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Feb. 25, 2009, 1:36 p.m.

Hearst, MediaNews: You can invent the future in San Francisco

MEMO TO: Steven Swartz (CEO, Hearst Newspapers) and Dean Singleton (CEO, MediaNews Group)

See that bridge?  When finished in 1937, it was not an incremental step.  It was a leap into the future.

Wouldn’t it be a terrific idea to search for the boldest, most imaginative solution to your problems in California?

Mr. Swartz, you’ve let it be known that Hearst will shut down the 339,000-circulation San Francisco Chronicle unless it is able to sell the paper or extract major concessions from its unions.  Mr. Singleton, MediaNews owns just about every daily paper surrounding San Francisco, but  revenue declines have forced you to impose mandatory furloughs on employees.

As Alan Mutter, the Newsosaur, suggests as part of a detailed analysis of the situation, and has suggested previously as well, MediaNews could be part of the solution.  Antitrust issues are unlikely to get in the way of a combination of some kind.  Major staff cuts are simply inevitable.  But there is an opportunity to go far beyond a simple consolidation of operations.

I’ve suggested this before but, you might have missed it.  So I’m going to repeat myself somewhat.

Mr. Swartz and Mr. Singleton, the real opportunity for Hearst and MediaNews in the Bay Area is to plan now for a truly transformational step toward the news enterprise of the future, rather than another incremental set of staff cuts and tonnage reductions on the path to oblivion.

It’s time to reinvent, to define a whole new way of doing business. In the Bay Area, that does mean merging the MediaNews papers and the Chronicle into one regional operation, but not stopping there.

Start by focusing on your Sunday editions, which are profitable, but could become much more profitable. The merged entity should cut print back to one big, highly profitable weekend package, distributed everywhere starting Friday afternoon rather than on Sunday.

The Weekend Chronicle (or pick a neutral title, like Bay Observer), would be bigger, better, more thoroughly read and more valuable to advertisers than all the current separate versions your two companies are publishing. They should drop all breaking news and focus on analysis and features. Their biggest value to readers would be as a guide to all other media.

Newspapers, especially on Sunday, have always served this “media guide” function, but haven’t effectively constructed themselves around it. Guide functionality is currently manifested in Sunday paper TV listings and reviews, book sections, movie sections, travel sections, arts sections, food and wine, fashion, real estate, home style or “living” and the like. (For some strange reason, few papers have done much to become guides to the internet, but that should be added to the mix.)

And yet this whole package is sold as a “news” paper, in a package wrapped with a breaking news section. This may have made sense until a decade ago, but it doesn’t any more. And unless it’s changed, the danger is that Sunday editions will start losing money also, eliminating any hope of returning to profitability.

Mr. Swartz and Mr. Singleton, let’s do this:  Take the camouflage off the Sunday package. Lose the hard news wrap.

Build up the “guide to all media” functionality — that’s the part subscribers are paying for, because they want and need it. Keep arts, travel, books, movies and all the rest. Add technology, internet and even magazine coverage. Include some geographically zoned sections if ad demand warrants it. Build other weekly, monthly or seasonal niche publications using the enterprise’s wealth of content.

Shift publication to the start of the weekend — Friday afternoon — to maximize the value to readers as well as newsstand shelf life (this edition would sell all week long).  Eliminate the current Saturday and Sunday editions.

Now, here’s the second big, bold step to consider:  Drop all other daily editions. Perhaps not immediately, but soon. Concentrate your sales efforts on moving the bulk of the week’s advertisers into the weekend edition — there’s still plenty of advertising that wants and needs to be in print, and this will make the weekend edition hugely profitable.  Take this step rather than considering incremental elimination of one day a week, then another, until there is nothing left.  If you move directly and completely to digital delivery of news, your audience will follow, especially in the Bay Area.

Devote about 20 percent of staff resources to the weekend product (and a fleet of niche spin-offs) and turn everyone else into online multi-media reporters in a truly online-first constellation of newsrooms.

Attract social networks around content areas. This is critical—in a sense, newspapers have always served as community social network hubs; they need to do so online.

Get the online sector ready for a big jump in mobile e-readership as new devices and apps catch on.  Offer a Bay Area daily on Kindle.

Forge alliances with TV and radio in the region — once-weekly publication allows you to ignore the FCC’s cross-ownership rule.

Differentiate the online site from the weekend print brand; they’re two different animals from now on.  But cross-promote every chance you get.

Outsource all your industrial functions and distribution; sell your buildings; become a truly digital enterprise.

Shrink the size of the business, but return to profitability.

Mr. Singleton, your firm is part of the reconfiguration of the publishing schedule in Detroit — you showed appetite for a bold step (home delivered editions on just three days) in that market, although I wish you had taken it further.  Now you have the chance to do that in California.

Mr. Swartz, in Seattle, you’ve signalled your intent to kill off the print edition of the Post-Intelligencer, while hinting that it may continue to operate an online-only P-I.  If it follows through with that, Hearst will be launching a laudable, imaginative experiment pitting a fully digital news enterprise against its former JOA partner, the Seattle Times.  With a bit of luck, you’ll break even in Seattle.

But in San Francisco, both Hearst and MediaNews need an even bigger, bolder vision and one that can make money, not just break even.  Hearst’s newspaper division is in the middle of “100 days of change.” It’s hard to see the point of eliminating nearly half the Chronicle’s staff just to stay afloat — here’s hoping that “change” might include consideration of some truly game-changing ideas.

Photo by http2007, used under Creative Commons Attribution License.

POSTED     Feb. 25, 2009, 1:36 p.m.
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