18 People to Watch in '18


Aaron Kotarek

Vice President, Circulation, Oahu Publications Inc.

What we’ve watched: Aaron Kotarek is an evangelist for the continuing power of print. He’s responsible for a wide portfolio of print products, including five dailies, military newspapers, alternative papers, community weeklies, and niche magazines that target residents and tourists.

Under his audience development leadership, the flagship Honolulu Star-Advertiser has grown from 177,458 in 2011 to 285,680 in 2016—making it the 11th largest metro in the U.S.

How does the Star-Advertiser do it? With a comprehensive strategy that includes a hard paywall; an aggressive stop program that keeps churn remarkably low; subscription pricing that is lower—though segmented with the help of Mather Economics LLC—than the average metro; and a wide-ranging affinity program with hotels, charities and community organizations.

What’s ahead in 2018? Look for Kotarek to continue to prod print circ levels up even as he acknowledges the future belongs to digital. But as he told the Annual Meeting in September: “Digital-first, digital-centric, etc. sounds peculiar to us when the majority of our revenues are still generated from print.” Look for him to be offering a thicker flagship paper, too, as it continually adds to content.

Kristy O’Connor

Director of Digital Sales and Event Marketing, Black Press Group

What we’ve watched: Let Black Press’ COO for the British Columbia Divison, Randy Blair, explain her impact: “Over the past three years Kristy has led the development, implementation and monetization of several key revenue channels for Black Press Group, including a highly successful recruitment platform, an obit platform, a free classified platform and an event marketing division that has produced several highly acclaimed career fairs and bridal shows across British Columbia.”

Though Kristy O’Connor says her team went into events “on a wing and a prayer, so to speak,” the execution reflects meticulous planning and hard work. The recruitment events—called “Black Press Extreme Education and Career Fair”—are held in eight communities in B.C., with exhibitors offered six different packages that include print, radio, websites and social media. The best feature: 90% of revenue generated—more than $500,000 Canadian—is new business.

What’s ahead in 2018: A push into the national classified space. Expect success Randy Blair says: “She is highly innovative, extremely resilient and has been a driving force in the successful transformation of Black Press Group to a multichannel media company.”

J. Brian Monihan

Vice President of Pamplin Media Group andpublisher of the Oregon papers Lake OswegoReview, West Linn Tidings, Wilsonville Spokeman, SW Community Connection, and The Bee

What we’ve watched: With not a lot of fanfare, Pamplin Media Group has made deep inroads in the Portland, Oregon, market with its portfolio of 24 community papers, most weeklies. “That’s still driving probably 95% of revenue,” Monihan says. But they are trying—and succeeding—in growing their digital footprint to make the convincing case to the SMBs that Pamplin is the only media in the region that can deliver all the market with all the tools.

Results: In many of its communities, Pamplin newspapers have strikingly high penetrations, upwards of 50%. And just its Insider sales program—which combines digital capabilities with print—has averaged $750,000 in revenue per year for the past two years.

But wait…Isn’t Portland—arguably the third-most sophisticated high-tech region in America—a place where a community newspaper group would get crushed if it ventured into digital? Turns out even “Silicon Forest,” as the area is known, has Mom&Pops with neither the time, inclination or tech know-how to want to go it alone. Pamplin offers an attractive solution.

What’s ahead in 2018: “The focus of our sales team is back to basics: We are making sure that our sales teams are focused on consultative selling. Taking the time to interview and listen to their clients to understand what their marketing needs are. Once we do this, we are in a better position to create custom marketing solutions to better serve them for the long term.”
One other specific goal: Rebuilding real estate revenue by “helping local agents be the definitive solution for their neighborhood.”

Virginia L. Cowenhoven

Associate publisher and director, The Bakersfield Californian

What we’ve watched: In the November issue of The Inlander, Virginia Cowenhoven said that 2016 was the year of mobile at The Bakersfield Californian, and that 2017 was the year of video. The fifth-generation member of the newspaper family serves on the editorial board, always, she said, looking to “find the balance of legacy and the brand and what that means with new platforms.”

What’s ahead in 2018? In a word, audio. And of course, continual strategic planning.

Jeff D’Alessio

Editor, The News-Gazette, Champaign, Ill.

