What’s Everybody Else Doing?

Meanwhile, the five-year UNC research project ended in April 2014 with the publication of a report.[18] The project had expanded to include more than a dozen newspapers—dailies and non-dailies—in eight states from California to Vermont and Florida. They ranged from a 7,000-circulation weekly in West Virginia to a 90,000-circulation daily in Utah and a 150,000-circulation Spanish-language weekly in Chicago.

On May 8, 2014, publishers of four of the UNC study publications spoke to 150 publishers, editors and advertising directors gathered for an annual, day-long North Carolina Press Association newspaper workshop. The moderator asked each panelist: “What do you know now that you wish you had known five years ago?” High, elected president of the state press association a year earlier, represented the smallest paper on the panel. He listened intently as the other veteran publishers spoke.

The longtime publisher and editor of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, a 55,000-circulation daily in affluent Sonoma County, northern California, was first to respond. “In 2009,” he said, “I thought we could make a series of incremental steps that would move us from print to digital. What I didn’t realize is that, at some point, there is a leap across the chasm.”[19] The Press Democrat had made that “leap” by creating an in-house digital ad agency to serve a range of marketing needs for area businesses, including web development and search engine optimization. This served as an impetus for the Press Democrat to completely revamp its own rate card, sales training program and incentive structure.  By the end of 2013, almost a third of advertising revenue at the California paper came from digital.

The general manager of the Rutland Herald, a 12,000-circulation daily in Vermont, focused on the cost side of the equation. “You can’t shed the legacy costs associated with the print edition fast enough,” she said. Over the previous five years, the Herald had revamped its production and distribution processes, shedding almost $6 million in costs. As a result, while most newsrooms were laying off staff, the Herald had freed up funds to hire additional reporters and editors.

The publisher of the Southern Pines Pilot, a 13,000-circulation, twice-weekly newspaper located in a golfing resort community in central North Carolina, touted the benefits of diversification away from financial dependence on the print newspaper. In addition to creating an award-winning website, the Pilot had begun publishing three upscale monthly lifestyle magazines for communities in the area and two telephone directories for adjacent counties. It also purchased a design company and a local independent bookstore. When it was his turn, High said:

In 2009, I wish I’d known the true meaning of transformational change. Over the last five years, I’ve realized that when our print readers die, they’re not being replaced by people in their twenties and thirties. [Young readers] are getting their news online—even in Columbus County. That is what every newspaper in every community is facing. That train is coming down the tracks and you better be ready.

[18] Penelope Muse Abernathy, Saving Community Journalism: The Path to Profitability. [UNC Press: April 2014]. Unless otherwise noted, all statistics, quotes and observations in this case study come from research conducted for and cited in the book.

[19] Penny Muse Abernathy. Quotes in the text come from the following The Business of News Blog postings: “Part Two: Reinventing the Future” on May 15, 2014 and “Do Some Newspapers Want to Die?” on May 22, 2014. http://www.savingcommunityjournalism.com/staying-up-to-date/