By: Kevin Slimp
What are the keys to a successful newspaper?
I thought the holidays were supposed to be the easy time of the year. Whoever came up with that idea surely wasn’t a journalist. I remember looking at my calendar just a few months ago and thinking that November and December were going to be awfully quiet. It’s funny how things work out differently than planned. That’s certainly been true for me lately.
My, how things have changed. A year ago, I was spending most of my time writing and speaking about the situation in New Orleans and other Newhouse cities. At the time, it seemed like we might all be following their lead. Funny how things change in a year.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been all over the map. I would like to be the first to declare that “The end is near” period has ended and most newspapers are now figuring out how to improve their products again.
OK, in truth, plenty of others have realized that lately. It’s becoming quite chic again to write about the future with optimism.
And what are newspapers asking of me these days? My recent trips can be broken down into three categories:
– Publishers Summits: Groups of publishers gather now and then to discuss what’s going on in the industry and how to better prepare for the future. I’ve been leading these and the change in perception has been quite striking since a year ago. While some publishers still arrive with serious worry about the future of their newspapers, most seem to come with stories of rising profits and optimism about the future. There’s a lot less talk about digital – which seemed to be all we were talking about a couple of years ago – and a lot more talk about creating better products.
– Getting Color Right: I guess it’s only natural that since we do, indeed, have a future, it only makes sense to prepare for it. Over the past two weeks, I’ve been in Tupelo, Mississippi and Newport, Rhode Island, working with daily newspapers to improve the quality of their printing. I suppose I shouldn’t forget the Selmer Independent Appeal, a weekly newspaper in West Tennessee. And in the next few weeks, I’ll be in Minnesota and back in Tennessee, doing the same thing.
My job in these situations is to run test after test to determine how to get color and black & white images to look as good as they can when printed. Tupelo had just installed a new $10 million press. You can bet they want their photos to look as good as possible. So do my friends in Rhode Island, Minnesota and Tennessee.
Here’s what I’m learning during these color tests: No two presses print alike. Sometimes the differences are startling. It gives me real optimism about the future to see newspapers investing in presses again. This wasn’t my first client to purchase a new press in 2013.
– Staff Training: Newspapers are doing a lot of staff training again. Three or four years ago, I was starting to think that my days as a trainer were over. It’s funny how a little optimism can change things. From 2008 or so through 2012, it seemed like training was a thing of the past. Association conventions were getting smaller, papers weren’t hiring trainers and the whole idea of improving our products seemed to give way to divesting, instead of investing, as the primary method of increasing profit.
In many of the conventions where I spoke in 2013, I was told the attendance had increased significantly over previous years. I don’t think that has to do with me as much as it has to do with a return to the idea of value in training. And conventions, obviously, offer a cost-effective method to share ideas and get training.
But newspapers aren’t only going to conventions in larger numbers again, they’re investing in on-site training for their staffs in greater numbers. Tomorrow, I leave for Los Angeles to work with the staff of El Clasificado, then to Baton Rouge, the following day, to spend a few days with the staff of the Business Report.
One of the joys of working with newspapers around the holidays is to get invited to staff parties and holiday gatherings. At a company-wide luncheon in Tupelo, I was privileged to hear Clay Foster address his staff, who cheered as he approached the podium, about his appreciation for all they do. He mentioned that, while they didn’t meet every goal for 2013, they ended the year profitably and had much to be thankful for. This is a daily newspaper with a circulation of 33,000 in a town of 35,000 people and a county of 84,000.
It’s no wonder that newspapers like El Clasificado and The Tupelo Daily Journal are successful. They’ve moved past “the end is near” philosophy and moved on to “the future is bright.” I wish every newspaper publisher could see what I see. Local content, quality products and investment in the future. Those are the keys.