What we’ve watched: Since late 2013, when former sportswriter Jeff D’Alessio returned to The News-Gazette after a decade at other metros, the newspaper has picked up accolade after accolade, including being named the state’s best newspaper in its class by the Illinois Press Association and recognized as “News Innovator of the Year” for D’Alessio’s “50 Ways to Engage Our Readers” project.

In the newspaper’s most ambitious project to date, D’Alessio got more than 1,000 alumni to contribute to a celebration of the University of Illinois’ 150th anniversary. Beyond deep audience engagement, the project generated nearly $20,000 in new revenue. His “Clergy Corner” columns engage an audience most newspapers essentially abandoned decades ago.

What’s ahead in 2018? “One of the big opportunities and challenge we have is integrating radio fully into the newsroom,” D’Alessio said. In 2017, the company’s radio station, WDWS, moved physically into The News-Gazette offices. “The newsroom looks a lot different than it did six months ago.”
He oversees the training of newspaper writers in radio and radio reporters in writing longer form stories. “We’re figuring out how we can get more news stories by having a few more bodies,” he said. Including new blood: Three of the ten full-time staff are under 25, he notes, adding, “We’re very blessed to have people who’ve been here 20, 30, 40 years.”

Jeremy McBain

Executive Editor, Petoskey (Mich.) News-Review and Charlevoix (Mich.) Courier

What we’ve watched: It’s not just us watching. The industry is taking notice of this editor of newspapers that punch well above their weight, especially in digital.

McBain, who is chair of Schurz Communication’s Editors Committee, started the newsroom transformation in Petoskey by splitting the staff into a digital and a print team. In short order, he said, “What we had was a team that knew how to use all these digital technologies, write digital-savvy stories, create podcast, use augmented reality to tell stories, and use 360 video storytelling.”

On the print side, he increased the number of watchdog or enterprise stories to at least three week. He also replaced the USA Today national section with a new state and local section with content he himself curates. “Looking at the (audience) analytics, there was still a desire out there for national and state news,” McBain said. “It increased the size of the paper and complements the hyperlocal stories we produce, We want to give the audience more meat, more in-depth (content).”

What’s ahead in 2018? More podcasts and more video. The digital team is working with specific goals that they’ve been reaching—with the result that the video viewership is up 300% in the last year.

Also ahead: Targeting SMBs with a new sponsored content team that will work with the advertising department. And on the horizon is producing more products—different for print or digital—based on analytics of the far northern Michigan market.

Jen Zielinski

Digital editor for the Okanagan region in British Columbia for Black Press

What we’ve watched: Jen Zielinski has jump-started the digital—and especially digital video—presence of the 10 community newspapers she’s responsible for.

When she arrived from as a video journalist at Castanet, one of the biggest players in online news in B.C., the Black Press Okanagan papers each had only about 1,000 likes on Facebook. Now most of them have10,000.

What her bosses say: Laura Baziuk: “She has taught us skills that have helped to shape our digital strategy and to develop a proven model that builds audience across all of our websites.”

Overcoming: And that was a challenge in the rural area, where some reporters, in 2016, didn’t even own a cellphone, let alone a smartphone. Now they are posting video from their iPhones. Journalists at the small-circ papers are posting some 15 to 20 videos a week.

Baptism by fire: The biggest B.C. story of 2017 was the summer wildfires.

Laura Baziuk again: “Not only did she work around the clock when thousands of people were forced out of their homes—coaching staff, editing video coming in from the field, and gathering updates from the BC Wildfire Service—Jen also went to one of the largest blazes to film behind the fire lines and produce stunning visuals of the devastation. She demonstrated that a leader can get out in the field like anyone else, which went a long way with our local reporters.”

For 2018: “Last year the goal was to train reporters and get people comfortable with digital, especially video,” Jen Zielinski said. That helped them start to become competitive with digital news pureplays who are targeting rural, when before they essentially ceded digital to them. “My goal is to change that mindset, to let them know that we’re all in the game—and we can succeed.”

The final word from Laura Baziuk: “I see Jen’s role only growing within Black Press. She has put in a tremendous effort into getting our newsrooms going on digital, often as the first person with whom we develop and roll out a new strategy. She has the vision to help us in our goal to become the No. 1 news agency in the province.”

Kristen Czaban

Publisher, The Sheridan Press

What we’ve watched: An accomplished reporter, writer, editor – and newly named publisher – Czaban is also an active innovator. She launched a number of digital initiatives after becoming managing editor five years ago, increased the frequency of the Destination Sheridan magazine and launched the FAB (For, About, By) Women’s Conference.

