August 8, 2016

Back in February when Tronc was still Tribune Publishing, new chairman Michael Ferro in one day made all the editors at his newspapers editor-publishers. Two of the publishers whose positions had been eliminated got new corporate jobs; the rest left the company.

A press release suggested the move was to reinforce the primacy of editorial excellence at Tribune (soon to be renamed Tronc). But connecting the dots, it seemed that the iconoclastic Ferro had concluded traditional publishers were no longer necessary.

Fast-forward to late July. Old-line Time Inc. followed suit, in a one-day purge getting rid of publishers at each of its magazines and reorganizing the sales effort by product line — like beauty or financial services — with these teams selling placements to multiple titles and their sites.

That’s a match to a changing media landscape, Mark Ellis, Time’s head of sales and marketing explained:

The publisher role has really evolved to being a head of sales for the brand, and we still have that but the publisher name is a bit antiquated for what the role is today.

The moves cause me to wonder whether the title of publisher as well as its typical job functions are on the way out in the digital era.

What’s happening seems to be more evolution than revolution. But yes and yes.

Tronc executives, through spokesperson Dana Meyer, declined to be interviewed for this article. But subsequent events have shown Ferro’s key strategy for the company will be all about investing in digital offerings with video as the cornerstone.

Wednesday the newspapers were relegated to a separate division (TroncM), the better to mark the coming reorientation to digital (TroncX).

Gannett, without ceremony, retitled the executives in its 100-plus local markets from publisher to president early this year. It “is more indicative of the role they play running a local business,” spokesperson Chrissy Terrell wrote me.

The duties now include overseeing several websites on multiple platforms, other new revenue initiatives and coordinating regional cooperation among titles and the buildout of the USA Today Network.

Advance Local was thinking similarly when it committed to a digital-first publishing strategy in 2012. Corporate President Randy Siegel told me president became preferred for the top business job.

We felt like the publisher title was too tied to legacy newspaper company symbolism, which we wanted to change moving forward.

I came up in newspapers at a time when the typical publisher was a clean-cut 60-ish guy (they were mostly men) in a nice suit who also knew his stuff. Some came up through news, but the job was to coordinate otherwise siloed newspaper departments, manage budgets, let newsrooms operate independently — and maybe run the city’s United Way campaign on the side.

The breed has not vanished. At that font of experimentation, The Washington Post, the longtime top business executive used to be Stephen Hills (who held the titles of president and general manager as members of the Graham family were publisher).

When Hill retired late last year, a new publisher, Frederick J. Ryan Jr., was already in place. Ryan did have a business role at Politico but is known mainly for being wired into the city’s local political and social circuits. A New York Times profile led with a description of his always-meticulous business dress.

McClatchy has publishers for all its 29 titles. Some, as at Gannett and Advance, oversee multiple properties. Change is bubbling beneath the surface, though.

Executive vice president Mark Zieman (himself a longtime editor, then publisher of the Kansas City Star) wrote me:

We still believe in publishers running our local media companies… (But) McClatchy has centralized many legacy areas once overseen by publishers, such as audience, production and finance. This has certainly helped us eliminate expenses. But it’s also allowed our publishers to focus on what we believe are their most important responsibilities — growing revenue, championing the importance of our journalism in their local communities and leading our employees through our digital transformation.

The news business is rapidly changing, and so is McClatchy. But we remain the leading media company in each of our local markets, and we think our strong corps of publishers helps us maintain that position.

In the magazine business, saving by eliminating duplication and a search for profitable digital products also seems to be driving change.

In both kinds of media, top editors are now charged with intimate involvement with business initiatives. I also notice an increase in the number of magazine editors amping up personification of the brand with TV appearances or prominent columns.

Single titles may be a special case. Bosses at family-controlled companies, such as Arthur Sulzberger of The New York Times or Jim Moroney at A.H. Belo’s Dallas Morning News, also carry the publisher title. The Tampa Bay Times has rarely had a publisher and doesn’t now.

In magazines, 90-year old Hugh Hefner stepped aside in stages at Playboy, which he created in the 1950s. But Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner will be marking his 50th anniversary as publisher next year.

If old-guard publishers look like a 20th century throwback, the summer also brought one noteworthy exception.

Melissa Bell (a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board) has seen her responsibilities at Vox Media increase steadily since she joined the company in early 2014. She was named publisher on July 28. As CEO Jim Bankoff explained to The New York Times, “Melissa’s job is going to be focused on continuing to grow our brands.”

Individual sites will continue to have their own editors-in-chief, reporting to an editorial director — a digital age approximation of Time Inc.’s famous “church and state” separation.

The Times assessed the move as one of several steps Vox is taking to transition from start-up to a “mature” media company.

There’s at least one other publisher at a digitally native company. In 2014, BuzzFeed named data guru Dao Nguyen publisher; the title came with a portfolio including “tech, product, data and everything related to our publishing,” according to a memo from founder Jonah Peretti.

We need a few more data points, but maybe a meet-in-the-middle dynamic is in progress. Legacy media are at pains to show they are not stuck in the past. Digital companies, as they grow into maturity, may also want to signal continuity.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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