January 28, 2013

There’s a small statue of a paperboy inside Stephen A. Rogers’ plush corner office overlooking Clinton Square in downtown Syracuse. In his right hand, the paperboy holds a colorful miniature newspaper, while in his left arm he holds a real $1 bill, folded up and stuffed in place. It’s a perfect parody of the economic realities of the newspaper industry — long held by many as a public service, but still very much subject to market concerns. And it’s a situation that Rogers, the Syracuse Post-Standard’s publisher since 1980, assesses with blunt certitude.

“I used to teach at the Newhouse school, and I would say the very first day, ‘What’s the most important thing a newspaper can do?’ I would hear these great answers: raise hell, protect the poor,” said Rogers on a recent brisk December afternoon. “The most important thing a newspaper can do is make money, because if you’re not solvent you can’t do a god-damn thing. You have to make money. You have to have a successful business before you can do all the things you want to do.”

It’s with that goal in mind that The Post-Standard, founded as The Onondaga Standard in 1829, enters its newest incarnation.

On Feb. 1, following the lead of other newspapers owned by the Newhouse family’s Advance Publications Inc., the paper will combine with Syracuse.com to form the Syracuse Media Group (SMG). The new company “will be focused on providing news, information and advertising in digital format over 24 hours every day,” according to an Aug. 28 news release. It also means the end of The Post-Standard as a true daily paper. Home delivery editions will publish on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays only, while smaller editions will be available for single copy sales the other four days of the week.

SMG is the latest in a series of Advance companies, including NOLA Media Group in New Orleans and the MLive Media group in Michigan, designed to retain their print revenue and customer bases while simultaneously driving readership online. It’s a move that will resonate through media circles nationwide while exerting a personal influence on stakeholders throughout Central New York. And depending on your perspective, it’s either an unnecessary overreaction by greedy media barons, the futile last gasp of a dying industry, or the ingenious innovation that will save print journalism in America.

Newly appointed SMG president Tim Kennedy thinks it’s “an incredibly bold proposition for a family and a company that’s operated newspapers for a long time and done it the right way. Of all the folks that are talking about change in the newspaper industry, this is one that I could see being successful.”

The changes have already been dramatic. Nearly 30 percent of the Post-Standard’s 393 employees received layoff notices on Oct. 1. Many of those laid off will be working their last days today. Others who were offered positions in the new organization chose to leave on their own accord. The company has hired about 60 new employees to create and deliver content geared toward digital news consumers. And that’s just the beginning.

The struggles facing the nation’s daily newspapers in the Internet age are well-documented. Craigslist killed the classifieds, which had buoyed papers’ revenues for decades. Free access to online content at a moment’s notice meant fewer people were willing to pay a subscription fee for a product promising yesterday’s news. Advertisers could target customers online for fraction of what they paid for print campaigns. These factors combined to usher in the “creative destruction of the industry,” said Joel Kaplan, associate dean of professional graduate studies at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

The changing climate meant adjustments for the entire industry, from the titans to the tadpoles. Giants like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal implemented their much maligned paywalls, and smaller papers suffered even more severely, like the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, which closed its doors for good in 2009 after nearly 150 years of publication. Daily papers — for years licenses to print money — are in trouble, and no one knows quite how to fix them.

But Advance’s methods of dealing with the economic realities are almost entirely novel, said Kaplan. “Going back from a daily to three days a week is really a Newhouse phenomenon,” he said. “It’s not really been replicated anywhere else that I can see.”

He sees the reduction in home delivery as a kind of compromise designed to move readers online without completely alienating Advance’s base in some of their healthiest markets.

“It’s being done by some of their stronger publications,” said Kaplan. “I was shocked that it came to Syracuse because I thought Syracuse had such strong penetration in this community.”

Indeed, the Pew Research Center’s 2012 Project for Excellence in Journalism ranked the Post-Standard’s 2011 penetration — the number of papers sold as a percentage of households in a given market — at 64 percent, fourth best in the nation.

That’s the point, according to Kennedy. “You do it from a position of strength. You don’t wait till you’re weak,” he said. “The brands are still incredibly strong, and we think we can retain that strength and that relevance. Just because a paper has a high penetration doesn’t mean it’s immune to the realities of the business model.”

That was the case for the Advance-owned New Orleans Times-Picayune, where longtime copy editor Cathy Hughes saw the national trends and knew changes were coming to the industry. But she never thought her paper, a venerable institution in the Big Easy, could fall victim to such impersonal, corporate concerns.

