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After Executive Voices 2.0, the conversation continues still

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Midway through Executive Voices 2.0 on December 5, an observer tweeted, “Lots of great ideas for the newspaper industry being tossed about 80 stories above Chicago at @inlandpress Executive Voices 2.0.”

That brought an immediate reply from a participant in that Seyfarth Shaw LLP conference room high up in Willis Tower: “I’m up to a full page of great ideas. #Executive Voices.”

Soon into this second Executive Voices, it was clear that it would not just match, but exceed, the excitement and intensity of the inaugural unconventional conference in December 2017. And it was clear that participants were going to put many of those great ideas into action back at their newspapers and other properties.

“I came away from this one-day, formatted discussion with several actionable items I know will make a difference in my organization,” Jeff Patterson, president of Adams Publishing Group’s Central Division, wrote after the meeting.

And if that participant tweeted live about filling a page of notes midway into Executive Voices, Kevin Olson, owner and publisher at Teton Media Works in Jackson, Wyoming, said he filled two pages of ideas and notes.

Like its 2017 edition, Executive Voices 2.0 was conducted under so-called “Chatham House” rules that allows the free use of any information from the meeting, but—in order to encourage a freewheeling discussion—prohibits reporting the name or affiliation of anyone providing that information.

This account, then, notes without specific attribution the discussion that emerged from the six topics facilitated by six industry leaders.

Read all about it! It’s all about the reader! Facilitated by Jim Moroney, publisher emeritus of The Dallas Morning News

This discussion began with paywalls, a topic, it is clear, that may be, in digital era terms anyway, an old one—but one that clearly is not completely settled.

A group publisher with dailies and community papers noted that it maintains a hard paywall in those markets with less media competition. “We find we’re getting more time spent on the site, and we’re getting more conversions (to subscriptions),” this publisher said.

But at the same time, the group found that when it reduced its meter in more competitive markets from an initial ceiling of 15 free articles to four now, the conversion rate actually dipped. But that really didn’t much affect revenue: As the sites lost pageviews, mostly the only advertising it lost was low-revenue programmatic.

Several participants agreed that in their A/B testing of meter limits, as one said, “It always makes sense to go down.”

There was also a lively discussion about how to price subscriptions—especially as their rates are beginning to approach levels that meet reader resistance.

“We’ve shifted from (imposing) rate increases to pricing on distribution, to figuring out where it’s really expensive to distribute and where can we efficiently deliver,” one said.

There was also near-consensus that membership trumps subscriptions. And the sell for some of those memberships are not necessarily newspaper-related. Memberships might involve exclusive access to events or to coupons.

Digital subscription pricing remains a work in progress, if the Executive Voices participants are any indication. (And they are with executive representing sizes from small weeklies to at least one metro that ranks in the top 10 largest.)

For one paper, giving digital access to Sunday edition is paying off: “Our Sunday-only print is up for the first time in, well, forever,” one publisher said. “We get them in print—and then try to upsell to more print.”

Newsletters as a way to drive conversions prompted some lively discussion as well, with one participant wondering if the industry was repeating old mistakes.

“We went to giving content away for free and then went to meters,” this person said. “And now with newsletters we’re giving our content away for free. Are we getting the conversions?”

Yup, replied several publishers who see newsletters as great tools for conversions. As one declared: “I’m radically committed to (newsletters) being free as a conversion tool.”

Funding journalism that matters

Facilitated by Alan Fisco, president and CEO of The Seattle Times

This began with a discussion of The Seattle Times’ Journalism Labs, which have been a trending topic at recent industry conferences, including Inland’s Annual Meeting in October.

But it soon emerged that The Times strategy of seeking funding for specific journalism projects from non-profits or corporations that have no input into the reporting or editing of stories is not confined to a big market.

A much smaller Midwest daily reported that the owner of a big business in its city actually approached them with a proposal to increase the paper’s business coverage.

“They provided part of the funding for business news, and we got 400 to 500 subscriptions through (the company),” the publisher said. The newsroom has not received “a lot of pushback” on tough stories, the person added. “Frankly, I was concerned. We wanted a hard-and-fast church and state guarantee.”

Others noted that they have been able to fund specific beats because of corporate funding. One said the paper’s classical music critic is two-third funded by a symphony orchestra that’s nowhere near its city.

