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March 10, 2009, 8:08 a.m.

Ron Royhab: Newspapers, like kindergartners, need to share

When I was in Toledo Friday, I stopped by the first newspaper to give me a job, The Toledo Blade. You may know The Blade as a family-owned paper that has historically punched well above its weight; it was for many years the smallest American newspaper to maintain a full-time foreign bureau (first in Paris, then in London), and in the 2000s it’s won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting and been a finalist two other times (for public service and for investigative reporting).

But The Blade has gotten notice in the past year for being one of the eight founding members of the Ohio News Organization, a collaborative in which the state’s major papers freely share their stories (and now their photos and graphics) with one another. All the Ohio papers have seen major cutbacks in recent years — The Blade’s newsroom staff is about half the size it was five years ago — and their willingness to beat swords into plowshares has been a model for other cooperatives around the country among papers with declining resources.

I interviewed my old boss, executive editor Ron Royhab, about how the sharing has evolved, how it has changed the way newspapers chase stories, and whether there might be a way to monetize the work they do. Some of the highlights:

— Whether cooperation can dampen the amount of original reporting in a state;
— What’s the biggest factor keeping The Blade in the Associated Press;
— What a good news cooperative needs to succeed; and
— A business model that could (could!) turn sharing into profits.

(Update: The AP’s Paul Colford wanted to respond to this interview. Here’s the new post about it.)

There’s a full transcript of our conversation after the jump. (And apologies for the video getting unstuck from the audio a bit.)

Joshua Benton: We’re here talking with Ron Royhab, my former boss at The Toledo Blade. When I was here some years ago, I was for a time in Columbus for you guys. And there was lots of competition between all the — you know, The Cincinnati Post, rest in peace, and all the other papers.

And it seems as some level — it would seem strange in that environment that the news in Ohio journalism for the last year or so would be cooperation between all the major newspapers. Can you talk about what the impetus behind that shift was? What was it that led previously very competitive organizations to think “we should cooperate some way?”

Ron Royhab: Well, probably a couple of years ago we had a meeting of all the largest papers in the state. And the purpose of that meeting was just to share ideas. We have newsroom budgets that are being slashed, we were losing people to layoffs or threatening to be laid off. So we thought: Why we dont get together, talk about these things — how are you coping, what are you doing, this kind of thing.

The impetus for that was Ben Marrison, who is the editor of The Columbus Dispatch, and we got all the editors of the eight largest newspapers. And we met, and found that we really could can share some really good ideas. And then we were talking about the high cost of the Associated Press and we were all upset. The Blade, for an example, which is a medium-sized paper, was paying $550,000 a year for the Associated Press.

And the Associated Press was forcing us to buy new services that we didn’t need or didn’t use, becouse everything was in the package. And we started talking about that. And we felt that we ought to write a letter to the Associated Press, and all eight of the editors and their publishers would sign the letter.

And this is what we did, and we wrote a letter to Tom Curley, who’s the chief executive for the Associated Press, and said that “You’re too expensive, your structure is wrong. The newspaper industry created you, you have an obligation to help us through this crisis now, and instead you continously raise our rates and charge us for pictures — if we call the AP and want a photograph of Ronald Reagan in Cleveland in the 1980s, they would charge us fees for that to get it out of their archive. And there were many other complaints we had. We right hte stories, they pick them up, they chop them down and send them out on the wire as Associated Press stories.

And we just felt it was time to shake things up. So the response from the AP was to meet with us, so Tom Curley and the executive editor — her name will come to me, I just forgot her name for a second — came down to see us. And the editors of the papers and the two executives from the Associated Press. And they were very hostile toward us. Matter of fact, Tom Brettingen, who is the senior vice president, said, “You know, the newspaper industry only pays 30 percent of the income of the Associated Press, and other 70 percent subsidise your 30 percent. And they dismissed all of our concerns out of hand.