How does Czaban do it? She’s curious. Curiosity and the need for a job after earning a degree in journalism from Northwestern University led her to Sheridan in the first place. There she started as a beat reporter and covered nearly every one. Now she looks for curiosity in those she hires and works with.

What’s ahead in 2018? Learning the ropes of her expanded job responsibilities as publisher. Look for Czaban to be a quick study and to continue to innovate and experiment with how best to mix print with emerging digital technologies to deliver solid reporting on all facets of her community. (See “A few minutes with Kristen Czaban” also in this issue).

Gaylen Blosser

Freelance sports reporter/photographer, The Early Bird Newspaper
and Bluebag Media

What we’ve watched: The 68-year-old Blosser is a one-man sports department, says Keith L. Foutz, The Early Bird’s owner and publisher. rformers to the newspaper website.

Blosser is a digital pioneer at the paper who knows how to engage the community. For example, he developed the paper’s “fan cam,” which includes hundreds of shots of fans along with several hundred images of the local high school players Blosser shoots and posts each week. The fan cam increased site traffic substantially and generates literally hundreds of positive comments and shares from readers. The popular feature also has increased time spent on the website dramatically.

Blosser has become so much a fixture in the community that he was nominated by the students of Grenville High School to be Grand Marshall of the school’s Homecoming Parade. It was the only time someone other than a Greenville High School alumni has been given the honor.

The Vietnam vet spends 75 to 80 hours week in and week out covering local sporting events and the kids who participate in them, Foutz noe. He helped create an athlete of the week program that focuses on the positive achievements of area students. The freelancer has invested thousands of dollars in his own camera equipment, editing software and computer gear used to increase the breadth and depth of his coverage, Foutz says.

What’s head in 2018? More dedication to his role as the voice of kids’ sports in his community. Blosser clearly loves his job and says he “does it for the kids.” Given his work ethic and penchant for creative new ways to engage and entertain his readers, Blosser is sure to discover additional avenues to deliver the positive news of the young people in his community to a wider audience.

Jeremy Mims

Head of Strategy, SpokenLayer

What we’ve watched: Jeremy Mims has been on the newspaper radar for quite a some time. He was co-founder of OwnLocal, which powered automated digital ad agencies for hundreds of newspapers in the United States and other nations.

This summer, he followed up an investment in SpokenLayer by joining full-time the provider of a platform that creates, distributes and monetizes audio. SpokenLayer is a leader in providing content for voice-enabled in-home devices such as Alexa and Google Home.

“Since then, we’ve started working with more and more partners, but the interesting thing with this company is it works with national (media companies) but obviously my passion is for local, and I’m coming on to be sure that local gets a place at the table,” Jeremy Mims said.

SpokenLayer just received a round of financing from investors including two Inland member companies, United Communications Company of Kenosha, Wis., and Trib Total Media. It is already delivering content to in-home digital assistants for McClatchy, Gannett and Hearst. “Of course we want to work everyone,” Mims said.

What’s ahead for 2018? “The theme of 2018 will be building real relationships with the people who use our products,” he said.
This is the dawn of the era of audio, and newspapers will have to “figure out how to make spoken word a compelling experience, a habitual experience and a good experience for advertisers.”

SpokenLayer, he added, is ready to help newspapers also “figure out how to get our shar of the $20 billion terrestrial broadcast” business.

Mark Baumgarten

Editorial Director, King County (Wash.) News Desk, Sound Publications; and
Editor, Seattle Weekly

What we’ve watched: In his five years as editor of the Seattle Weekly, Mark Baumgarten changed the city’s perception of the alt-weekly by re-working its content to more consistently publish terrific journalism. Last year he also started a curated newsletter that goes out to Sound’s many suburban papers.

“As part of that, I started really looking at the suburban publications Sound publishes and started to notice a lot of redundancies—reporters writing the same story essentially,” he said. And those reporters and editors were also responsible for page design—“a huge waste of time.”

At the same time, revenue wasn’t following the consistently better journalism of the Seattle Weekly. The newspaper and its siblings, Baumgarten decided, didn’t have a content problem—they had a structural problem.

“So I formulated this idea of how they could work together better to stop the redundancies and improve quality,” he said. “I wanted to have a community of journalists working together to create more impactful journalism.”
Baumgarten’s solution is the King County News Desk, centralized in a Bellevue office, and not simply facilitating communications among journalists to end redundancies, but providing production support and product development for all Sound papers.