Innovation and our future

Facilitated by Tran Ha, founder and principal of Tiny Collaborative

Why do newspapers—full of creative people—seem as an industry to be if not actively resistant to change, then certainly more in the skeptical camp?

“It’s been difficult getting innovation going because a lot of resistance from legacy teams,” one participant suggested. “We are loyal to them because of how far they’ve brought us.”

Yet the Executive Voices participants almost to a person said their organizations were trying to inculcate a culture of innovation. They are getting people off-site or inviting in experts in design thinking such as Ha, the former editor of the Chicago Tribune’s youth-oriented Red Eye newspaper and portal.

“You have to get people to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” one general manager said. And another said their papers take a pretty simple approach: Just get people together and ask, how do we make this paper better? That approach worked: “We got two gems out of this process.”

There was wide recognition that some employees flourish in innovation challenges while others flounder. One used the example of a couple of its sportswriters who created a podcast that went vial in the community while being little known inside the newspaper itself.

Timing your platform mix

Facilitated by Lisa Hurm, vice present and general manager of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On page 5 of this edition, Hurm described in an on-the-record discussion apart from Executive Voices the success the paper has had with its events program.

One theme of this topic discussion was that even apparent failures can contain the seeds of opportunity. One noted that it invested fairly heavily in developing a news for the tablet—and by the time of its launch just 10% of its audience was using tablets, having migrated to smartphones as their digital content platform.

But the realization also struck that some 80% of the users of the paper’s new digital products had “no connection to the newspaper as readers or advertisers—the platforms helped us reach people who had been doing zero advertising with us.”

Decisions about print, and even digital, frequency showed this was a topic that, like paywalls, has not yet gone away.

For some papers, the ah-ha moment on frequency was when, like an increasing number of dailies, took a holiday on publishing on holidays. Just 3.6% of subscribers cancelled—but now 36% of all subscribers are linked to its digital products that have a completely different ad base from print.

One takeaway from those who have made the plunge from seven-day to less frequent publication is that advertisers are surprisingly understanding.

“Our message on frequency is that it’s all about getting better,” one participant said. “We can’t talk about digital transformation if we don’t do it ourselves. And we should think of our advertisers who are struggling with their own digital transformation.”

Our digital expertise

Facilitated by Mark Adams, CEO of Adams Publishing Group

As digital services or ad sales discussions often do, the first question that arose on this topic was what kind of salesperson or sales team do you need to succeed in digital.

One way to tell, according to one group executive: “The legacy reps who are really into (selling digital) see it as a career rather than a job. At our organization, a 60-plus year-old woman is the most successful digital seller.”

Others recommend pairing a legacy rep with a digital specialist, because they’ve seen the success of this shadowing experience.

And what about resource-scarce community papers? One group of mostly small-circ newspaper gathers about 25 businesses for lunch when the group’s digital specialist is in town, attempting to close as many deals as possible in one fell swoop.

And when selling digital ads or services, several participants said, never underestimate the power of print.

“Print definitely helps the brand,” one said. “These businesses have been burned by startup digital agencies who have come and left or have rapid turnover. So w e do a pretty good job of saying we’re going to be here. We’ve been here for 100 years, and we have a building right now the street. We’re here to stay.”

New revenue/new business models

Facilitated by Jason Taylor, president of New Media Investment Group Ventures

Like Executive Voices 2.0’s first discussion on revenue from readers, much of this conversation revolved around events.

Some of the takeaways emphasized that in the events space and other areas, what’s old is new again.

Consider job fairs, which began falling off a cliff in 2001 and again in 2008 and 2011. Well, they’re back, several groups reported. And one big revenue maker for career fairs is government, local, state and federal. “It’s unbelievable how much money the governments have to spend” on these fairs, one participant reported.

It’s much the same for automotive, with dealers recognizing that newspaper print and digital packages can be more effective selling cars than digital verticals. “We’re finally seeing year-over-year growth for the first time in six years,” one group publisher said.

One event not to overlook: Races, like 10Ks or marathons. They are not overly expensive to operate, title sponsors are fairly easy to sell—and the newspaper gets a big database of active, affluent people.

One final topic had to do with vetting new revenue sources. One chain’s solution: “The most productive thing we do is to let people know what doesn’t work. We’ve got a good mechanism for sharing when things don’t work.”