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May 10, 2022, 2:54 p.m.
Business Models

“We need to be interesting”: Editors of metro dailies talk about their biggest opportunities and challenges now

“Instead of focusing on one very small geographic area, that same reporter may look for commonalities and trends across multiple areas.”

“We can no longer afford to be the paper of record,” Brian McGrory, the editor of The Boston Globe, said in a gathering of metro daily editors on Tuesday. “We need to be the paper of interest.”

He added: “There’s incredible competition for people’s time and their pocketbooks and their attention, and if the Globe is not interesting, searingly relevant, provocative on a day-to-day basis, we’re simply not going to survive as a news organization.”

The panel, “The Digital Transformation of The Metro Daily,” was hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, and was moderated by Jennifer Preston, who’s a senior fellow at Shorenstein’s Technology and Social Change Project and was formerly VP for journalism at the Knight Foundation. Besides McGrory, panelists included Suki Dardarian, editor and SVP of The Minneapolis Star Tribune; Gabriel Escobar, editor and SVP of The Philadelphia Inquirer; Michele Matassa Flores, executive editor of The Seattle Times; and Mizell Stewart III, VP of news performance, talent and partnerships for Gannett and the USA TODAY Network.

Some interesting excerpts from the panel are below. You can watch the whole thing once it’s posted here.

On pricing

Brian McGrory: We now have 236,000 digital-only subscribers. Maybe I shouldn’t be proud of this, but they pay the highest rate in the industry for a digital subscription, outside of The Wall Street Journal. Seventy-five percent of them pay full price, which is $1 a day.

It is something that our ownership has demanded and that we have gotten, and at this point, our digital subscribers can fund almost two of our newsrooms, which puts us in a really enviable spot in terms of our future sustainability and our ability to grow and attract ever more readers.

Gabriel Escobar: We’re about to come up with a free version of the Inquirer at all of Philadelphia’s public libraries. We’re very close to doing that. That’s a small way to make the journalism more accessible.

On new audiences

Michele Matassa Flores: I think newsletters are a really important way to get our journalism out to all types of communities, including those that can’t afford subscriptions. And they’re substantive … you can get really well-informed even if all you do is read our newsletters…

Our subscribers, increasingly — and our readers, even beyond our subscribers — are the ones that are holding us accountable for reaching all types of readers … It’s become very clear that our younger new subscribers are going to demand that we cover social justice movements, that we reach out to underrepresented communities, that we hold ourselves accountable for the work we do and the work we don’t do. So that is front of mind for us all the time….

We started an equity newsletter, which is a weekly newsletter aimed at highlighting work we do around equity and nderrepresented communities, social justice movements and the like. And that’s done a couple of things. It’s helped get that work out to a broader audience. It’s helped highlight to [communities] where we’ve had mistrust over the years — self-inflicted mistrust — that we are making an effort and making strides there. And it also holds us accountable, because if we have a week where we don’t have enough stuff for that newsletter, or where we’re scraping, that’s kind of a wake-up call. That may not be the biggest newsletter that we publish, but it’s a really important one.

On working to correct past mistakes

Mizell Stewart III: You’re talking to an old cop reporter who cut his teeth writing the police blotter in bucolic Springfield, Ohio. And you know, we’d dutifully trip down to the police station and the sheriff’s office every day, went through the stack of reports and, and pulled out what we consider to be newsworthy tidbits.

The dirty little secret back then, which has only become more acute as the resources devoted to coverage have changed, is that we never quite followed all of those crime reports through to their conclusion. It wasn’t as big of a deal in the days when we had print: If you really wanted to find out about something that happened to somebody, you would go to the library and look through the microfiche or you would go to the courthouse and look up records.

Well, with Google everything gets crawled, everything gets tracked, everything gets memorialized. And we found [a lot] of people saying, “Hey, can you make this go away?” We’re talking two-bit crimes, minor offenses. In addition to that, looking at demographics and when you think about inequality in policing and where police resources have tended to be concentrated, [crime reporting] promotes inequity and promotes, in many cases, a false narrative of a community.

And so, as we began to talk to communities of color in Rochester around the issue of how might we regain your trust, this continued to come up as an issue, and a group of editors in our Atlantic region began to explore how we might change our approach. We’d started moving in this direction a few years earlier when we stopped running mugshot galleries, which were just plain plays for digital traffic. That really started a conversation that culminated in a public safety coverage statement, where we have worked with our newsrooms and trained our teams to move away from police blotters and to concentrate on nuanced coverage of public safety issues.

By eliminating coverage of these minor crimes, we’re able to focus on trends, we’re able to focus on larger issues … those larger issues that really have meaning to people in their lives. It doesn’t mean that that we ignore major crimes, but we move away from a lot of of minor offenses that really don’t have any larger impact on the community.

Brian McGrory: In addition to what Mizell was saying, we’ve also launched a program here called Fresh Start in which people who have been depicted in crime stories — petty crime stories that we never followed up on, or where they somehow had a good result in court and we weren’t there, or you know, it’s just not relevant to anybody at this point in anybody’s life — they can petition us and ask us to delink it from Google or anonymize a story. We’ve gotten a really good reception from the community. We’ve had about 150 requests, we’ve acted on the vast bulk of them, and we think that’s an effective program.

On new formats

Michele Matassa Flores: We grew from like 48,000 digital subscriptions before the pandemic to over 80,000 now. The other way the pandemic helped us was that it taught us a lot of lessons about what people want and how they want it. We started a coronavirus daily live update, which is almost a blog-style updating thing. People got hooked on that. It’s hard to do. It’s very labor-intensive. But we’ve now recognized that that is a way that people like to receive their news. And so we’ve used that with all kinds of things, most recently the Supreme Court leak and the Roe v. Wade decision, but we’re doing it now a lot and looking at more ways to apply it.

Maybe when coronavirus finally dies down, if ever, we’ll start a general interest news one. That’s one idea that we’re looking at. But it’s just been fascinating to watch what hooks readers now, and how we can use that to get and keep people. Our retention of all those new subscribers has been better than the rate that we had before the pandemic, which was a pleasant surprise.

On print

Gabriel Escobar: Print is critical to us now — maybe actually too critical, if you look at the revenue balance. I remember strategy sessions maybe four or five years ago where we were trying to map the future, as silly an exercise as that is, and [if we’d done what we thought we’d do then], by now, we would not be publishing seven days a week. We also publish a tabloid, The Daily News. We would not be doing any of that based on that misguided prediction of six years ago. We’re still publishing seven days a week, we’re still publishing the Daily News, and the simple reason is that it’s still helping with the revenue.

How long? I don’t know. I would be shocked if we were still publishing seven days three or four years from now. [But] I think there’s real import to print. Minneapolis has done an excellent job with their Sunday newspaper. We look at that as a model for us and hope to do that in the next year or two.

Suki Daradarian: Doing right by digital does does just as well for print. We’re all saying that we’re trying to be more audience-focused in what we do and how we think. The way we craft our stories, the way we share them, the headlines — that all benefits print.

On local vs. regional

Mizell Stewart III: Gannett’s business is really fundamentally different from, say, providers such as the Times and The Washington Post that can achieve global global scale. Covering local news continues to be very labor-intensive and very expensive. And so what we’re doing is redeploying our reporters to cover local issues with a more regional approach. Instead of focusing on one very small geographic area, that same reporter may look for commonalities and trends across multiple areas, in a more regional and enterprise-driven approach to coverage — as compared to that coverage of record in terms of town meetings and school board meetings and so forth.

POSTED     May 10, 2022, 2:54 p.m.
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