Executive Voices attracted a standing-room-only crowd of top media executives for this first-ever event Dec. 7 in Chicago.
The discussions were interactive with a capital I. Best practices, success stories and speculative ideas were batted around like a beach ball at an outdoor rock concert.
Leading the conversations—and probing participants with well-crafted questions—was an all-star industry cast: Mark Aldam, president of Hearst Newspapers; PJ Browning, president of Evening Post Industries’ newspaper division; Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives for The Washington Post; Amy Glennon, publisher, vertical businesses for Cox Media Group; Terry Kroeger, president and CEO of BH Media Group and Doug Phares, president and COO of Sandusky Newspaper Group.
Executive Voices lived up to its billing as an industry conference like no other not only in its interactivity, but also because it was conducted under the so-called “Chatham House” rule that allows the free use of any information from the meeting—but prohibits reporting the name or affiliation of anyone providing the information.
This account, then, notes discussion around the six big topics on the agenda plus any consensus that might have been reached by participants. As could be expected, the topics sparked discussion in different directions. Look for them here under the label “Sidetalk.”
Not surprisingly, some of the discussion on this topic was granular: What day goes when a newspaper decides to reduce its print schedule. The consensus, also not too surprising, is that Mondays and Saturdays are the most common days selected for elimination.
But there was also wide agreement on a perhaps more surprising sentiment that could be summed up with biblical verse: Be not afraid.
The almost universal experience with reduced frequency was that circulation does not take as big a hit as publishers feared. Dropping a day or two can actually boost subscriptions if papers on the remaining days are beefed up. One speaker’s advice: Make the papers look great.
“We’re really the ones who are afraid, not the market,” said one participant, who changed page sizes at the same time the paper reduced frequency. “The advertisers loved that we were trying something different.”
Sidetalk: Many, many participants faulted the industry—and their own operations—for not telling the newspaper story effectively. They contrasted newspapers with broadcast who frequently claim, with not much evidence, to be the “news leader” in their markets.
“We’ve begun to tell that story, but I think we’re 25 years behind,” one participant said. Another: “We should be the ones bragging about (being the market’s best news provider)—and we just don’t.”
This discussion reflects what might be called the beginning of the post-digital services era. No publisher was delusional enough to think offering digital services was a silver bullet, but it’s becoming clear—so went the consensus at Executive Voices—that newspaper-based media organizations will have to differentiate themselves even further in an environment in which many outfits call themselves digital agencies.
“We’re all selling the same cans of tomato soup,” one executive said. “Every radio group, television station, public relations agency—they’re all doing the same thing.”
Most worryingly, new vertical agencies are springing up. These specialty shops are taking business from hospitals, in particular, from newspapers.
The response: Leverage the local advantage with verticals of your own that offer e-commerce that can’t be found elsewhere, for example.
And focus on the vulnerabilities of the nationally scaled digital agency competitors. Nationals, the executives agreed, are beginning to lose business because of poor customer service—and more.
“A lot of these agencies are gouging their customers,” one participant said. “They are buying programmatic (advertising) and marking it up 600%. There’s a lot of fraud out there, frankly.”
Newspapers need to be rigorous about using data to show results, such as where they over-delivered in terms of audience.
Sidetalk: Ask the Executive Voice participants with digital services agencies who makes their best salespeople, and you’ll get a quick answer: Reps with experience selling radio. “They are used to making the big ask,” as one put it.
This topic prompted the most disagreement. Are micro-payments a good idea or a revenue suck? Should “commodity news”—the stuff carried by everyone—be behind a paywall at all? Do paywalls encourage or discourage audience growth?
Several executive indicated they are comfortable taking a print circulation hit because of hard paywalls. “We figure that’s just a lot of bad circulation we’re losing,” one said.
On the other hand, other newspapers report that their hard paywall—with day pass and trial period options—is working to increase digital subscriptions. One paper’s experience: Offered a three-month discounted digital subscription, 60% take the offer—and 80% convert to a year-round subscription.
Sidetalk: More newspaper operations appear to be getting tougher about their paywalls. “If we have a paid product, you need to pay for it,” one executive said. As for the common practice of making content free during natural disasters such as floods, the participant added: “If there’s a blizzard, that’s tough. We’re not interested in doing business with someone who isn’t doing business with us.”
Everyone, it seems, wants to get into events—and with good reason. There were likely more success stories from this topic than any other at Executive Voices. One reason: More than any other organization locally, newspapers have the promotional tools to make their events success.
And the newspapers most successful with events are offering full service—including ticketing services. One newspaper reported that its events team has become so good that it’s now staging events for other businesses in its market.
But there are a couple of cautions. “You really have to decide what your (revenue) goal is for events, because they really are a time-suck,” one participant said. This particular paper now will only take on events with big revenue upsides.
Consider establishing revenue engines around topics that focus groups and surveys show resonate with the audience—and then developing multiple revenue sources around those topics. At one newspaper that means contesting, podcasts, events, e-commerce and merchandising, newsletters and digital access.
Sidetalk: This topic stirred a lot of self-criticism about the state of newspaper call centers and even sales presentations. There were several recommendations, including calling your own call center. The phone etiquette will be lacking, several participants said.
The consensus here was clear from the start: Newspapers must get rid of the last traces of their autocratic corporate culture, a culture, as one participant said, where “we’ll tell you when you can think.”
Sometimes senior employees, nostalgic for the industry’s boom years, can dampen the enthusiasm of new recruits. And those millennials are not willing to wait those 10, 15 or 20 years that Baby Boomers spent before getting real decision-making power—nor should they.
One executive said he spends much of his time going from property to property trying to undo the effects of the autocratic past, telling employees it’s all right to take risks.
For some newspapers, creating a better culture involves a sort of back to the future movement, reviving summer barbecues and Christmas parties and giving employee planning committees more decision-making authority.
And then there’s pay. “We realized we were losing a lot of great people, and we were keeping people who were good but not great,” one participant said. Now: “We pay more to fewer people.”