When a University of Northern Colorado (UNC) punter stabbed his competition in the right leg, the story attracted national attention. At the Greeley (Colo.) Tribune, UNC's hometown newspaper, we didn't hesitate to post the story on our Web site as soon as we had it, scooping our print edition by more than 12 hours. The beat reporter also blogged about the news, and our multimedia editor shot and posted video of the injured punter visiting practice after his release from the hospital.
This might be called a success story in our company's quest to merge our newsroom's print and online cultures. However, the story also revealed how far we have to go. Our staff didn't think to call our multimedia editor when the UNC athletic department called a press conference to discuss the stabbing. Instead, we staffed it the traditional way—with a reporter and still photographer. And some staff members objected when we put the arrest warrant affidavit online as soon as we had it, rather than waiting for the next day's paper. We shouldn't tip off the Denver TV stations to the details, one veteran reporter told me.
Print journalists still struggle with the idea of having what they do each day go up online so quickly—increasingly accompanied by audio and visual elements. Getting it also on radio and TV is important, too. To get more comfortable, these journalists must develop new skills so they can be the ones telling stories on multiple platforms in our digital age. To do this, newspapers must invest in them, staffing newsrooms adequately and training journalists for this growth opportunity.
Instead, most large news media companies are slashing staff in a desperate bid to reduce expenses as profits plunge. This death spiral makes me fear for the future of an industry I love. As the spiral keeps spinning in this direction, what will metropolitan newspapers have left to offer Internet-savvy readers? Media economist Robert G. Picard estimates that only 15 percent of their printed content is unique to their newspaper. The low percentage helps explain how vulnerable metro newspapers are to digital competition.
During my Nieman year, I sought out experts such as Picard, who was at Harvard as a Shorenstein Fellow, to discuss the future of newspapers. Picard delivered the keynote address at the International Symposium on Online Journalism outlining this struggle. As he put it, newspapers' days as a cash cow are numbered as newspaper companies search for a way to extend their date with the financial butcher. By combining their print and online operations, newspapers will remain profitable longer. Even with this approach, Picard predicts, the day will come when newspapers will have to shift entirely to a new business model.
The Internet First Initiative
Since the age of 35, when I'd taken the editor's job at the Tribune, a family-owned company, I'd fancied myself remaining in this job for a few decades at least. And during the first of those decades, the paper did enjoy much journalistic success, including being recognized with the Robert G. McGruder Award for Diversity Leadership and The Associated Press Managing Editors' International Perspective Award. With our owners' commitment to community journalism, we were able to act like a newspaper much larger than our 26,000-daily circulation. Our staff was larger than the industry average, and we were willing to send our reporters wherever a local connection took us—from Mexico to the Dominican Republic and from Ethiopia to Liberia.
But while I was at Harvard, our company changed its name from Swift Newspapers to Swift Communications and prepared to launch an Internet First Initiative. Chief Operating Officer Robert Brown persuaded me to lead this initiative for 30 of our community newspapers while also operating the Tribune Web site.1 I still had my doubts about leaving the job I loved, but I was touched deeply when one of our two owners—sisters who carry on the rich tradition of community service established by their father, who founded the company—personally thanked me for taking on the Internet challenge.
The Swift family's principled ownership gives me hope in these uncertain times. While publicly traded companies plan exit strategies, our owners seek ways to grow their newspapers. They're prepared to drop their profit margins if they believe they can build a path toward long-term growth. Of course, that's a huge gamble with their family business at a time when no one has figured out the new business model.
Fortunately, community newspapers have an edge in the digital age. We focus on the two ways Picard explained that newspapers generate value: through specialization and exclusivity. We specialize in local content that readers can't get anywhere else. With this cushion, we can buy ourselves a little more time to learn from the mistakes being made by others.
That time is limited, however. In my new role as Internet division publisher, I have tried to instill a sense of urgency in our newsrooms and advertising departments. For the most part, journalists get it. They've read the industry headlines of the past five years; they know they need to tell stories on multiple platforms. To head us in this new direction, we've taken the following steps:
We've asked all Tribune reporters to blog to help them understand writing for a different medium.
Our online readers vote on stories for the front page of the next day's print edition.
We're training our staff to produce multimedia stories.