And when the meeting ended, we kind of sat there looking at each other saying: “This is nuts!” You know, what else could we do? So that when we decided to form a news copoerative, because if The Akron Beacon Journal writes a story out of Akron, the AP would pick up that story and would do what it does with it and send it out on the wire. So why not get it directly from The Akron Beacon Journal? And we talked about our competitiveness, and we talked about can we really do this, can we get the hands-on editors who deal with these things everyday to really do that — to use a Plain Dealer story in The Toledo Blade. So we met and had a session, an all-day session, the eight editors, talking about how could this work? And we decided that we can’t afford not to do it. Our goal is to put up the best product we can to serve our readers the best way we can. And we all agreed top-quality content is the important thing of the day. We think that somebody smart is going to figure out what going to happen our industry, but you have to continue to put up out a quality newspaper, whether its deliver by paper or whether it’s delivered on toledoblade.com.

So the Cleveland Plain Dealer, being the largest paper, the editor of that paper, Susan Goldberg, said that we can set up a web site, and that web site will be password protected, and we would put our stories on the web site and everybody would have access to it. And you can use any story you want to use. And at about 4 o’clock every day or 4:30, something around there, each paper puts a budget of all of its stories on the wire, so that everybody could see and they can plan as to which ones they want to use or at least look at.

And it grew to graphics and photographs — and we even agreed that we could take stories off of web sites — or not take stories off of web sites, but link to a web site. But it’s working. And it’s working really well.

We expanded it to include the features department — travel stories, feature stories in your town about unusual people or compelling people or something like that. We’re going to do it with sports — matter of fact, we are doing it with sports. And it’s working. And newspapers in other states have been asking us “How does it work?” And some of the editors here have gone to talk to papers out of state.

We think this could go national. I just imagine — if you could have a web site where every paper in the country could contribute to it. It would have to be set up so that you can pile through all this stuff. But, you know, there’s no limit to what we could do.

One problem is that the Associated Press is the only viable place you can get agate for your sports pages. And they won’t let us buy it by itself. So we are in the market now looking to see where we could get it. There’s one company that we heard about, but they were cost prohibitive. But that’s on our agenda to do that.

Now, as a result of everything we did, the Associated Press decided to roll back some of their prices. They came up with this new concept of package deals and this kind of thing. It’s still very expensive. It still isn’t the cafeteria-style that we would like to have. It’s like forcing you and me to have maternity coverage in our health insurance and pay for maternity coverage — you know, it just doesn’t make any sense. The AP’s a monopoly. They have served journalism well over the years. The concept is still a good concept. But they have grown to be extremely powerful and they have a monopoly. And now they’re working with the web sites, Google, and all of these other things. So, I mean, they’re growing — and they’re a company, so I guess they should grow. They’re a nonprofit company, but that’s kind of a — you know, are they really non-profit, you know? So, this is what we’ve done. And this is where we are.

Josh: So, if I remember correctly, AP still has the requirement that you have to say two years ahead of time if you plan on withdrawing from AP.

Ron: Yes. Yes.

Josh: Do you foresee, given what AP has done thus far to try and respond — you know, to the degree that they have responded — that you would foresee making that sort of a decision in the near future?

Ron: Well, some of the papers in Ohio have done that. The Blade hasn’t yet. It doesn’t mean we won’t. Our sister paper, The Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh, there’s some talk about that. We haven’t decided to do it yet. I think — I mean that option’s on the table, you know? But in the real world we live in, at the moment, we need some of their services. And, you know, I — this isn’t a hate-the-AP campaign, you know, because there are some very, very good journalists working there. And some of their stories and coverage are, you know, really done quite well. It’s that the industry doesn’t have the money it used to have. And, you know, while they were — we were laying people off all over the country, the AP was hiring people, you know? So, I mean, it’s just — it needs to be fixed.

