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April 22, 2024, 1:33 p.m.
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What it takes to run a metro newspaper in the digital era, according to four top editors

“People will pay you to make their lives easier, even when it comes to telling them which burrito to eat.”

— In the expansive, fraught, and lively debates raging today about what the future of local news can and should look like, a vision of news as a nonprofit public good is increasingly popular among pioneering journalists and funders alike.

Yet for all the (well-deserved) excitement and attention generated by the growth in nonprofit newsrooms, especially at the local level, we know that growth has yet to outpace the shrinking of traditional for-profit outlets. Legacy print publications remain a critical part of the local news ecosystem in many cities. Across the United States and beyond, these outlets are rethinking their coverage priorities and approaches, reimagining how they reach audiences, and engaging in practical and personal soul-searching about how to remain relevant and survive in an ever-evolving information and entertainment marketplace.

For some legacy dailies, like the profitable Boston Globe, that experimentation is yielding some success. Others, like the Los Angeles Times, have resorted to major layoffs despite concerted efforts to modernize and reach new audiences. So what are the major challenges facing metro newspapers today, and how are they attempting to adapt? Those are the questions four top editors from metro dailies in Texas, California, and Canada explored in an International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ) panel on April 13.

The San Francisco Chronicle looks ahead to a “post-search” world

Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, editor-in-chief of the Hearst-owned San Francisco Chronicle, said the news industry was at “another important inflection point” with a “post-search, post-social world” on the other side as social traffic declines and Google tests AI-generated summaries as a potential replacement for a search infrastructure based on links.

AI-generated search, in his view, will ultimately offer users “a better experience than a bunch of links.” But in a post-link world, he emphasized that news outlets must learn to build better direct relationships with audiences, instead of relying on tech companies, or even advertisers, as key distributors or partners. “This is really about us, and us being able to create relationships with our community, in a way that creates a bond that will make them pay for content,” he said. “This is liberating to me. It means that I am sort of the master of my future, and if it doesn’t work, it is on me.”

But in convincing consumers to pay for local news, Garcia-Ruiz cited “Walmartization of pricing” as a major challenge. The New York Times, he said, is in the Chronicle’s market with “big penetration,” offering a product that can feel impossible to compete with. “I refer to them as the Death Star, because they are now one of the world’s leading publishers when it comes to revenue — the rest of us are struggling,” he said of the Times. (Other newspapers have made the same joke.)

Another “major problem” for local dailies, Garcia-Ruiz said, is that “we have no idea what to charge for our product.”

“The world is in this mass discounting phase, where we are teaching our readers that what they need to do is to sign up for a discount deal, and the minute it ends, cancel and then sign up again, for another discount deal,” he said. (The Chronicle offers a digital subscription that costs just $0.25 for three months.) “Everybody’s doing it, and it’s created a big problem.”

“I’m having a tough time raising my rates with people who say to me, ‘Well, why should I pay more for the San Francisco Chronicle than The New York Times?’” Garcia-Ruiz added. “If I’m going to succeed, I need them to not only pay more, but maybe two or three times more than what the Times is charging.”

Despite those challenges, the Chronicle is “quite successful” and profitable, Garcia-Ruiz said. It has around 151,000 digital subscribers. The Chronicle includes two separate brands — the eponymous print (and, since 2013, digital) publication and the scale-based, programmatic-advertising-driven SFGate. Garcia-Ruiz said he describes SFGate — which has about 50 people in its newsroom, compared to 170 journalists at the Chronicle — to his staff as “the relative you don’t like who comes to dinner who you fight with all the time.”

The Chronicle has to “win all of the fundamentals of breaking news” to succeed, Garcia-Ruiz said. That means coverage that’s fast, live, scoopy, and concretely useful is essential to delivering consistent value to paying subscribers. It’s also important, though, to think carefully about what kind of outside-the-box stories are uniquely valuable to paying, local subscribers. As an example, he pointed to coverage of the Maui wildfires, which the Chronicle prioritized because many San Francisco residents vacation in Hawaii. In one piece, the Chronicle “identified all the landmarks that are sacred to people in San Francisco” and followed up with detailed updates on their status, he said.

Garcia-Ruiz also strongly endorsed utility coverage as a vein of reporting that motivates audiences to read and subscribe — especially reporting about food, weather, real estate, and travel, for instance.

“People will pay you to make their lives easier, even when it comes to telling them which burrito to eat,” he said. “We have to do more than just the standard coverage that regional newsrooms have done forever.”

