Steve Newhouse explains Michigan transition, Times-Picayune future

Opinion: Securing a Future for Our Local Journalism

Four years ago, Advance Publications, which operates newspapers and websites in more than 25 cities, began looking at different approaches to building a viable future for our local newspapers and websites.

We were publishing great newspapers, deeply rooted in the history of our communities. Year after year, they were recognized, nationally, with Pulitzer Prizes and, locally, with state Associated Press awards. The Times-Picayune won two Pulitzer Prizes, in 1997, for Public Service and editorial cartooning, and two more, in 2006 for Public Service and Breaking News for the paper’s courageous coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Most recently, Sara Ganim and the staff of The Patriot-News in Harrisburg won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for their tremendous local reporting on the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State.

During that time we were also running a group of successful newspaper-related websites, several of which, as measured by Media Audit, have ranked in the top 10 markets nationwide for having the highest penetration among consumers. NOLA.com, the online home of The Times-Picayune, has been Media Audit’s top rated local newspaper website several times in recent years.

Like many in my family, I grew up in the newspaper business and with a passion for the civic mission of reporting and publishing the news. I saw how important the role of journalism, accurate and aggressive, can be in our public life. But for quite a while now, and especially in the past four years, it’s been more and more apparent that the economic model that supported our journalism for so many decades was no longer sustainable and that, as a result, the role we played in civic life was in jeopardy.

It was a time of great soul-searching for us, and, of course, for everyone in the newspaper business. Philip Meyer, emeritus professor and Knight Chair of Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, wrote, in an article in the American Journalism Review in October of 2008:

“The endgame for newspapers is in sight. How their owners and managers choose to apply their dwindling resources will make all the difference in the nature of the ultimate product, its service to democracy and, of course, its survival.”

Everything we have done since has been shaped by our quest to find long-term answers to the profound challenges to local newspapers, which have been the core of Advance Publications for almost a hundred years. Our goal has been to adapt our journalism to the intensified demands of the 24-hour news cycle, and to find a business model that makes sense in today’s economic environment. We wanted, above all, to find a way to offer the kind of support needed to go on doing the reporting that makes a difference in our communities.

The rapid rise in digital adoption by consumers and advertisers is irreversible. The increased importance of mobile platforms has added even more complexity to the picture. We are in the midst of a digital revolution and instead of constantly being disrupted by our numerous online competitors, we decided to re-invent ourselves. It is useless to bemoan the digital revolution and the unintended consequences that have come along with it; the trick is to turn that trend to the advantage of our papers, our readers, and our communities. This is a difficult task, and it is the one we are deeply engaged in.

Steve Newhouse is the chairman of Advance.net, the digital division of Advance Publications Inc., which owns more than 34 newspapers in 11 states.

Our efforts to deal with the changing media landscape began in 2009, when we announced the closing of The Ann Arbor News, a seven-day-a-week print newspaper, and replaced it with AnnArbor.com, a digital media company that also published print papers two days a week. Similar changes occurred at our papers in Bay City, Saginaw, and Flint.

We learned a lot in these initial Eastern Michigan markets. We learned, in concrete terms, about the power of digital distribution and the value of printed newspapers for consumers and advertisers on certain days of the week. AnnArbor.com scaled nicely; it exceeded our expectations for audience growth and performed well by increasing our digital revenue. The website has consistently ranked #1 in the United States for having the highest local market penetration (54.9 percent) among consumers of any local newspaper site in America, according to Media Audit.

The reason for AnnArbor.com’s strong readership is the high quality of its journalism. In the past two years, the site won 21 awards in the Michigan Associated Press Editorial Association’s news-writing contest, including first place awards in investigative reporting, breaking news and column writing, and second place in community service. Those 21 awards, in 2011 and 2010, represented the highest total of any newspaper in its circulation category.

In October 2011, we created the MLive Media Group, a new digitally focused, local news and information company to publish our eight print newspapers and two websites in Michigan. The goal was to position ourselves for the future in an increasingly digital age by accelerating our strong digital growth, and, at the same time, carry on the tradition of excellent reporting.