Josh: Have you noticed any patterns, thus far, in the kinds of stories that share well? I mean, have you noticed that you’re really interested in a certain kind of story from the Beacon Journal or a certain kind of story from the Enquirer? Just what kind of patterns have you seen in the way the system is used at the Blade?

Ron: Well, we depend on The Columbus Dispatch, for one example. Some of their statehouse coverage. We have a statehouse reporter who does a real good job for us. But they may have a story that we don’t have. So we look at that. Sports in Cleveland is a big deal. We still have our reporters cover the Cleveland Indians and the Browns and these things, but there are stories that you’ll get from the Beacon Journal, because of its proximity to Cleveland, and the Plain Dealer that we would use. Stories exposing wrongdoing in government — that kind of thing we use. A nice feature story, feel good story. I don’t know that there is anything special. It’s what is the offering of the day, and we go through that and look at it.

Josh: I would imagine one thing that makes this a little bit easier is the fact that the eight papers are geographically dispersed enough that with, maybe the exception of Cleveland and Akron, they’re not competing for circulation as much. It is not like people are choosing, “Should I subscribe to The Blade to The Dayton Daily News?” It’s pretty segregated in that way.

When people from other states come to you and say — I know Maine has done something in there other people were talking about — what advice to you give them? Are there things that you think they would need to do to make this sort of a system successful?

Ron: Well, yes. The top editors have to buy into it. And it can’t be — either you do it or you don’t do it. And the people below you have to buy into it. You might have some editor on the copy desk at night who says, “Oh, I just can’t put a Toledo Blade story in the Cincinnati Enquirer.”

And I think that there might have been some of that in the beginning, because habits are hard to break. But I think that as this continued on, editors were saying, “You know, this is a pretty workable thing. You probably would have gotten that story anyway from the Associated Press. Maybe we would have got it the next day, but we would have gotten it anyway.”

And so we are at a point where we believe we don’t need the Associated Press Ohio Wire, because it’s covered. Like right now, I think we have a car pileup somewhere in Toledo and seven people are supposed to be seriously injured. And we know that will be picked by the other papers, and they’ll get it today instead of tomorrow. And that doesn’t hurt me — they have my story the same day I have.

So I think it’s just really buying into it. If you have any problems at all, talk them out. And we’re here to, as I said earlier, to give our readers the best product we can.

Josh: Has there been any tension over the different contributions the different newspapers have made? I mean, the Plain Dealer because of their resources are able to probably contribute more than Dayton is, in terms of stories that are of interest to a larger number of people and then maybe they get used more. Maybe they don’t use as much stuff from Dayton as Dayton uses of theirs. Does that cause any tension, or is everyone sort of on board with…?

Ron: Well, I don’t think it’s caused any tension. The reality is if the Plain Dealer has a 50-inch story that they’re going to put on the OHNO Wire — by the way we didn’t talk the name of it, OHNO stands for Ohio News Organization. Somebody at one of our meetings, and I am not sure who it was, says “Why don’t we just call it OHNO,” so that’s what we do. We couldn’t handle a 50-inch story tonight, because you need to plan for that — you need to make sure that you have the space for it. You know how the newspaper industry is.

So I haven’t seen any tension at all. One real success story is that we did polling for the presidential election — Ohio polling. And we had the University of Cincinnati do the polls for us, and they were the most accurate polls taken in Ohio before the election. We had a series of three of them.

And when you divide the cost of that by eight newspapers — and we did as a percentage depending on the circulation of the paper; somebody who knew math was able to figure that out — and it was a success. We had in three days, we had three different papers write stories for it — the main story.

And then each paper did a man-on-the-street or a person-on-the-street and shared that. So we were able to get comments from all over the state. And we released it on the same day, and we used the same story exactly the way it was written and we didn’t edit it any more — and it was very good. We’re going to do more of that.

Josh: Are you producing anything differently because of OHNO? In other words, are there stories that you might not have done before that maybe you are doing now, because you know there might be a broader interest among the other papers? Or is everything still, you’re thinking of what works for The Toledo Blade audience and then however it gets distributed around the state is just kind of a add on?