Even with these steps, we recognize we're a long way from being a truly converged newsroom. But we are seeing the rewards of our efforts in growing readership. Our Web sites in northern Colorado attract more than 1.1 million page views and 140,000 unique visitors monthly. Our surveys show most of these Web readers are not print subscribers, yet most live within our coverage area. Anecdotal evidence also tells me many new readers are finding us online rather than in print. Through my blog, I've heard from many younger readers and from many studying or working at our local university. For these readers, the print newspaper had become irrelevant, yet they found the quick-hitting and interactive nature of the Internet suits their needs.
Newspaper Web sites with the highest market penetration are the ones with the highest percentages of original content—not just stories shoveled from the print edition. Some newspaper Web sites have four to eight times as many online users as print subscribers, according to Clark G. Gilbert, a Harvard Business School professor who worked on the American Press Institute's Newspaper Next project. The catch is that advertisers pay only a fraction for each online user compared with a print reader.
Exploring the Business Equation
I didn't start my Nieman year with the idea that I'd spend the second half of it at the Harvard Business School. But that's where my search for newspaper's future led me. There, I found Gilbert and Clayton Christensen explaining new business models, disruptive technologies, and growth creation. Their faculty colleague Rosabeth Moss Kanter illustrated for me how little attention newspapers pay to managing change, and Elie Ofek, another professor there, reminded me how little newspapers spend on marketing and innovation. It long has chafed me that soda companies spend billions to convince consumers to spend more than a dollar on a drink that costs pennies to produce and is bad for you while newspapers produce what is the cornerstone of democracy and sell it for 50 cents, yet readers regularly complain about the cost.
One of my bigger aha moments came during Andrew McAfee's "Managing in the Information Age" class. The Readership Institute's research has told us about newspapers as defensive cultures, but this hit home as I read a case study about a German investment banking company that experimented with creating an employee wiki. Here was what is perceived to be a conservative company in a conservative industry trying to find a new way to flatten its hierarchy and encourage contributions from its workers. It was a sobering moment as this example made me even more aware of how strongly newspapers fight change.
Newspapers lacked the external vision necessary to see the vast range of opportunities created by the Internet. Instead, the questions they asked pointed inward. Why create a search engine that might make it easier for Web users to read something other than the newspaper? Why give away classified advertising online for free? Why construct a social network for people who might post questionable material? Ask such questions, and the consequence is evident in many newspaper executives' slowness to adapt to a change they knew was happening.
Harvard Business School case studies are filled with examples of pharmaceutical companies spending billions on research and development. The newspaper industry, on the other hand, has barely awakened to this need. The Newspaper Next project is a small first step in the search for a new business model for an industry so focused on protecting its once lucrative classified advertising franchise that it couldn't see how to grow the business in entirely new ways. Without a sense of vision, some appetite for risk, and a willingness to invest in future strategies, the path to irrelevance becomes much shorter.
Thinking Like a Disruptor
As the Newspaper Next project recommends, those of us at newspapers must learn to think like a disruptor. Such a mentality would tell us to act either by playing offense or defense. At the Tribune, we've chosen to go on the offense; in doing so, we've made aggressive moves into new markets such as creating a Spanish-language weekly and a youth-focused entertainment weekly. Each reaches readers well beyond the county boundaries of our traditional daily newspaper.
Many of our company's newspapers already are successful as free-distribution dailies. With the Internet setting the standard of free information, newspapers need to figure out how to compete. Unquestionably, this search for new business models will lower profit margins. One question worth asking is whether we have the guts to go after market share at the expense of the bottom line.
The days of our monopoly business practices are over. Gone, too, are the times when journalists can write a story for print only and reach a mass audience. The Harvard Business School professors, among others, advise that we can view this change as a threat or an opportunity. To choose the path of opportunity means rewriting job descriptions of everyone who now occupies the newsroom. It means looking for new partners and being willing to collaborate far outside of our comfort zone. And it means knowing that we have to cannibalize our print edition rather than grudgingly having it happen because of a corporate dictate.
If we aren't ready to compete fully in this digital game, then to punt might be the way to go. I doubt, however, that we'll get very far by stabbing Google in the leg.
Chris Cobler, a 2006 Nieman Fellow, is interactive division publisher for the Greeley (Colo.) Tribune and Swift Communications. He also has worked for The (Colorado Springs) Gazette, The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Argus Leader, and the Denton (Texas) Record-Chronicle.