Dan Gaydou, who became President of the MLive Media Group, customized and adapted the strategies that we developed in Ann Arbor and Eastern Michigan. Unlike Ann Arbor which launched a new brand, AnnArbor.com, from scratch, Gaydou used the platform of our strong, existing newspaper brands, and our successful website, MLive.com as the basis for the future.

Meanwhile, while these efforts were under way, the revenue trends affecting newspapers worsened. From 2009 through 2011, U.S. newspaper print ad revenue declined by 16.6 percent; at the same time, digital revenue grew by 18.5 percent off a smaller base.

Gaydou had to make agonizing choices for the MLive Media Group — choices that affected the lives of people who had been our colleagues for years. We realized we could no longer publish and deliver newspapers every single day — not at the same level of quality that our readers were accustomed to — given the reduced resources at our disposal, and the need to devote some of these resources to improving the quality of our websites. We heard the outcry from many readers who did not like the disruption to their regular reading habit. But we also heard from other readers who appreciated the fact that, on a weekly, aggregate basis, we had not reduced the number of news columns and maintained the same high level of reporting and editing.

Another painful decision was to reduce the overall newspaper staff. We focused our cutbacks in the areas of production and editing rather than front-line reporting. Indeed we still have as many professional journalists in Michigan, out in the community covering local news, sports, business and culture, as we had before these changes were announced. That allows us to continue our commitment to investigative reporting as well as breaking news.

This intent on keeping our reporting standards high, despite the reductions we had to endure, has paid off. For example, in June, the MLive content team published a five-day, twenty-story series on Michigan’s legal right of homicide as a means of self-defense. This series, called “Justified To Kill,” was prompted by an email from a reader asking about Michigan’s laws in light of the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida. Six individuals from Michigan who were involved in a “justified homicide” were profiled in multiple segments published in a serial format. In one of the profiles, the primary subject wrote a first-hand account of the events and detailed the fallout from the experience. He also sat for a live chat online with readers; this experiment ended up being the most-viewed portion of the series. The profiles were not limited only to the people who committed the homicides but also offered detailed portraits of the victims.

Not only was “Justified To Kill” a journalistic success, the series generated strong online traffic. Photo galleries accompanied the profiles and, in a couple of instances, videos of the events were obtained and provided as a visual supplement to the coverage. The series collected more than 115,000 total page views and, at its peak, averaged 30,000 page views per day. In all, this was an excellent reminder that serious journalism — rigorous, thorough, aggressive, and fair — can be done equally well across all platforms.

And in Michigan we are doing just that — publishing across all media platforms including, print, digital, phone and tablet. We are pleased that the changes we initiated in Michigan to enable multi-platform publishing are evolving positively. There is no question that the digital revolution has challenged all of us in media, but there is also no question that we are doing everything we can to maintain standards of quality and ethics while, at the same time, learning to capitalize on modern technology’s range of tools.
As Dan Gaydou recently shared with me:

“We are more visible, transparent, accessible and open than ever before. Our people are working collaboratively in ways never imagined. The resulting culture of our new company is positive, innovative and targeted at helping our employees grow as our company grows. This has resulted in highly effective recruiting of the best and the brightest, making our team more nimble and capable of thriving.”

The changes we have made in Michigan have strengthened our confidence that we can secure a vital future for our local journalism elsewhere. While we believe that our print revenue will decline further, we are hopeful that our increased focus on digital will allow digital revenue to become an even greater revenue growth engine, and, eventually, turn our local companies into growth businesses once more, allowing them to continue to serve their communities with the quality of journalism that readers expect.

This process has been difficult. When our executive teams in Alabama and New Orleans — facing the same conditions that challenged us in Michigan — announced plans to create digitally focused news operations and reduce their print frequency, the news was met with concern, skepticism and even outrage.

Some of the criticism was well founded. We could have communicated our decisions more openly and sensitively to our employees, our readers and our communities. We understand that our websites need further improvement.

Responding to critical comments from readers, NOLA.com recently rolled out a new home page layout and new modules showcasing the local editors’ top stories of the day. We worked to improve typography and readability. The Times-Picayune’s New Orleanian Web designer implemented a color palette derived from the historic shades of the city’s houses and buildings. These changes, large and small, are part of an ongoing effort to develop and improve the website as its local audience evolves and expands.

