So, Chris Reen, what is that you do?
Since March I’ve been president and publisher of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, so I’ve been immersing myself with the staff and the terrific work and journalism we’re doing here in the Pikes Peak region. I’m trying to determine, like all of us are in the industry, what our business model looks like going
forward in this environment.
And to the president and publisher role at The Gazette, you will be adding the role of the first president of the new association created by the merger of Inland and the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association. Can you describe the evolution of that merger, and your role in making it happen?
Well when the merger came up, I was, of course, the president and publisher of The Oklahoman, and I had been part of SNPA for many, many years. It has been an important part of my career in terms of training, networking, its event. Ultimately,
I became president and then chairman of SNPA. At that time,
(SNPA and Inland) began to talk about the possibility of a merger. The two associations are similar in very many ways. Both organizations are more than 100 years old. As we talked, we recognized a common need to join together. I was named by my board to be co-chairman of what we called the merger exploration team along with co-chair (and current Inland president) Doug Phares. Ultimately, we made a recommendation to our individual boards who approved the merger, which was successfully voted on (by members) in the last month, and I’ve been asked to be the first president.
What goals have you set personally as this new association’s first president?
As the first president, I’m focused primarily on a smooth transition… paying close attention and respect to the cultures, so my primary goal is to make sure this is a smooth transition.
Number two is focusing on membership. We must offer the best training, best practices, important events, and the strongest programming we can. I’ll also be focusing on what the vision will be for this new association. We’ve already enumerated it: To be the leading and unifying voice for the industry, and that starts in large part with educating the community in the importance of what we do, everyone, readers, advertisers, and the community at large.
You discovered something important about the importance
of educating people on, so to speak, the brand when you were at The Oklahoman.
The Oklahoman is an institution, over 100 years old, and you would think everyone would know our brand and be familiar with it. We thought, “Oh, we don’t need to do any marketing—everyone knows who we are.”
But then you did some market research.
We were shocked by the results of the market research, on aided and unaided awareness, on purchase or buying intent—we scored really badly. And it was a real stark profile
of a brand in decline. I’m a strong believer in marketing, and its one area that we as an industry have cut in recent years. (The lack of marketing) certainly translates to our industry, to our individual properties— and to our associations.
By all accounts the branding campaign was a success in
Oklahoma City. In retrospect, maybe those initial results should not have been surprising?
The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building (in Oklahoma City) was April 19, 1995. Well, fully 50% of people in Oklahoma City just 20 years later weren’t there at the time,
because it’s a growth market. They don’t necessarily know the history and the institutions that were part of
that history. You have to be able to tell that message with the community.
When you were named president and soon-to-be publisher of The Gazette last November, you told employees that the newspaper industry was, quote, “a difficult industry and that, quote, “It is a difficult time to be in this industry.” So, the obvious question: Why did you choose to stay in the industry after leaving The Oklahoman?
There’s no escaping the fact it is a difficult industry and time. I tell everyone it is not for the faint of heart. You have to want to understand the mission and be part of the team looking for solutions. When The Oklahoman sold to Gatehouse
(on October 1, 2018) I certainly had the opportunity to stay and work for a bank or a foundation or something. I had been in Oklahoma City for 15 years. I raised my kids in Oklahoma
City. But I didn’t feel personally that I was I was done with this industry. So when I had the opportunity to continue with Anschutz, and their exciting ideas of spreading journalism
across the state, plus the love of being in this industry, I wanted to stay in the industry.
And how did you get into the newspaper industry in the first
place, what attracted you to it?
It was a mistake. (Laughs). I worked on the business side of the student-run newspaper when I was at the University of Buffalo. I got an internship at The Buffalo News, and then was hired. I figured I’d stay a year until I figured out if I was going to be a lawyer or something else. I know it sounds cliché, but it gets in your blood. I’ve always loved the business of this industry as well as the journalism. And along the way there’s been so much change. For 30 years (before I started in the industry), nothing changed. In the last 30 years everything changed, and now it’s at an accelerated pace. But I’ve always been open to change, and want to see (the industry) be successful.
You created and led a full-service digital agency, Big Wing, in Oklahoma City. What lessons did you take away from that experience, and do you offer something similar in Colorado Springs? The biggest lesson we learned is we have to be in the business of digital services. Newspapers have great relationships with small businesses and they trust us. There are some differences with what we do here in digital services. We built it all in-house in Oklahoma City, and focused on scaling outside of Oklahoma. We ended up being in 25-26 states. Here, we’re primarily focused on state of Colorado. But it’s important part of our portfolio.
And finally, in your more than 30 years in this industry you’ve worked at newspapers owned by private and public companies, and longer, it seems, at private companies. Do you find a difference in culture between the two forms of ownership?
I guess if I had a preference, it’d be for private ownership. There are pros and cons to both. On public side of the things, what they bring is scale, and in this industry it’s really important to scale. Private owners are still really about the mission. For instance, we’re growing the size of our newsroom with a statewide investigative team…But it’s not a matter of mission or margins. I think there’s room for both mission and margin. Back to the original question about what I do. In addition to the paper, we have Colorado Politics, a magazine and website. We have Out There Colorado, the leading digital platform on everything outdoor in Colorado. And we continue to expand in events and the experiential side of our business.