This article was originally published on Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative website and is republished here with permission.
Conan Gallaty took over for the long-serving Paul Tash as the Tampa Bay Times’ CEO in mid-January and will succeed Tash as board chair of the Times Publishing Co. on July 1. Gallaty, who became president of the Times in 2020, will be just the fourth person to lead it since Nelson Poynter’s death in 1978.
The 46-year-old Gallaty joined the Times after a 20-year career focused on digital media. He graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Georgia and started as a reporter at his hometown newspaper in Rome, Georgia, learning over time to serve readers in new ways. During his tenure at the Times, he upgraded tampabay.com and spearheaded growth in digital advertising and subscriptions.
Poynter owns the Times and, as the newspaper’s business model declined, financial peril forced it to lay off employees, impose pay cuts and furloughs, and cede its pension plan to the federal government. Today, the Times is profitable, including on a net operating basis, Gallaty said.
In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic crushed revenues, the paper reduced printing from seven days a week to only two: Wednesdays and Sundays. In 2021, the paper outsourced printing and sold its local plant. It publishes an e-edition seven days a week, more than a dozen newsletters and its website provides 24/7 digital access.
Gallaty acknowledges that it’s very unlikely the Times would resume printing more editions, and the Times’ experience holds lessons for publishers transitioning reluctant readers from print to digital and increasing retention by making its content a habit for them. Frequency of visit, he said, is his “North Star.”
Below is an edited Q&A with Gallaty.
It’s been a little more than two years since the Times cut from seven daily print editions to two, amid a steep drop in advertising from the pandemic. Do you still consider the cutbacks temporary?
It depends on print advertising being restored. The truth is most of our ability to distribute seven days a week was made possible by large national advertisers. The print schedule won’t return until national advertising comes back, and that is not likely.
What about going Sunday-only in print?
The financials for us today support Wednesday and Sunday delivery.
The Tampa-St. Petersburg metro area has a lot of older residents. How are they adjusting?
At the start of the pandemic, everything was changing. There was an understanding that the world was upside down. Even before the pandemic, the Times expected it would have to eliminate days of print distribution in 2024. The pandemic accelerated the trend line. Some readers are disappointed, but the inevitability of it was made obvious to them.
Many legacy news organizations are trying to convert print readers to digital. What strategies have worked best for the Times?
One strategy that has worked is making the e-newspaper excellent (and) freeing it from the constraints of press-restricted deadlines. We have additional pages of content in sports and politics and a lot of different topics in our e-editions. The e-newspaper used to be considered a bridge product, but it actually has a long shelf life. Readers enjoy a number of benefits: the familiar layout; a linear, contained product with a beginning and end; a shared experience with other readers.
Has the print newspaper changed?
We’re changing our strategy somewhat where our printed product is becoming less of what happened the day before. You’ll find very little in the Sunday paper that happened on Saturday. The paper is a lean-back, deep-dive read.
How are you educating readers to cope with the changes?
The education part of traditional print readers is probably the most challenging. We have tried to communicate over and over the full value this subscription provides. The Sunday paper is loaded with house ads saying, “Read the e-newspaper.” You’ve got to show them, put it in front of their nose and turn each page. When people see the e-newspaper, almost universally, they like it. The challenge is getting them to try it. Readers are starting the use the e-newspaper more on Wednesdays, even though they receive a printed copy. We think this may be showing a growing preference for the e-newspaper. It’s never late and never wet.
Has your digital subscription number hit your internal goals?
We’re over 30,000 now and growing. We saw a slowdown this year. During the pandemic years, we saw a saturation effect. We’re having to fight really hard to get new subscribers.
How about retention?
Our retention rate is outstanding. That’s a testament to the quality. Before the pandemic, digital subscription retention was only 35% annually. We’ve improved it to 52%. We’ve reduced churn.
Focusing on engagement. Frequency of visit is the No. 1 indicator of whether you’ll be able to retain a subscriber or convert a nonsubscriber. That is the North Star for us. Make that a habit. We make sure we have great newsletters that reach them in their inbox that are brief enough but full of the right information. Push notifications have been huge for us, but only pushing out when it really matters.
How do you deal with dormant accounts?
We have a scary percentage of people who have a digital subscription but don’t log in. We do a lot of outreach. It’s individualized in the sense that we send them articles they may have wanted to read. The surprise for me is the amount of people who are at risk but who stay at risk for a long time. It’s like the gym membership you have that you never go to. People who subscribe to the paper believe it’s important to them and the community. It’s a “good for me” thing, but it also has to fit into their lives.
What has the impact been on the newsroom, which recently won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the dangers of a local lead smelter?
We’re investing in our newsroom. It’s the same size as it was close to the beginning of the pandemic. We want to keep the newsroom whole and eventually grow it. We have wonderful talent. We’re a writer’s newspaper, and we have people go to national publications from the Tampa Bay Times. The journalism is what’s going to keep us going as a business.