The Dallas Morning News stopped “trying to do everything”

Dallas Morning News executive editor Katrice Hardy said the Morning News was the “longest and oldest continuously running organization in the state of Texas.” Robert W. Decherd, a descendant of the newspaper’s founding familystill owns a majority share in the company.

When Hardy arrived two and a half years ago, the paper “was struggling, I think, to understand if we wanted to still try to be the paper of record of the state, or if we really wanted to be something else,” she said.

Under her leadership, the team decided to narrow its focus to North Texas and prioritize doing specific things well, rather than stretching itself too thin. When Hardy took the helm, “we were trying to do everything; we were trying to be on every social media platform, we were trying to serve every audience, and I’m not really certain we were serving all of our audiences well that way,” she said. One example? The Morning News had about 45 newsletters three years ago, which Hardy called “insanity.” The organization has “cut that down significantly” — there are 28 newsletters currently listed on the site — and focused on quality over quantity.

Hardy also quickly identified a weakness in the publication’s approach to metrics. “We had a lot of different tools, but they all were telling us different things, so we were uncertain about our audience’s needs and wishes,” she said. She tried to clean those metrics up, and use them to ask and measure which kinds of stories were resonating, and how to drill deeper and invest more resources in work that readers connected with. Hardy pointed to pageviews per story, conversions per story, conversions per 100,000 views, and average engaged minutes per story as key indicators.

Similar to the Chronicle, the Morning News team has found that food and real estate coverage are in demand. The publication now has two real estate reporters and three “extremely busy” food reporters. On the food beat, Hardy noted that popular coverage isn’t limited to soft news, citing a story about a barbecue scandal as performing especially well. (“Anything with barbecue and a lawsuit will go gangbusters,” she said.)

Beyond those beats, the Morning News has recently added reporters to cover faith and transportation, and has reimagined existing coverage areas, including creating a public safety team that does deep explanatory work that seems to resonate more with audiences than breaking news reporting alone. During her presentation at ISOJ, Hardy also shouted out one of the Morning News’ mainstays: a “watchdog columnist” who untangles everyday challenges readers submit, which might mean, say, explaining the charges on a utility bill.

The news org has also jumped on short-term opportunities to engage community members by leaning into sources of local pride and enthusiasm. When the Rangers baseball team won their first-ever World Series last fall, the Morning News turned its celebratory front pages into posters that sold for $25 each. The news org moved fast, too, to launch a four-week pop-up solar eclipse newsletter. Half of the outlet’s dozen most-read eclipse stories were pieces the Morning News had translated into Spanish, Hardy noted. (Last year, the publication gutted Al Día, its Spanish-language sister newspaper.)

But Hardy also highlighted the publication’s evergreen content strategy. She explained that about 30% of the Morning News’ audience is reading years-old stories (in particular, seasonally relevant stories, like reporting about Texas’ beloved bluebonnets), which has inspired the newsroom to deliberately promote older stories when they have renewed relevance. On the week-level timescale, the Morning News now implements a similar strategy by republishing and re-promoting stories that perform well on a Monday later in the week, she added.

Leaning into stories audiences can connect with, Hardy argued, still ultimately comes back to investing in hard-hitting, high-quality reporting and storytelling. Among the publication’s big-swing, sweeping reporting endeavors, Hardy highlighted a 30-day series on how fentanyl is impacting North Texas, created with participation from almost everyone in the newsroom. She referred to this series as a “premium product” — reporting of a caliber, ambition, and value that she hopes will inspire subscriptions — but noted that it led to some debate within the newsroom about whether such public-interest-oriented work should be behind a paywall. (The team ultimately kept the full series behind a metered paywall, and instituted a hard paywall for some pieces.)

“Now, when we publish a big series, we don’t just think about it in terms of just the newsroom product — we think about it as a company product,” Hardy said. In this case, that meant investing time and resources in marketing strategy, distributing some stories to schools, and holding a community forum, among other actions, to increase reach and engagement.

Human-interest stories that help connect the community are hugely important to the Morning News too, Hardy added. See this feature on a waiter who is so popular he makes about $300,000 a year. (No, there is not an extra zero. And yes, the figure did make this reporter reconsider her career choices.)

“Ultimately, what we found is that our goal is community, connection, and change,” Hardy said. “But utility is also a part of that.”

