Even the smallest news organizations can be trail-blazers. Saving Community Journalism: The Path to Profitability follows the journey of a dozen newspapers as their publishers, editors and owners attempt to reinvent the way they do business.
Each one of these organizations is at a different point. Some newspapers have digitally savvy readers, advertisers and employees who are adopting new technologies and incorporating them into their daily routines. Others still struggle to move their loyal customers and longtime employees beyond the print-only world of yesterday. A few are fortunate to have deep-pocket investors who are in it for the long-term. Most have owners that are more focused on controlling costs as revenues plummet.
Despite the unique challenges they face, all have recognized the imperative to change. Because of their diversity, their successes and failures are very instructive for most of the country’s 11,000 community news organizations. Here’s a profile of the group and some of the shared trends uncovered by our research:
- They serve geographic and ethnic communities in both our rural heartland and urban centers, and range in size from a 7,000 circulation weekly to a daily with 90,000 subscribers. But even in the most remote areas of the country, all are confronting dramatic shifts in consumer behavior as digital and mobile technologies reach more and more people.
- Seven of these papers are published daily. Given changing reader and advertiser preferences, all of the publishers and editors of dailies and some non-dailies anticipate a time in the not-to-distant future when they will publish the print edition less frequently. The most far-sighted are actively managing the transition, educating readers to look online for certain features and developing in-house digital advertising expertise among their sales representatives.
- Seven of the newspapers are locally owned and operated, and, not surprisingly, ownership plays a significant role in how newspapers approach innovation. Independent newspapers often have more flexibility to start and stop initiatives. However, they often lack the financial resources available to newspapers owned by a corporation, which can spread risk and investment across several properties. Also, ownership changes often result in different strategic approaches. Those who have been leading change under the previous owner may discover that their vision for the future is not shared by the new one. Three of the innovative editors and publishers profiled in the book came to this conclusion after a change in ownership, and left the paper where they had been employed for many years.
- Eight of these newspapers serve communities that are economically challenged and in danger of being left behind because of their high rates of poverty and unemployment. Publishers of these papers must be especially enterprising and creative in pursuing new forms of revenue.
- Despite the economic challenges facing many of these organizations, most excel journalistically, informing and educating residents about quality-of-life issues that affect the long-term health and well-being of the community. Four of the twelve, including three of smallest, have been awarded Pulitzer Prizes for their reporting.
The story is still unfolding for all community news organizations, and we do not know yet who will ultimately prevail with customers and investors. But, we are beginning to get some answers. Change begins with the vision – the “big idea.” The most successful newspaper innovators then develop an analytical framework for assessing the risk and return of new ventures, and purposefully implement strategies to address the three simultaneous assaults leveled by the Internet on cost structure, readership and advertising base. They understand there will be successes and failures. They seek to understand why they succeeded or failed, and then incorporate that knowledge into the everyday routine of the organization.
Today, May 8, I’ll lead a discussion at the University of North Carolina among six innovators, profiled in the book and on the website, savingcommunityjournalism.com, about the lessons they have learned as they sought to lead change. Two are publishers of dailies in small and midsized markets; two are leaders of twice weekly papers; and two are educator/consultants, who have worked on large newspapers and now advise leaders in for-profit and nonprofit news organizations. The six will connect the dots between vision and strategy, so you can extrapolate and apply what they have learned to your news organization. Follow the discussion at http://new.livestream.com/accounts/191743/ncnewspaperacademy.
For more information on the program, check out the Events listing on the "Staying Up-to-Date" page at savingcommunityjournalism.com. Then, join the conversation! Follow us on Twitter @businessofnews and join our Saving Community Journalism LinkedIn Group.