August 26, 2021

When a hedge fund acquires a newspaper chain, cuts, cuts and more cuts ensue, right? That has proven true for Alden Global Capital, most recently after it took over Tribune Publishing in late May.

But perhaps budget slashing is not the only move for Chatham Asset Management, which bought McClatchy out of bankruptcy roughly a year ago.

The Kansas City Star, one of the largest of McClatchy’s 30 newspapers, looks to be a hedge-fund-owned outlier, this month rolling out an expanded Sunday print edition, adding journalists and trying to improve its e-edition and digital site.

The new iteration of the Star debuted this past Sunday and Monday. Similar changes are underway at The Wichita Eagle, which, like the Star, is branding itself as “reimagined.”

Both featured front Sunday pages with one picture and a teaser headline introducing a multiple story “in depth report” inside. In Kansas City, the topic was — surprise — the Kansas City Chiefs, aiming for a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance after a humiliating 2021 loss. In Wichita, it was the safety of public splash pads.

A McClatchy watcher I know has spotted similar all-photo or all-illustration front pages on print editions of the Miami Herald and The Sacramento Bee. QR codes are dropped into the display for those who want to access bonus content digitally. The Herald has promised its own version of Reimagined, as has the Bee.

“Reimagined” front pages of The Sacramento Bee and The Miami Herald.

When McClatchy dropped Saturday print newspapers in late 2019 and 2020, it had first tested the move at four of its smaller papers. The current changes look to me to be at least a beta version of a new print/digital balance for the group. Read the announcements, and they clearly have cookie-cutter similarities.

The Sunday print editions now look like a magazine with a cover. Stories are timely in a general way but not at all pegged to the day’s news cycle.

Despite the upbeat tone of announcements, neither Star president and editor Mike Fannin, nor McClatchy’s top editorial executive Kristin Roberts, nor spokesperson Susan Firey was willing to answer any questions from me.

However, Fannin’s Aug. 15 letter to readers laid out a typical plan for the initiative pretty thoroughly, hinting at possible bigger moves yet to come. Fannin wrote, among other things:

  • The Star “is making new investments to dramatically expand our coverage and our newsroom staff.” The paper and its sites will be “hiring nearly a dozen new journalists,” he wrote, and “nearly (doubling) its investigative team … to nine reporters and three editors.”
  • Also, “We will be adding 16 pages a week and new features as we shift to an in-depth focus for our reimagined print editions. To start, readers will get expanded Sunday and Wednesday papers, topped with exclusive and deep local journalism that goes well beyond the news of the day.”
  • Concurrently the Star plans upgrades to its e-editions with particular attention to getting late sports scores to readers in a print-like electronic format, which some readers prefer to a digital layout.
  • Also, a digital evening news edition is planned for September with freshened content for the e-edition as well as for the regular digital site. (My colleague Kristen Hare wrote this week about a similar move in Spokane.)
  • A survey of readers preceded the changes, and Fannin said that they asked for “more coverage that does not ‘sidestep’ the issues.” The reimagined Star will shoot for that as well, he said.
  • Wait, there’s more — local history and more service journalism about the goings-on in the city, along with coverage of health, tech and travel.

Fannin doesn’t say so, but I see the changes addressing three important industry problems. The Star, like most but not all metros, is losing paid print circulation fast. Its most recent publisher’s statement with the Alliance of Audited Media for the six months ending March 31 shows an average daily paid print circulation of 41,105 and a Sunday paid print circulation of 59,122, roughly half of what it reported in late 2017.

Print plus digital does not come cheap, either, as I wrote three years ago when I found a shocked Star subscriber facing an $846 renewal invoice.

Print may be on a steep decline, and digital transformation remains the order of the day, but in 2021 print still contributes valuable audience and advertising revenue, even at digital subscription darling The New York Times. So a strengthened Sunday print edition and strengthened e-edition make all kinds of sense.

Second, as Hare has reported, McClatchy newsrooms (and business departments, too) have experienced waves of buyouts and layoffs before and after the Chatham takeover.

Readers notice the resulting coverage gaps. Staff expansion could be viewed partly as a restoration of jobs lost, along with the new priorities Fannin discusses.

Third, the Star early this year joined the swelling ranks of papers discontinuing their own printing operations and outsourcing the job. The Star exemplified an extreme case of that trend. It walked away from 15-year-old state-of-the-art presses and moved production to Gannett’s Des Moines Register 200 miles away.

That means readers must turn to the digital site or e-edition if they want late afternoon/evening sports results or any other news of what happens after 6 p.m.

Conceding that comment chains are rife with snark, I did notice that several readers picked up on these themes. Complaining about the out-of-date scores in “the Des Moines Star,” one asked, “Do they still use runners who drive the news copy to Des Moines to be set in type?”

“A good newspaper shouldn’t need to announce that it is going to be good,” another commenter wrote.

On a more positive note, this isn’t the first notable and recent editorial-side investment at the Star. An admiring editorial-page editor at another metro suggested in late 2017 that I check out how and why the paper had dramatically increased its opinion section when nearly everyone else was cutting.

That upgrade also happened on Fannin’s watch. The changes were led by Colleen McCain Nelson, a hire from The Wall Street Journal. Since then, the page’s writers have turned up regularly for honors in major national contests. 

Nelson was later put in charge of opinion sections at all 30 papers. Then, this January, she was promoted to executive editor of McClatchy’s flagship Sacramento Bee and regional editor of its other California papers.

This leads me to hope that the dramatic expansions Fannin and other pilots promise do pan out in practice. If so, maybe all McClatchy papers and many others will follow the reimagination/reinvestment playbook.

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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…
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