2018 Annual Meeting

By design, innovation framed the 133rd Annual Meeting

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At The Herald-Times in Bloomington, Indiana, the outcome of introducing design thinking to its staff was not so much that they began thinking outside the box—but thinking about a box and what could be inside of it.

Working with Tran Ha’s Tiny Collaborative, The Herald-Times was looking to develop a product or service for its natural market: The students and faculty at Indiana University. The paper sent people drawn from all of its departments to interview and observe students on campus and off.

What they found, Publisher Cory Bollinger said, was that IU students have a great sense of pride in Bloomington and a continuing connection with the town.

So, in effect, the newspaper decided to box up the Bloomington experience. It created Btown Box, a literal gift box filled with things you’d have to have lived in Bloomington to cherish: Pint glasses from Nick’s, a bag of popcorn from PopKorn on Kirkwood, granola from Bakehouse, “The Iconic Brownie” from Lucky Guy Bakery and similar local stuff that lives up to its branding: “Authentic Bloomington. Delivered.”

Btown Box—which is still in a pilot stage and is not branded a Herald-Times product—looks like it will turn out to be a success for the newspaper, Bollinger said. And a success that is drawing buyers who graduated IU and left Bloomington long ago.

“We thought we were going for a big student market,” Bollinger told a session on design thinking at the 133rd Annual Meeting in Chicago September 10. “But we’ve got them for four years. We’ve (been sending Btown Box) to people who have a connection going back 50 years.”

The development of Btown Box is an apt symbol for the 2018 Annual Meeting. The idea germinated because innovation was encouraged through new thinking—and the result was a practical product with the potential to create a brand-new revenue stream.

The dual themes of blue-sky innovation thinking and real-life success stories were woven through the formal agenda, the hallway conversations and the after-hours idea exchanges through the three days in Chicago.

Another example of innovation meeting a practical problem came from The Seattle Times. Its problem-to-be-solved was an obvious and universal one in the newspaper industry, noted Sharon Pian Chan, vice president of innovation, product and development: The revenue to support journalism is declining.

The paper’s solution sprung from journalism itself. Journalism has the power to improve the world and the greater Seattle region, the newspaper reasoned, because it deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent public issues.

It turns out there are non-profits, foundations and corporations that are also interested in helping journalism improve the world.

“Community funded journalism at The Seattle Times is independent journalism that drives social impact, and is funded by organizations that want to improve the world,” Chan said.

And there is substantial funding from these organizations. An “education lab” focused on the challenges of public schools has raised $2.5 million over seven years, funding a reporter, engagement editor and a part-time editor. A “traffic lab” focusing on Seattle’s notorious congestion is funded for two years for $400,000, enough for two reporters, an engagement editor and a part-time editor. “Project Homeless” is a one-year initiative funding two reporters, one multi-media producer/engagement editor and an editor for $250,000.

All told, The Times has raised nearly $5 million to fund its journalism, and forged 21 partnerships with foundations, philanthropies and corporations.

“These are issues that can be applied anywhere,” Chan said of the specific projects. “You will find the most potential in organizations in your own backyards.”

Still, there are caveats. Developing relationships with funders is a long-term process, averaging seven years from approach to full funding. Lines to ensure the journalists are independent of funders must be clearly drawn.

And as impressive as the numbers are at The Times, Chan added: “This is not going to save the newspaper industry. Community funded journalism is about 1% of the newsroom budget.”

Sessions at the Annual Meeting also demonstrated that newspapers need not put on their lab coats nor radically transform their creation process to implement subtle changes in thinking that pay off in big ways.

Consider Herald-Mail Media, publisher of the flagship Hagerstown, Maryland, daily as well as niche publications, magazines, an events business and digital properties. When the company engaged Charity Huff, managing partner of Maroon Ventures, she taught a simple change in perspective to the sales team.

“I went there to train the staff to sell the value of the (parent) Schurz Communications audience, with much less focus on selling individual products,” Huff said.

That meant more work for sales reps, and a somewhat scary learning curve, reported Andy Bruns, Herald-Mail Media’s president and publisher, and Brittney Hamilton, its advertising director.

“It’s scary because you don’t want to lose focus on the products and special sections you are selling,” Hamilton said. “And taking an audience-selling approach might take four or five calls to be done right.”

In the new approach, reps fit the audience with the right products rather than push pre-made packages. “We were selling them whatever made sense to us, as opposed to using this diverse portfolio, and slice and dice it to benefit the advertiser,” Burns said.

With this new perspective even the flagship Herald-Mail daily is regarded as a product that may not be right for every advertiser.

“I’ve been telling people that The Herald-Mail is our biggest niche product,” Bruns said. “It’s a good niche product with good demographics. But it’s a niche product.”

Just as the sales rep had to become reacquainted with the power of Herald-Mail Media’s audiences, so the reps had to educate their regular and prospective advertisers.

“We made the reps sit down with advertisers they may have had for 20 years, and talk about the audience we have,” Hamilton said.

The results, from January to the September beginning of the Annual Meeting: The Herald-Mail Media outside sales team of six reps has written $901,413 in committed advertising revenue over a three-, six- or 12-month. And nearly a quarter of that was new revenue, Bruns said. The team has signed 134 contracts, and gained 68 new businesses.

Concentrating on selling audience has also changed the revenue mix. Niche publications and events, which the company reports together, went from 2% in August 2013 to 21% this August. Digital jumped from 18% of revenue to 33% while ROP print dropped from 58% to 35%.

And there was a change in staff morale, Hamilton said: “The sales rep felt empowered, they felt good about being in the newspaper industry.”

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