Advance’s tradition has been to empower local journalism leaders to direct editorial coverage of their communities. In New Orleans, the editorial team is led by people who have spent their entire careers living in and reporting on the New Orleans area. They are steeped in its traditions and they are also cognizant of the many changes that have been the result of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

Jim Amoss, who oversaw the coverage that led to four Pulitzer Prizes during his tenure, since 1990, as Editor of The Times-Picayune, leads a team of 150 journalists into this new world. They are equipped with the latest tools for reporting in the digital age; they are well-trained and dedicated to the craft of aggressive and responsive local journalism. NOLA Media Group remains by far the largest and most experienced team of news-gatherers anywhere in Louisiana. We are confident that nobody can, or will, match them.

Offering this history and context is not an attempt to ignore the fact that many people have lost their jobs during this time, or to answer everyone who has criticized our strategies. Too much lies ahead before we can take any comfort in the results of our changes.

But we also recognize that ignoring the existing trends and insisting on the status quo would have been a recipe for failure, and that only taking small, incremental steps in the face of massive change was also a losing proposition. By taking transformational actions now, painful as some of them are, we have a chance to continue doing what we do best, as publishers,  journalists, business partners and community leaders, for decades to come.

Related: Steve Newhouse talks with Andrew Beaujon about the future: ‘There’s every reason to be upset and angry, but…’

Steve Newhouse is the chairman of Advance.net, the digital division of Advance Publications Inc., which owns more than 34 newspapers in 11 states.

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  • Duy Anh
  • Duy Anh
  • http://www.facebook.com/kevinslimp Kevin Slimp

    NewHouse’s approach is the worst I’ve seen. And I’ve seen a lot of bad approaches.

    He reminds me of the CEO of JCPenney, spouting “We have to change or die!”

    Well, JCPenney changed … and they’re almost dead. Same store sales down 20 percent in one year.

    Newhouse took a very profitable paper … which looked to remain profitable for a long time … and reduced it to a product hated by its citizens. New Orleans will get a new paper and he may not feel threatened by that, but a lot of failures thought more of their own ideas than the reality that faced them.

    It’s his newspaper. He can do with it as he wishes. But to think his plan will work is preposterous. New papers will come into these cities. They will be profitable. His operations will shrink and disappear from the scene. And, in my humble opinion – educated as it is, this will happen much sooner than later.

    Kevin Slimp
    Director, Institute of Newspaper Technology
    Syndicated Writer/Speaker

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1377616268 George Schwarz

    Steve Newhouse

    Advance Publications

    950 Fingerboard
    Rd.

    Staten Island, NY 10305-1453

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1377616268 George Schwarz

    Newhouse and other folks,

    I have not read such blathering bullshit in my life.

    This insipid and arrogant analysis of the industry is the
    result of sucking on that sliver spoon in your mouth, Steve, while flitting
    around with your country club friends while thinking you really know journalism
    or how to deliver what people need for news. Or maybe your ilk is too inbred.

    Others have pointed out some obvious points, which you will
    ignore as “noise.” Did you all really say that about New Orleanians’ reactions?
    Here are some other things we in the real, non-country club world know.

    First, you should know the Media Audit data, as with the
    Audit Bureau of Circulation, numbers are fudged all the time. The scam is to
    convince you all and the advertising agencies that you’re worth spending money with.
    Remember, we follow the money. Don’t ask me how I know this. You don’t want the
    answer. You’re deluding yourself if you think Ann Arbor is a typical community. With the University of Michigan there (You do know what a university
    is, don’t you?), the community will far likely be better “connected” for
    Web-based information delivery than many places, including New Orleans. I just
    can’t believe no one in your employ is smart enough to tell you about this, but
    you sure aren’t smart enough to figure it out.

    All this adds up to the arrogance you show in Andrew Beaujon’s
    interview. Hang onto what few balls you have left, Stevie-boy, because by the
    time the New Orleans
    community is through with you and your company, you’ll all be singing soprano.

