Editor’s note: This is the third in an occasional series asking editors who’ve gone
to the web what they would do differently if they returned to newspapers.
In early 2006, the APSE Convention committee met in Orlando to discuss ideas for the upcoming summer convention in Las Vegas. It was the first day of judging that year and president Glen Crevier presided. One of the hot topics on the table was how a potential sale of the Knight-Ridder chain was going to affect our industry and more specifically, our sport departments.
The news of the pending sale was shocking enough, especially to those of us who worked in the chain. At the time, I was sports editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and remember spending very late nights and sunrises at the Torino Olympics discussing the demise of one of the country’s strongest newspaper companies. It was hard not to turn every smart business discussion into a selfish, "What does it mean for me?"
Days later, sitting around that Orlando conference room table yielded very few answers, but it was apparent to everyone in the room that this was the harbinger of things to come.
Big things. Bad things.
It was as if we were with William Prescott at Bunker Hill when he told the troops: "Don’t fire until you see the white of their eyes." Well, the newspaper industry’s eyes were opened wide when Knight-Ridder was sold a few months later and all of the posturing and warnings had new meaning. Newspapers were in a fight for survival.
WHAT WOULD I DO?
▶ CBS’s Stanke: Unleash your beat reporters and columnists to inform, entertain – and have fun with it
▶ MLB’s Jenks: Put a price on everything
▶ ESPN’s Stiegman: Fab 15 list of guiding editorial principles for a successful futur
▶ Yahoo!’s Morgan: I’d change virtually everything if I went back to newspapers
Today, that fight continues and the news is not good from the front. In the three years since that meeting in Orlando, the losses are staggering. Profits are down or gone. Jobs have been lost. Beats aren’t being covered. Not a day goes by that you don’t hear of a friend who is out of a job.
Once the foundation of journalism, newspapers are taking a beating from all sides and no end seems in sight.
And then I receive this query from Tim Wheatley:
Can you do a story for the APSE website? It’s a series I’ve started with former newspaper sports editors who’ve moved to the web. The question I pose for you to answer is "What would you do differently if you returned to newspapers now?
I had already read what Dave Morgan and Patrick Stiegman wrote before me, and agree that all are moves in the right direction, focusing on content for the new generation. That needs to happen, but I want to take it all the way to the bank.
The business is failing because the business is failing.
Certainly too simply put, leaders in the newspaper industry have not adjusted to change because they are trapped by their own shareholders or too arrogant to realize that journalism is just not going to pay the rent when the distribution system is archaic and the advertising dollars are going in other directions.
I left the newspaper business in 1996 to go work for Paul Allen’s Starwave Company, which led to a great five-plus years at ESPN, working on the Internet and television. However, in 2003 I did go back to newspapers and The Inquirer. I already have had the chance to answer, "What would you do differently?"
From 2003-07, which included a year as president of APSE, I tried to extol the virtues of the Internet business and begin to look at breaking down the hard and fast rules of church and state.
I failed to convince my managers at The Inquirer to move off their positions in two specific areas. I was unable to take control of the sports content for Philly.com, even though the Inquirer or Philadelphia Daily News produced most of it, and I was unable to work with advertising in a way to bring in more revenue for the company. I thought the ideas were solid, but fighting through the "old-school" management and red tape led to frustrations and ultimately failure.
At the St. Louis APSE Convention in 2007, I brought my agenda – sales and marketing of the Sports section – to my peers. The feedback was good and there have been a few Sports sections that benefited from the program since.
No, but it does tell me through creative thinking that a Sports section can be a more positive revenue influence instead of a deficit drain.
So, if I were to return to a newspaper today, I would take the advice of Morgan and Stiegman on content and platform development. Reshape the core and present a more modern content plan.
However, my focus would be the business of editorial. I would put a price on everything. What is the return on investment? What is necessity, what is not and how much do we spend vs. how much can we make? I am banging the same drum, except it would be louder this time.
Where there is a type of content, what are the sponsorship and subscription opportunities? Where can revenue be generated and generate it among every distribution platform available. Be exhaustive in the process!
Every priority and piece of content in the Sports section would need to be re-evaluated. Separate what is journalism (church) and what is not. If it is not church, get it sponsored in the paper, online and wherever else it may appear. Or it disappears. Get paying sponsors on the agate and the box scores, especially for the local teams and high schools. Get paid sponsors on Page 2 offerings.
Think outside the box (yes, it is over used as a cliché, but underused as an execution).
Adjust the rate cards; make sponsors want to come in. Talk to the advertiser and see what it is willing to pay. Create content for the advertiser looking for it. Advertisers are moving away from newspapers because they have been inflexible in cost and content offerings. Advertisers are looking for creative and cheaper ways (they are hit by economy as well) to send their message. Newspapers and advertisers have been good for each other for generations.
The consuming public is used to being sold to and is very good at telling what is news and what is not. They can see the conflict of interest. They will let you know. Push the envelope. It is not like subscriptions will fall any faster.
Television and radio have done it this way for years, why not the newspaper industry? If my pages look like a NASCAR Sprint Cup car, do I really care?
Not if it means survival in an industry to which you have given most of your working life.