The case for local publishers in local newspapers

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Yesterday, Steve Ladurantaye reported in The Globe and Mail that Sun Media had fired a number of regional publishers in Ontario and replaced them with advertising managers “whose sole focus will be on selling advertisements across broad geographic areas.” He reported that five publishers had been let go, including those at the Kingston Whig-Standard, Peterborough Examiner and St. Catharines Standard. The layoffs come nearly a month after Sun Media appointed Eric Morrison to its vice president of editorial, tasking him with a reorganization of news operations on all platforms.

So, what does this mean in terms of the publisher's role in a newspaper? Ladurantaye, The Globe’s media reporter, talked with former publisher of the Kingston Whig-Standard Fred Laflamme to get his take.

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By Steve Ladurantaye

When I started working at the Kingston Whig-Standard, I met a different kind of publisher than I had been used to. Fred Laflamme was hands on without being intrusive, cared about what was going on in the newsroom and knew everyone’s name. Some of my favourite moments at the Whig were just sitting in his office and talking about news. He didn’t play the game the way other publishers do – if he was going to insist on a story, he just told you why. And it rarely happened. And, they were good stories.

He left shortly before I did. Then the new publisher, under directions of the new owner, proceeded to gut the joint. His replacement was laid off yesterday, to be replaced with an ad director who will be responsible for more of Eastern Ontario. Anyway, I did an interview with Fred a few years ago. I topped it off with a few new questions today, but even his older answers are just as interesting today as they were then as the newspaper industry considers whether it actually needs to fill the corner office with a publisher or whether a salesman will suffice.

 

Steve Ladurantaye: Do newspapers need local publishers?

Fred Laflamme: I often use the analogy of a restaurant owner and its chef with the roles of a publisher and an editor.

The chef toils behind the scenes in the kitchen producing the best damn dishes to keep the diners coming back (think content) while the owner/operator is out front greeting patrons, shaking hands, comping drinks and generally making sure that the two other criteria to a good dining experience (service and ambiance) are being completely fulfilled all the while managing the establishment’s bottom line.

The resto owner/operator is responsible to ensure that the chef doesn’t give away the farm with overly generous portion sizes, or not easily obtainable produce or menu items that are struck from the menu because they aren’t “creatively challenging” to the chef or mispricing the dishes.

Likewise, the publisher should have a direct line to the editor conveying what’s happening in the community and also ensure that the editor is accountable for the edit budgets and their contribution to the paper’s P&L statement. An editor needs a business person for example, to okay a four-page increase in paper size to cover a big breaking story because a publisher has access to the various levers that will allow him to free up those pages without exorbitant cost.

Similarly the publisher has to be the face of the paper in the community ensuring the paper serves as a pillar and generally leaves the editor out of that milieu for fear of conflict of interest etc. It’s easy and natural and desirable for the publisher to sit on the board of a community event or cause but bloody difficult for an editor who might have to write or edit a piece critical of the very same event/cause in the next day’s edition.

Publishers can eloquently plead separation of church and state when it comes to an advertiser seeking favorable treatment on a nasty piece of business such as killing a story on a DUI charge against the advertiser’s son or daughter. And make no mistake, the separation of church and state is still of great value.

That’s a pretty clear answer.

I found that a hands-on publisher in every sense of the word and a skilled editor who enjoy a respectful working relationship with each other are always a far greater asset to a newspaper than the sum of the parts. Publishers generally have a macro vision of what the newspaper should be and smart ones try to hire editors who can help execute that vision. Smart editors, by the same token, lean on good publishers who are out in the community because they know that some stories especially on the business side will naturally accrue to a community minded publisher faster and perhaps with less varnish than they would to a reporter who generally wouldn’t have the same rapport with the “contact.”  And, a publisher accountable for the whole publishing picture who can be counted on to think long term for the sake and health of the paper, would probably not be questioned for ulterior motives by an editor the same way a commission paid ad director might be.