    “‘But left unsaid is that we would not be able to produce a
    seven-day-a-week newspaper” given the newspaper business’ trend lines, Newhouse
    said.” We all know the Times-Picayune wasn’t following the industry’s trends. As
    a traditionalist city, it was still profitable. But typical of big corporation
    hubris and one-size-fits-all stupidity, you will treat the venerable newspaper the
    same as the crap you publish in Alabama.

    Second, you are sorely underestimating anger and passion as
    motivators. Inside an organization, the former is a cancer and the latter is a
    blessing. But combined on the outside with your enemies, they are weapons of
    mass destruction. With the Advocate having made the decision to compete and the
    other on-line alliances, plus the loss of some of your best staff, you and the
    NOLA thing (Is THAT really what you call a Web site?) are doomed. Buh-bye.

    Third, what’s with Jim Amoss? How did you turn a great
    leader and smart editor into a Newhouse zombie? And when are you, like most
    corporatists like you, going to stab him in the back? Inquiring minds want to
    know.

    Look, Newhouse, I am no a punk kid like you are. I am
    67-years-old and I don’t give a shit about who likes me or not. I am not scared
    of power and not scared of speaking truth to power. I am telling you right here
    and now, you have screwed up big time and your hubris is not letting you back
    down or response to the community YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO SERVE. (Yep, those capital
    letters are me shouting at you.

    Frankly, Steve, I think you’re a 24-carat asshole. I don’t
    hide behind screen names. My name is George Schwarz and I live in Amarillo, Texas.
    Bring it on.

     

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1377616268 George Schwarz

    Newhouse and other folks,

    I have not read such blathering bullshit in my life.

    This insipid and arrogant analysis of the industry is the
    result of sucking on that sliver spoon in your mouth, Steve, while flitting
    around with your country club friends while thinking you really know journalism
    or how to deliver what people need for news. Or maybe your ilk is too inbred.

    Others have pointed out some obvious points, which you will
    ignore as “noise.” Did you all really say that about New Orleanians’ reactions?
    Here are some other things we in the real, non-country club world know.

    First, you should know the Media Audit data, as with the
    Audit Bureau of Circulation, numbers are fudged all the time. The scam is to
    convince you all and the advertising agencies that you’re worth spending money with.
    Remember, we follow the money. Don’t ask me how I know this. You don’t want the
    answer. You’re deluding yourself if you think Ann Arbor is a typical community. With the University of Michigan there (You do know what a university
    is, don’t you?), the community will far likely be better “connected” for
    Web-based information delivery than many places, including New Orleans. I just
    can’t believe no one in your employ is smart enough to tell you about this, but
    you sure aren’t smart enough to figure it out.

    All this adds up to the arrogance you show in Andrew Beaujon’s
    interview. Hang onto what few balls you have left, Stevie-boy, because by the
    time the New Orleans
    community is through with you and your company, you’ll all be singing soprano.

    “‘But left unsaid is that we would not be able to produce a
    seven-day-a-week newspaper” given the newspaper business’ trend lines, Newhouse
    said.” We all know the Times-Picayune wasn’t following the industry’s trends. As
    a traditionalist city, it was still profitable. But typical of big corporation
    hubris and one-size-fits-all stupidity, you will treat the venerable newspaper the
    same as the crap you publish in Alabama.

    Second, you are sorely underestimating anger and passion as
    motivators. Inside an organization, the former is a cancer and the latter is a
    blessing. But combined on the outside with your enemies, they are weapons of
    mass destruction. With the Advocate having made the decision to compete and the
    other on-line alliances, plus the loss of some of your best staff, you and the
    NOLA thing (Is THAT really what you call a Web site?) are doomed. Buh-bye.

    Third, what’s with Jim Amoss? How did you turn a great
    leader and smart editor into a Newhouse zombie? And when are you, like most
    corporatists like you, going to stab him in the back? Inquiring minds want to
    know.

    Look, Newhouse, I am no a punk kid like you are. I am
    67-years-old and I don’t give a shit about who likes me or not. I am not scared
    of power and not scared of speaking truth to power. I am telling you right here
    and now, you have screwed up big time and your hubris is not letting you back
    down or response to the community YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO SERVE. (Yep, those capital
    letters are me shouting at you.