Ron: Yeah, I think I would — I think you just said it. We’re doing what we’ve always done and I think the other papers have too. I don’t think you have time to sit there and say, “You know what? I think Akron might be interested in” — you know, it doesn’t quite work that way. Although I think that if I knew of a person with Akron ties here that might make a good story, I could email the editor and say to him, “You might want to be interested in the story like that.”

Josh: How big of a cultural adjustment is this? I know in your own background, when you were in Cleveland and there were two papers in Cleveland — it’s just a very different way of thinking about your job, when you’re in a two-newspaper city and worried about the competion or — particularly Columbus coverage, where all the papers would compete for stories, versus this different frame of mind. How big of an adjustment has that been, for you or for people around the office?

Ron: Well, I think the concept made us think. I can speak for myself: It really made me think hard about this. But I’m not in competition with any of these newspapers. When we do a state story like Coingate [the 2005 scandal for which The Blade was a Pulitzer finalist], we are in competition with them. And we have not had that happen yet, and it’ll be interesting to see if somebody breaks a statewide story, what will happen then. I don’t really know.

Our rule is that you either use it or don’t use it — but you cant use OHNO as a news tip. So if we broke a story that somebody in Cleveland did something in Toledo that really made for a really good story, they couldn’t use it as a news tip. They’d have to say, “I am either going to run it or not going to run it and I’ll wait until tomorrow to do it.” That’s happened to us a couple of times, I think with a followup story on Coingate — one of the stragglers was finally convicted. And either the Plain Dealer or the Columbus Dispatch broke that story and we just decided to use it.

Josh: To play devil’s advocate — because I think I think this is a good idea, but to play devil’s advocate — when Coingate was going on and was in its full fury, there was a lot of reporting that got done precisely because newspapers would see — the Dispatch would see that the Blade has something or the Blade would seen that the Plain Dealer has something, or whatever else. And the act of having another reporter go in and try to get what they had would then uncover other stuff that the original story didn’t have. And it was an engine for producing more reporting.

Does it worry you that that engine might be turned off, and instead it might just be, “I guess we’ll take this story The Blade has.”

Ron: You know, I thought about that. And I was thinking to myself: If we had OHNO during Coingate, we obviously would have put a story on OHNO. And then these other papers would have to say, have to decide whether they’re going to use it or not. I have a feeling they probably would have used it. But then the next day, they can go out and they can do a story. And their story would go on the wire, and our second-day story could go on the wire. And I can just see three papers or four papers all doing the same thing at the same time.

But it hasn’t happen yet, so I think that we would have to be part of this thing. We couldn’t just rely on one of the other papers. But it hasn’t come up yet. But knowing myself, knowing the integrity of editors all over the — we can’t abdicate that, if something was of that magnitude.

Josh: Let me ask you one last question. The brilliance of the AP model, in some ways, is that they were able to get all this content from all its member newspapers and then turns around and sell it — to web sites, to TV, to other people. Have you given any consideration to, in some ways, following their model? Because you have that great content that is of use to all eight newspapers, and it’s great that you’re able to share it. But has there been thought saying, well, also we might be able to sell that as an Ohio wire service to other people. Is that part of the plans, or is it still just a happy communist commune where everyone just shares and no one makes any money?

Ron: Actually, that’s an interesting concept. I don’t remember that topic coming up at all in any of our meetings. I do know that the contracts we have with the Associated Press say that we can’t give…well, we can’t give AP news to a non-AP member, but — I’m thinking as I’m talking here, as I’m speaking. But if we generated the story, what would prevent us from selling it to a paper downstate that might be interested? I’m going to bring that up at a meeting.

Josh: Because you could be the state wire that then TV stations or radio stations subscribe to, to have — you know, fill in AP’s job. Well, thank you for talking with me.

POSTED     March 10, 2009, 8:08 a.m.
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