After all, the Times-Picayune had the comfortable vibe of a healthy family business with publisher Ashton Phelps manning the helm since he succeeded his father in the role in 1979. “Even though the paper was owned by the Newhouse company, it really felt like Ashton’s paper,” said Hughes. “It felt like a family paper.”

The paper was a mainstay of the community, consummating the bond with the city with its Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“Katrina just made so much difference,” said Hughes. “People really came to appreciate what the newspaper meant to them. Even if you didn’t have power … you could get the newspaper. You could get something in your hand that could tell you what the hell was going on … The people of New Orleans remember who helped them and who didn’t help them after Katrina,” she added with chuckle. “We remember that. We know who our friends are.”

So even in the face of dire predictions for the industry, Hughes remained confident that her situation was different. “I observed what was happening to (other papers), however I did contrast my situation in New Orleans,” she said. “There were some reasons to think that we might have been excepted from the national trends just a little bit. I saw that there was a hurricane forecast, but I thought my house was strong.”

Instead, the Times-Picayune proved to be simply ahead of its time. Advance announced the print reductions and focus on digital on May 24, 2012. Hughes and about 600 of her fellow employees at the Times-Picayune, The Birmingham News, Mobile’s Press-Register and The Huntsville Times were laid off. Despite community protests to “Save the Times-Picayune” and calls for the Newhouse family to sell the paper rather than reduce its distribution, the paper printed its final daily edition on Sept. 30.

There hasn’t been the same level of outcry in Syracuse, but Rogers acknowledges that the cutbacks will take a toll. “There has not been outrage,” he said. “There’s been disappointment. There’s sadness. It’s the hardest for people who are not [digitally] connected. There are a lot of people … who are really going to miss the seven-day newspaper. I’m going to miss it.”

But while the dramatic reorganization may seem like a gamble, it’s the prospect of not doing anything that genuinely worries him. “To do nothing, that’s suicide,” he said, citing the industry trends. “Is this a risk? The risk is to not do anything. Have we found the right solution? I think we have. Time will tell. But I know that by doing what we’re doing, we’re going to be so much better off than if we hadn’t done anything.”

His optimism isn’t shared by everyone involved with the paper.

Leslie Ross is a 52-year-old mother of two who has delivered the Post-Standard to the University Hill neighborhood east of Syracuse University for over 11 years. She’s precise, not the kind of person who lets things slide in conversation, taking time to explain minutia for the sake of clarity. And she displays the same kind of precision in her delivery of the newspaper. Some can be pitched up to the front porch from a distance, while others must be shoved inside storm doors or placed inside mounted boxes. Why the different methods? “I know my people,” she explains.

She believes the moves by the Post-Standard are premature and will accomplish nothing but the alienation of a loyal customer base. “There’s no real need, at least right now,” she said, adding that her customers have told her they would gladly pay a higher daily rate to continue home delivery. “It didn’t need to happen.”

But what’s most upsetting to Ross is the lack of communication regarding the shake-up. She found out while delivering the paper trumpeting news of the cuts on the front page. And while carriers know their work days will be cut by more than half, they still don’t know if their routes will be changed or if they’ll earn the same rate per paper as before. It means that the carriers, many of whom deliver the papers in addition to holding down full-time jobs, have very little idea of what their futures will look like. “They have no information to make a decision on,” she said.

It’s a common criticism echoed by many of the stakeholders. Many Times-Picayune employees learned about the changes from a New York Times article by David Carr. Employees at both the Times-Picayune and Post-Standard were told of possible layoffs more than a month in advance, then made to wait while their fates were decided. Employees receiving severance had to work several additional months to get their benefits, “for an organization that didn’t love you,” chuckled Hughes.

When management has communicated with those affected, the familial tone has been replaced by detached corporate speak. Post-Standard circulation director Thomas H. Brown seemed to minimize the impact the upcoming changes will have in a Dec. 6 letter to carriers: “You may enjoy the flexibility of a 3-day delivery week that allows you to balance the demands of your busy life that a 7-day delivery schedule may not afford you.”

Kennedy insists the clunky communication isn’t a result of mismanagement or carelessness, but is simply a result of innovation.

“We’re sensitive to the criticisms, and many of them you can’t argue with because we’re kind of making the business plan up,” he said. “I think what we tried to do was say, ‘We don’t have all the answers right now. We’re working on them, and we’ll communicate those to you when we have answers.’ And the reality is we’re still working on the business model.”

The new model doesn’t have a place for columnist Dick Case, 77, a Syracuse fixture for over 53 years who received word that his services would no longer be needed at the paper. “I think that all of us understood that the nature of the newspaper was going to change,” he said, “but I don’t think anybody had any idea of when that would happen. And it happened sooner rather than later.”

