lessons from legacy magazine groups like the Atlantic.com and Forbes.com.
Of course we benchmark web-only competitors as well. The point is that the principles are robust even while the specific setting is different across our organization as well as others.
How much would you estimate you have extended the readership of the paper over the past few years?
Gilbert: We group print readership dramatically with the launch of our national edition, which initially grew by 80 percent.
Still we grew circulation again this year by over 15 percent, which made us the second-fastest-growing paper in the U.S. Our digital reach is also growing rapidly, both directly to Deseretnews.com and through our syndication efforts.
Why have you been so quick to embrace alternative forms of revenue? Why do you think other papers have held back?
Palmer: Newspapers don’t have a choice but to change and embrace any technology that might help in our current productivity but will also help in bringing in new revenue streams. The tough part is coming up with a business plan that facilitates the change and doesn’t draw resources from the primary revenue-producing area, namely the newspaper.
What is the key to growing revenue at a time when print is suffering?
Palmer: Think of the customer first. What will help them ring the cash register? Attempt to only introduce products that theoretically help the customer the most. Then attempt to have a sales force who understands what we are trying to do and are themselves sold on the products being offered digitally.
And finally, don’t be afraid to group products in digital and print into one buy.
How do you connect with smaller advertisers that perhaps are not as familiar with digital advertising?
Palmer: Totally an education process. This takes multiple sales calls and in most cases, four-legged calls using their existing sales rep teamed with a digital sales rep. Their existing print rep is someone the customer trusts, and the digital sales rep provides knowledge of the new digital products.
How have online contests become a revenue producer for you?
Palmer: Most papers found out long ago that when the newspapers come up with ways to interact with the customer, both on the advertising side and on the reader’s side, the better we can keep a customer.
The contests we produce are fantastic ways to have that customer interaction. The advertisers are getting name recognition in sponsoring the contests and we are making a little extra revenue. Win-win with a little fun thrown in as a bonus for the readers and the newspaper.
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