The Toronto Star wrestles with keeping readers engaged beyond “crazy scoops”

To explain the Toronto Star’s impact and challenges to audience members at ISOJ, deputy editor Nicole MacIntyre delivered a crash course on Toronto’s recent mayoral politics history through the Star’s coverage. (The Star is owned by Canadian businessman Jordan Bitove.)

MacIntyre explained how John Tory — the formerly popular mayor who was reelected twice on a scandal-free platform and was seen as so boringly above-board that he was nicknamed “no-story Tory” by the press gallery — resigned less than an hour after the Star broke a shocking story about his months-long affair with a woman on his staff roughly 40 years his junior.

MacIntyre emphasized that she was especially proud of the newsroom for understanding “what the story was, and what it wasn’t.” The newsroom never named the woman involved in the affair, and, according to MacIntyre, treated it not as salacious tabloid fodder, but rather as a story of abuse of power and misconduct in public office. “We started an important discussion — which I thought we’d already had, but our coverage illustrated we hadn’t,” she said, “about in the post-#MeToo moment, what is appropriate in a workplace?”

The story was a textbook example of holding power to account and generating immediate impact. But MacIntyre also said she knows “a future success is not built on a day like this.” Scoops of that magnitude and impact are too rare; she demonstrated a near-vertical line showing pageviews to the Star’s webpage skyrocket during the Tory scandal coverage, a stark contrast with the more modest ebbs and flows in readership characterizing the rest of the chart. “Our jobs would be easy if every day it was crazy scoops,” she said.

The hard part, to MacIntyre, is serving audiences well in a situation more like the mayoral election that followed Tory’s resignation — while there were no stunning revelations bringing in eager readers, there were 102 mayoral candidates who needed to be covered in a way that would allow voters to make sense of them, and make an informed decision.

In part, the newsroom approached this challenge by covering the candidates as people as well as leaders — a framing that seemed like it could be most salient to readers, given the character and conduct-driven scandals that had brought down the previous two mayors. But MacIntyre described the Star’s key innovation for that overwhelming election cycle as an example of the kinds of experimentation outlets, and readers, need. The news team thought carefully about how to help voters get a digestible sense of the policy and community views of the top candidates. They landed on partnering with a company called VoxPop to give candidates a survey on their views of several issues, and opened up that same survey to readers — so voters could find out which candidate(s) gave answers that most closely matched their own.

In addition to creating an interactive experience, MacIntyre said this approach had an added advantage: It “removed this sense of bias — we’re not in between…it’s like, ‘How do you feel? How do the candidates feel?’”

Despite focusing her remarks on the Star’s work covering mayoral elections and local politics, similar to Garcia-Ruiz and Hardy, MacIntyre acknowledged that the Star’s personal advice columnist is consistently responsible for its most-read stories.

In response to a question about news avoidance, MacIntyre said, “I think what we have tried to say to our newsroom is, ‘We’re not saying that people don’t care about these issues. We’re saying we have to be different in how we tell these stories.’”

That means paying attention to story length, and format, she added. When print was dominant, news organizations could take people’s attention for granted — there were no analytics to prove that people were or weren’t reading to the end (or reading at all). Now, with analytics, “You can say to a reporter, ‘I know you believe this story is worth 10,000 words. Our data shows us that people are there for about 300 words.’”

“A story can only have impact,” MacIntyre said, “if people read it.”

From the Austin American-Statesman to the nonprofit Houston Landing

Editor Manny García spoke from a different position than the other three metro publication editors. Until last month, García served as executive editor of the Gannett-owned Austin American-Statesman. But he just began a new role as editor-in-chief of the nonprofit and paywall-free Houston Landing, replacing Mizanur Rahman, who was abruptly fired in January along with an investigative reporter (leading the newsroom to unionize in February).

García said he approached his work at the Statesman with the perspective that “we are data and analytics journalists who do public service journalism,” and will bring that approach to his leadership at the Landing.

At the Statesman, the newsroom’s two top leaders both came from the digital side, he said, and audience directors help lead coverage. García emphasized the importance of meeting audiences where they are. He praised the Landing’s Instagram page — which has a little under 4,000 followers — as an example of excellence in distributing its journalism on social media.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Houston Landing (@hou_landing)

From his time at the Statesman, García highlighted breaking news and weather reporting — from nationally recognized coverage of the horrific Uvalde shooting to public service coverage of severe storms — as consistently engaging its audiences.

“If you’re able to be there in times of crisis for your community,” he said, “people will come back to you.”

Photo of Austin American-Statesman sign by Cory Doctorow on Flickr.

Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     April 22, 2024, 1:33 p.m.
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