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Metric system: Approaching its fourth year, Publisher Benchmarks measures up

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When Mather Economics LLC, the consultancy best known among newspapers for their data-driven subscription pricing optimization strategies, began developing Publisher Benchmarks for Inland, they set the ambitious goal of surpassing a product newspapers had relied on for more than nine decades.

Four years later, Publisher Benchmarks had proven even more vital for providing insights into a newspaper company's performance than the National Cost & Revenue Study it replaced.

It helps, of course, that Publisher Benchmarks is designed for the digital era, employing a web-based dashboard with a virtually unlimited array of customizable metrics and comparisons at the click of a mouse. And, unlike the annual NCRS, Publisher Benchmark data is refreshed every quarter, and available 24 hours a day the year round.

Publisher Benchmarks "comp sets"--categories of comparable factors--allow top executives and department leaders to see strengths and challenge areas at a glance, with the ability to see top-level views and deep dives into comparables sorted by company size, region, ownership, business model and much more.
Publisher Benchmarks is appointment viewing--for digging into performance--each quarter at The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash., says Finance Manager and Treasurer Brandon Zarzana.

Zarzana, owner and Publisher Scott Campbell and CFO Doug Ness sit down once a quarter "and talk about where we are, where we've been and where things look."

They compare themselves against other independently owned newspapers, as well as how performance internally compares to previous quarters.

For The Columbian, "the biggest usefulness of Publisher Benchmarks is in how to measure (performance within) ourselves," Zarzana says.

A big advantage of Publisher Benchmarks is the ability it gives key executives to set permission levels on access to data so department and line managers are able to get just the information they need to measure the performance of their departments. Columbian advertising and circulation managers in particular comb through the data relevant to their departments, Zarzana says.

Publisher Benchmarks has proven particularly useful for Sandusky Newspaper Group, an eclectic collection of publications.

"We're a very diverse group," says Doug Phares, the company's president and COO. "We don't have any two operations that look exactly like each other. We have small dailies and a handful of weekly located in the Rust Belt, the Mountain West, the New Southeast. We're a small group, but spread out. We find Publisher Benchmarks very insightful, especially with data that is closer to real time."

Each quarter, Phares checks Publisher Benchmarks for profitability levels and relative income from the major revenue buckets. He adds he tends to dive a bit deeper into digital revenue performance.

At the same time, the 10 Sandusky News Group publishers are diving into the data and reporting on performance results. Once a year, they all get together "to comb though (Publisher Benchmarks results) in depth," Phares says.

"In one operation, I might find nothing new, but in another, I might they've been slipping," he says. "That allows me to dig into what's happening. Like, one operation might be spending 10% more on mailroom salaries than (their peers) and I'll ask why is that, and then find an answer (in the data)."

That's typical of how top executives and line managers are using Publisher Benchmarks, says Inland Executive Director Tom Slaughter.

"Many use it as a tool to track their performance across several operational and financial dimensions," he says. "It also gives them the tremendous flexibility in comparing their paper against others by circulation, region, revenue, or other meaningful factors."

With the period for annual renewal coming up this spring, Inland is pushing to involve even more newspapers--an expansion that will make the tool even more effective.

"We're delighted that Publisher Benchmarks is a cost-effective and sophisticated benchmarking service for our members and the industry," Slaughter says.

More about Publisher Benchmarks.