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.
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.