Sound executives also credit Baumgarten with developing new revenue-generating strategies, including helping re-design its website and print products.

What’s ahead in 2018? Mark Baumgarten is overseeing the launch of a weekly narrative storytelling podcast—think “This American Life”—centered on Seattle and its suburbs. “We’re going to take advantage of on-the-ground reporters that no other (area) media have,” he said. “They can act as 30 co-producers.”

Henry Lopez

Digital Enterprise Editor, The Santa Fe New Mexican

What we’ve watched: Digital enterprise editor doesn’t really begin to describe what Henry Lopez does for the New Mexican. While remaining digital editor, this summer he took charge of the photography department. He gave a multimedia perspective to staff photographers and trained reporters in photography and video. During 2017, he oversaw a dramatic increase in livestreaming news and postings of 360-degree video. He also significantly grew the paper’s social media audience.

In nominating Henry Lopez for “18 to Watch in ’18,” New Mexican Editor Phil Casaus said, “The number fits. Henry seems to work 18 hours a day here. Henry is the dictionary-definition a newsroom leader.”

What’s ahead in 2018? As last year ended, Henry Lopez added another hat, taking over the marketing team. “So Ive got one foot on both sides of the fence,” he said. “We’re really trying to create an atmosphere and culture where folks communicate better about what is coming to find marketing opportunities.” Also ahead, looking for more contests, more podcasts and launching content on the voice assistant platforms including Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home.

Shannon Lough

Editor, The Northern View, Prince Rupert, British Columbia

What we’ve watched: Here’s what Publisher Todd Hamilton says of Shannon Lough: “Shannon has led an editorial resurgence in both print and digital. In the time she has been with The Northern View and our sister publications, she has not only earned provincial editorial awards but pioneered a resurgence—locally, regionally and nationally—at Black Press newsrooms showing what smaller community newspapers can accomplish.”

One of those accomplishments was a three-part multimedia production for elementary and high school students that focuses on the culture and history of the northern B.C. region, where 60% of pupils are First Nation indigenous people. Students are shown in the video speaking English, French and Sm’algyax, an indigenous tongue. Lough got so involved in the project that she’s now learning the difficult language.

What’s ahead in 2018? More video, for one thing. 2017 was “a kind of proof of concept that we’re capable of doing videos and print—and growing audience in both,” Lough said. And to videos the paper will add audio podcasts. She’s exploring ways that the audience can easily access podcasts of interviews reporters do in the normal course of work. Another goal is to get oral histories of the many aging First Nations elders. And there may be more in store for her personal career. “Shannon is brilliantly rising through the ranks of Black Press’ Canadian division,” Publisher Hamilton said.

Steve Ortman

Sportswriter, Telegraph Herald, Dubuque, Iowa

What we’ve watched: “Steve Ortman had been a mild-mannered sportswriter, churning out game coverage and tracking athletes all over our 10-county coverage area,” Telegraph Herald Executive Editor Amy Gilligan wrote nominating him for “18 to Watch in ’18.

“Then we put him in front of a camera,” she added, describing him as “part game-show host, part sports analyst—with a dash of professional wrestler thrown in.

She’s describing his weekly More Than The Score digital video program that reports on Dubuque-area prep sports, but also gets the high school athletes involved in wacky skits and stunts that present him as a clumsy, good-hearted goof. One good recent example: Attempting to get a cinnamon bun out of the cafeteria vending machine, he bobbles it and it flies away. Two girls volleyball players, set it up and spike it back to Ortman, who falls backwards, knocking over chairs.

More Than The Score began like a traditional sports talk show with Ortman and another reporter seated and talking very formally about the prep sports scene. “But when I think of my job as sportswriter, I think fun,” Ortman said. “So I started squeezing in a bit of comedy here and there. Once it started getting traction, I started (involving) the athletes. I tell them, it’s a light-hearted show, it’s fun, feel free to show your personality.”

The clowning around is showing real results in engaging and growing audience for Telegraph Herald videos, especially among high school kids, Gilligan says.

What’s ahead in 2018? Steve Ortman promises to keep stretching the comedy bits to ever-greater levels of goofiness. But he’d also like to make one point: “I’m actually not as clumsy and goofy in real life as you see in the show.”