The 2020 Mega Conference, the largest annual gathering of local U.S. newspapers, mixed aspiration with distressing industry news.
The background noise of dizzying news cycle - the White House fired, hired and tweet-stormed, the Democrats slugged it out to select their nominee - barely registered.
It buzzed like a wasp which could, maybe, kill you, but one that couldn’t be heard very well within the august walls of the Fort Worth Omni Hotel.
Besides, we had our own problems.
The week before the conference, McClatchy Publishing, whose top execs once preached that top-down leadership included measuring digital goals, announced it had filed for bankruptcy reorganization.
Their Compass Experiment, featuring the shiny new digital start-up, The Daily Memphian, was featured on a panel to “Make News Deserts Bloom Again.”
Ryan Mote, publisher of McClatchy-owned Fort Worth Star-Telegram and regional corporate VP, was even scheduled to give the conference kick-off welcome speech.
Those who expected him to comment on McClatchy’s future, however, were disappointed.
Mote strode to the podium and read a single poem, “Out where the West begins,” written in 1917:
Out where the world is in the making,
Where fewer hearts in despair are aching,
That’s where the West begins.
Where there’s more of singing and less of sighing,
Where there’s more of giving and less of buying,
And a man makes a friend without half trying—
That’s where the West begins.
Then he sat down.
Otherwise, presentations portrayed an industry as intensely serious as it has ever been about investing in - and selling - the news and their value proposition in a race against time.
Matt Lindsay, of Mather Economics, the leading circulation consultant, reminded the group that paywall meters - not only here, but also in Europe - should be set at one to two articles instead of five or ten as was typical just a couple of years ago.
Premium content - that is content unavailable at all without paying - now totals 35% of the content in Europe. Lindsay gently scolded any U.S. papers at 5% to raise this ratio.
Branding and marketing were back under discussion, finally with some good ideas for publishers to take home. One was a “Facts aren’t free” ad campaign, with headshots of all the writers and editors who create the news. Collectively, they looked expensive.
Panels also included “alternative funding sources” with presentations from the newly not-for-profit Salt Lake Tribune and a non-profit news initiative at the Fresno Bee, one of the incredible shrinking newspapers that fielded a single reporter at one point. Today it has four in its new “education lab” alone, funded by 12 local community foundations and individual donors, in addition to a similarity funded environmental beat.
Philanthropy is just another revenue stream, like subscriptions and advertising, according to Fraser Nelson, of the Tribune who raised $750,000 from the local community.
In the brave new world of philanthropy, the newspaper found itself competing for funds with the public radio station.
“They were telling [potential donors] unlike the Tribune, we don’t have a paywall,” Nelson said. “How would a radio station even put up a paywall? Do they zap you?”
In spite of the turmoil of much of the industry, there were also some high notes.
The new publisher of E&P, Mike Blinder, who also owns a top media sales consulting firm, was enthusiastic about the bigger, and more beautiful E&P magazine, at least in physical size.
“You know what they say, go big or go home,” he told us. Blinder, who has never been a publisher before, cheerfully lamented that writers want more pages, pointing out that “paper and postage are really expensive.” You don’t say.
A reporter from the Colorado Sun, an online start-up created by ten former reporters of the Denver Post with crypto backing, was attending the subscription track. She said subscription sales now fund 50% of expenses and continue to grow. “But we are planning to hire more writers.”
Greg Jones, the former publisher of a family-owned newspaper group in Eastern Tennessee who sold to Adams Publishing Group also showed up. He was invited by APG, he said, for the purpose of proselytizing how great the APG was an acquirer for owners concerned about legacy. Word on the street is that APG, a 2014 startup that has acquired dozens of newspapers, is not only protective of newsrooms but also solidly profitable in all of its markets.
And there was the publisher of Swift-owned Aspen Times, still highly profitable and with 90% revenues from print, who seemed to almost pinch herself about this good fortune. She asked industry experts if her market, a luxury ski resort town, was, in reality, as much economic unicorn as she thought and seemed oddly relieved to hear the answer: yes.
One of the most heroic figures at the meeting this year was Walter Hussman, Jr, Publisher of the Arkansas Gazette who famously gave iPads to every subscriber who switched from print to digital.
So far, 79% of subscribers in all 63 counties of the circulation area have converted to $34 a month digital subscriptions, he said, at a cost of $11 million for iPad hand-outs. The newspaper is poised to turn profitable in 2021.
The paper in the Northern part of the state is now repeating the initiative, further challenged by needing to move much lower-priced print subscribers - they pay an average of $19.99 - up to the $34 level.
“You have to take risks in life and you have to take risks in business,” Hussman said. “The only alternative was a slow death.”
The decision to chop printing and distribution costs instead of writers has allowed him to maintain a newsroom staff of 106 reporters and editors.
Recently he ran into the publisher of a similar sized newspaper in a neighboring state that has cut their newsroom to 34 people. “I don’t see how they are going to get people to pay $34 a month.”
“I don’t think some of these papers are going to be around very long. And I don’t think (their publishers) think so either. But it’s not good for the community. There’s a lot at stake here.” Hussman looked across the table to see if we remembered.