Bold and Innovative  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2013

Bold and Innovative   

If newspapers are to survive, they must abandon the defensive crouch and take a proactive approach. Mon., February 11, 2013.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


The quote jumped right out of the excellent new study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"If there's any business in the world that is built around the excuse that 'it's always been done this way,' it is the newspaper," said Mark Palmer, publisher of the Columbia Daily Herald in Tennessee.

There's no doubt that in recent years the newspaper business has faced a punishing challenge that would be difficult for anyone to cope with. The digital revolution has completely upended the world of news. Readers have gravitated to computers and mobile devices. Display advertising has declined sharply. Classified ads have been eviscerated. Digital dollars have been hard to come by.

The disruption has been enormous.

But a culture tied to the past and wary of innovation has only compounded the damage. Too often the response has been simply to cut, cut, cut. The result: a much weaker product trying to stay alive in a brutally competitive environment.

The new Pew study focuses on four newspapers that have been audacious enough to experiment, to try something new, in some cases very new. And while none is declaring victory, each seems to be finding at least a modicum of business success.

The approaches at the papers vary sharply. But the report concludes that there is definitely a common theme: "[T]he leaders at these papers are risk takers who concluded that the biggest risk was not rethinking their business models."

The report, written by PEJ Associate Director Mark Jurkowitz and Acting Director Amy Mitchell, said that the publishers it featured agreed "that there is still too much innate caution and ambivalence in an industry that must take significant risks to build a sustainable revenue model."

It quoted Dave Neill, publisher of the Naples Daily News in Florida, as saying, "We need to be fearless, and we need to operate in that mode. And we don't." Neill also told Pew: "It seems many in our industry choose to spend much time, energy, and discussion trying to better manage business decline."

The study spotlighted these papers:

  • The Santa Rosa Press Democrat in California, which created a media lab to provide a wide array of digital marketing services for local businesses. In its first year, the lab brought in a quarter of the paper's digital revenue, and executives expect it to garner much more this year. One of the keys to its success, the report found, was setting up the agency as an independent entity. While it enjoys the advantage of flying the paper's flag, says Digital Director Greg Retsinas, it's essential that the lab "have a start-up feel to it and not be swallowed by the older Press Democrat brand."
  • The Naples Daily News, which completely revamped the approach of its advertising sales force. Instead of selling ads in a specific geographic area, sales people now specialize in particular types of business. In addition, the staff was decentralized. The heads of each of the sales units have far more autonomy than in the past. Revenue increased in 2011 and 2012 (it was up in each quarter if the latter).
  • The Columbia Daily Herald, which has launched an array of new products in an effort to replace $300,000 in annual ad revenue that it lost when advertisers went out of business. It started up a monthly health magazine and a monthly men's lifestyle magazine, and hopes to debut a real estate product this year. The 13,000-circulation paper also stepped up its digital efforts, initiating a metered paywall; an agency that sells online marketing services to area businesspeople; a coupon service; and a ticket sales business.
  • The Deseret News in Salt Lake City, which has embarked on a radical redefinition of the news company. Under the leadership of former Harvard business professor Clark Gilbert, the News separated its print and digital operations; merged the digital arms of the paper and the company's television station into a single unit; dramatically altered what the newspaper covers; and launched a national edition on Sunday. Rather than try to cover everything, the paper, owned by the Mormon Church, now focuses on just six topics. Digital revenue has been growing by about 40 percent a year, and circulation has jumped by a third during the week and by 90 percent on Sunday.

When I met with Gilbert several weeks ago, I was impressed by his passion for his ambitious undertaking. While he sees digital as the future, he thinks newspapers can hang in there if they are run properly. He stresses that with far less revenue to play with, it doesn't make sense for newspapers to try to do everything they did in the past. If they do, they will be mediocre at everything, in his view. Rather, he says, they should focus on what they do best. The News is concentrating on the family, faith and values, education, values in the media, financial responsibility and care for the poor.

Gilbert stresses that these are the right issues for his market, not necessarily for somebody else's. In fact, none of the strategies outlined in the Pew report should be looked at as a blueprint for survival. Solutions, if they are to be found, will vary from paper to paper, place to place. But what is valuable is the reminder that there is an alternative to managing in a defensive crouch. If newspapers are to survive in the digital age, they'll need a bold, innovative, proactive approach.

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