    Frankly, Steve, I think you’re a 24-carat asshole. I don’t
    hide behind screen names. My name is George Schwarz and I live in Amarillo, Texas.
    Bring it on.

     

  • Anonymous

    AnnArbor.com no longer has staff writers that cover Michigan football or Michigan basketball. How can you, with a straight face, suggest the quality of journalism remains the same when you don’t have writers on staff to cover the biggest beat in town? … (For those who don’t know, the college beats have been farmed out to MLive).

  • Gary Myers

    Wow. I don’t know where to start. This is wrong in so many ways. Mr. Newhouse has no real concern for the people of New Orleans have been so supportive of the Times-Picayune so many years. He could easily sell the paper to local interests and protect his company from the potential risks of a status quo business model. A locally-owned Times-Picayune with the same great reporting staff could succeed. The new company/business model will not include the same great reporters who have made a career covering New Orleans. Many of them were let go. I know some of the reporters who were fired and I believe news coverage in New Orleans will suffer because of their departure. The Times-Picayune will now became a stepping stone stop for young reporters looking to move up in the news ranks. New Orleans is a place that takes a while to understand and short-timers won’t endear Newhouse to the people whose grandfather’s grandfather read the papers that became the Times-Picayune.

    Newhouse says bring on the competition. I doubt that he really wants that. Nola.com and the nola.com has been a very weak part of the Times-Picayune’s covering. The recent update of nola.com (this week) is perhaps the worst looking website I’ve seen in over a decade. I think the competition may just take the day.

    I believe many of Newhouse’s profit concerns are real. However, New Orleans is not the right market to go innovative. The Times-Picayune still prints debutante and sweet sixteen announcements. Does that sound like a place ready for the digital revolution? Nope. Newhouse has shown total disregard for this community and I think New Orleanians will collectively return the favor.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=78001524 Rob Kirkbride

     What would Dick Diamond do?

  • Daniel Thompson

    The developed world is overrated

  • Todd Carter

    Those who don’t know Netflix’s history are destined to repeat it.

  • Todd Carter

    What would Si do?

  • Anonymous

    New Orleans is the most backward, illiterate city in the developed world.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/MG63UJWRLKQEF25U6BVQY2YG3A C.

    annarbor.com is considered as joke in the community and the credible reporters they had continue to flee and readers are left with a poor prodict, but no where else to go, thus the market penetration.

  • Daniel Thompson

     You don’t understand New Orleans and yet you think that you can guide us? We are not a cutting edge city, we are a traditionalist city. We have far fewer citizens connected to the Internet than many other equally large areas. You are being a fool. You might think you have a good team of journalists, yet the best ones all were fired or left of their own accord because they see your crap for what it is and aren’t afraid to call a spade a spade. You will lose. The local television stations are already snapping up your best reporters and the Baton Rouge Advocate will take over your print market leaving you with a garbage website that is completely unprofitable. Refuse to see at your peril, but you will go down.

  • http://twitter.com/sherristrain Sherri Strain

    The facts that you’re not willing to accept: that it’s a really terrible website, the community is against you, and the only reason they aren’t selling the paper (despite legitimate offers from willing buyers) is because we in New Orleans are the new  test market for all of their other newspapers.  However, when Advance fails here – and that’s a WHEN, not an IF – how is that a good test?  Other markets might be more amenable to a primarily online paper.  This one is not.  Newhouse can keep fooling himself, but his readers and his advertisers are all deserting him in droves.

    I don’t thinks he believes the drivel spouted above, but if that’s what it takes to help him sleep at night, knowing that his pride and arrogance are going to bring about an epic failure, so be it.

  • Anonymous

    Steve,

     

    Did you feel you had to defend yourself
    with this disingenuous, misleading and revisionist babble? Or do you actually
    believe what you’re spinning here?

    Honest questions. I’m not sure which answer would be more disconcerting.

     

    You speak at great length of the
    maintaining a high quality of journalism throughout Michigan at the new sites.
    Every reader, every reporter and every former staff member, as noted above,
    knows this has not happened.

     

    The Michigan outlets are shells of their
    former selves. The communities they purport to serve hate them. And they serve up sensationalized, mostly-aggregated
    (stolen) content from other news sources.