“Obviously, I was disappointed,” Case said. “Even though I’m many years past legal retirement age, I was still able to do my work and enjoy it. To be honest with you, I have no idea what the plans for the future are.”

Reporter Hart Seely, who’s served multiple roles with the paper since 1979, was offered a position with the new company, but couldn’t bring himself to accept it.

“I didn’t want to go into what I consider to be a sea of negativity. I just felt as though I would get swallowed up by a lot of bad feelings. The morale of the place has been unbelievably bad, and there’s not a person in the building who would disagree,” he said. “It’s been like a house divided; not so much in terms of the people who are no longer friends — that hasn’t happened — but just the depression and the sadness and the darkness here has been phenomenal.”

Many current and former Post-Standard employees were reluctant to speak on the record, citing terms of severance agreements or fears of retribution for commenting on the transition.

Camille Bautista had an opportunity to see the changing face of an industry she loved as an intern at the paper from January to December of this year. “When I first got there, one of the managing editors asked me where I wanted to be after graduation,” said Bautista. “I told him I wanted to work at a newspaper, and he laughed at me, and he told me to seriously reconsider it. I’m really stubborn in that sense, so I’m saying, ‘No. This is what I want to do. I’m going to stick with it.’ But being at the Post-Standard over the past almost year really changed the way that I looked at media and the way that I looked at journalism. It really helped me become a better reporter, but it also widened my avenues that I was considering.”

Bautista will intern at social media news website Mashable in large part because of what she witnessed on Oct. 1, the day the layoffs at the Post-Standard were announced.

“It was awful. I think that’s the only word to describe it,” she said. “It was really eye-opening to see how it worked. It was, I think, a historic moment. The Post-Standard has been such a staple in the area, and those people just losing their jobs — I mean, they let go of some really great reporters.”

Layoffs naturally make headlines, but media watchers are waiting expectantly to see if the grand experiment works.

For Bob Lloyd, a 20-year newspaper veteran and professor at the Newhouse school, the changes at the Post-Standard bring mixed feelings.

“It’s sad because I like the old model,” he said, “It’s exciting because the new model is going to change with the changing readership. It makes a lot more sense for daily journalism to go for the digital model because of the speed in which you can break news. Newspapers for years were third in the race, because they were unable to break news at the speed of their electronic counterpoints in radio and television. The gift of the Internet to newspapers is that now they’re able to break news in real time in real competition with all other media.”

But Lloyd wonders about the depth and context of online reporting, hallmarks of print journalism that he worries will disappear in the Twitter generation. For Kennedy, the criticism of online content is a straw man. Content producers will react to readers’ needs.

“We don’t train customers to do anything,” said Kennedy. “Customers tell us how they want their content and in what form. We can do deep pieces. We can also have an impact with short pieces and alternative story forms. I don’t think there’s a science there that says you have to do long form print journalism in order to be serious.”

Kaplan is cautiously optimistic about the new model, but worries about the direction of online coverage, especially in areas of government and corporate oversight.

“What I worry is if newspapers become more like television stations where ‘if it bleeds, it leads.’ They’re just going to cover the easy stuff like crime and sports. That’s what I worry about,” he said. “It’s a fascinating time. It’s a scary time. I guess you could be a little hopeful. If this works, it will be great. If it doesn’t work, it could really be, in my mind, the end of our democracy as we know it, because if you don’t have people covering it, there’s no one watching these institutions.”

Seely shares those concerns. “No website is going to focus on an issue or put pressure on a politician or any institution,” he said, noting that organizations who 20 years ago would never ignore press inquiries don’t feel the same kind of pressure to respond to the media regarding major issues. “I wonder how much power it will have to hold any kind of feet to the fire. I wonder how much it will put a town on the same page. I think the loss for the community is still to be determined, because we’ve never seen anything like it before.”

For all the apprehension, Rogers remains firm in his belief that change is unavoidable, and he hopes the ends justify the means.

“What’s happening here in my perspective is vital to keep the voice of the Post-Standard alive,” he said. “It’s personally important, and I think collectively important for the people here to keep that voice alive. And it doesn’t make a hill of beans difference if we keep it alive in print or in digital — or for quite the foreseeable future — in both. So that’s the motivation for me. Keep it going. Keep it going.”

Stephen Cohen is a master’s student at Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications studying magazine, newspaper and online journalism. He also interns at the Syracuse New Times. Follow him on Twitter at @scohencopy.

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