     

    New Orleans knows what’s coming,
    and no wonder the citizens are up in arms.

     

    You’ve traded journalism for
    garbage content, but pretend to move forward as if nothing has changed. Shame
    on you. You’ve completely betrayed the legacy of your family.

  • Anonymous

    Steve,

     

    Did you feel you had to defend yourself
    with this disingenuous, misleading and revisionist babble? Or do you actually
    believe what you’re spinning here?

    Honest questions. I’m not sure which answer would be more disconcerting.

     

    You speak at great length of the
    maintaining a high quality of journalism throughout Michigan at the new sites.
    Every reader, every reporter and every former staff member, as noted above,
    knows this has not happened.

     

    The Michigan outlets are shells of their
    former selves. The communities they purport to serve hate them. And they serve up sensationalized, mostly-aggregated
    (stolen) content from other news sources.

     

    New Orleans knows what’s coming,
    and no wonder the citizens are up in arms.

     

    You’ve traded journalism for
    garbage content, but pretend to move forward as if nothing has changed. Shame
    on you. You’ve completely betrayed the legacy of your family.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=78001524 Rob Kirkbride

    I am a former Ann Arbor News and Grand Rapids Press reporter who has watched the demise of a great newspaper chain with horror. I fully expected to retire from the Press, my hometown newspaper. Instead, I left the paper five years ago, luckily avoiding the shuttering of the News and the bloodletting at the Press. After reading Steve Newhouse’s explanation, it is clear that he (and the rest of the Newhouse management) do not understand why former employees are outraged about what has happened to the chain of once-great newspapers.

    Changes to the business model were necessary. What irritates me and many other former Newhouse employees is that the company reacted too slowly at first and too quickly when it was nearly too late. In the first paragraph of this explanation Newhouse said that four years ago, the company “began looking at different approaches to building a viable future.” And yet by 1996 (most would argue even earlier) it was clear that the web was changing the world of communication. Why did it take so long for the newspapers’ management to recognize the impact of the web and react to it? Why did management wait until 2008? As the web and other technology emerged, reporters at the Press were begging to use the latest tools to bring news to our readers (instead we had two cell phones and a handful of outdated laptops for the entire newsroom, which we had to check out to use). We were begging to go online (instead we had one dedicated PC for the entire newsroom to use to check e-mail and use the web). Heck, our stories never included our e-mail addresses because of the company’s fear that we might get sued for having a connection to our readers.

    In the mid-1990s, many reporters and editors begged management to invest in a solid, local website; to begin shifting resources online. Newspapers were making tons of money on the print side at the time, yet Newhouse did next to nothing to invest in the future. I left the Press five years ago because I witnessed a company that seemed hellbent on fiddling while Rome burned. That’s exactly what management did. At the last possible second, the company went into high gear to try and save itself, the results of which we see today. The Newhouse chain remains woefully behind the times in terms of technology. The websites are horrible to navigate. I can read the “print” edition on an iPad, but no more interactively than I can view a picture. And the social media strategy seems focused on highlighting the “man bites dog” stories instead of important news.

    At the same time readers and advertisers are told (by the same management staff that allowed this to happen) that they are getting more, which is an absolute lie. The staff at the MLive Hub in Grand Rapids is a fraction of what it was before the cuts. Clicks might be up, but what good is it for a local car dealer to get hits for his online ad from some guy viewing it in Topeka who will never purchase a car in Western Michigan?

    I’m not angry that Newhouse changed its strategy. I’m angry that Newhouse ignored the wave of change when it was first on the horizon, which cost a helluva lot of great reporters, editors, ad sales people, support staff and newspaper carriers their jobs. These managers should be ashamed, not because they made the changes that were necessary, but because they ignored the problem early on and reacted to it too severely when it was almost too late. Now they expect us to trust their judgement?

  • http://twitter.com/colonelb David Britten

    The big mistake in the Grand Rapids metro area was the elimination of the local sections from the Thursday newspaper a number of years ago. Many, including those who live in our school district, lost interest in the print media because most of the state, national and international news could be found online. I tried for years to get the Press to understand this but to no avail. When you stop listening to your lifelong subscribers, especially those who influence others, you signal your own death knell.

  • Anonymous