Do publishers belong in the newsroom?

To the extent that publishers should determine the overall strategic direction of the paper including general editorial direction, and then hire the best damn editor (someone like Christina Spencer) and get the hell out of the way and let her do the job. Obviously publishers should see the editorial pages, the front page, etc. before they goes to press. A smart editor would insist on this too – an embarrassed publisher is not a good thing. A strong editor and a strong publisher on the other hand with high mutual respect, make for a dynamic combination.

You’ve been retired for a few years now, and the media landscape has completely changed. Quebecor owns the Whig; Canwest went bankrupt and is now Postmedia. What the hell happened?

You’re right about the media landscape at least as far as ownership is concerned. It almost seems as though some sort of cyclical consolidation is hardwired into the industry and come hell or high water that’s what occurs every few years. This time around the catalyst might have been a little different as newspapers everywhere were getting pummeled by a series of “perfect storms.”

At the heart of it though I think a certain level of stakeholder greed came into play at precisely the same time that classifieds began their migration away to the Internet and to other “freer” media forms.

Newspapers not only were not prepared for this migration but they didn’t succeed to turn it to their advantage. The results were fewer classifieds which led to lower ad revenues, compounded by fewer readers because the daily classified content was no longer sufficient to attract those readers; especially single copy readers.

That in turn drove circulation revenues down as well. (I wouldn’t be surprised if many community newspapers PAID circulation is down 15 or 20 per cent from 2006)

We used to call classified ads “paid editorial” at the Whig; that’s how much we coveted them and tried to nurture them. The classified section was reliably a bellwether predictor of a newspaper’s health. The perfectness of the storm was further enhanced by the 2008-2009 “recession” which absolutely clobbered national advertising putting still more pressure on the all important top line of a newspaper’s staying power – ad revenues.

Couple this with stakeholders’ demand for 30%+ profit margins and you quickly see the need to cut expenses and cut them deep and usually permanently. The problem of course is that this is a bit of a mugs’ game as there is inevitably a finiteness to expense cutting. And if you really believe that a newspaper’s most valued asset is its people, why would you jettison them (especially the great ones) to the detriment of the product.

All companies have a certain level of inertia, which results in deadwood and redundancies which have to be dealt with but when you cut beyond that you inevitably take something away from the reader and give her a reason not to buy you any longer.

Toss in locked front doors barring visitors, and reader sales departments, classified departments with no local connection or involvement, publishers who aren’t publishers in the traditional sense and remain anonymous within the community, coupled with a fixation on monthly and quarterly reports while eschewing relevant local reporting, commentary and opinion in favor of centralized bureau output and you have all the makings of disenfranchised readers.

The problem is amplified in smaller markets like Kingston and Peterborough etc where readers ARE advertisers and an all too familiar refrain is “what’s happened at the ‘Daily’?”

You ran a smaller paper that punched above its weight – what do publishers need to do to make their papers relevant today?

You’re right about the Whig, Steve. It did a far better job than its size would suggest. The answer to a return to relevance is fairly straightforward and i have touched on it above.

No small community paper will ever “Out-Globe” The Globe or Out-Star the Toronto Star. They don’t have the resources and nor should they try. But they should easily be able to be the absolute most complete, authoritative, reliable and trusted source of news, commentary, opinion and Forum provider of any media outlet at the local level. That is what readers expect and want and failure to provide this simply dilutes the brand and makes it irrelevant, unwanted and unneeded. The fix is involved local publishers, enough reporters to cover the waterfront, a healthy vibrant op ed. page, lots of local letters, exhaustive coverage of local sports, politics, community/civic events etc.

It’s an absolute truism that the newspaper that is civic minded and leads by example will generate higher readership and fatter circulation numbers. The newspaper should not only provide a forum within its pages but should mimic that concept within its bricks and mortar and make the offices a welcoming place for readers and advertisers.

Obviously care has to be taken to develop the Internet side of the business to complement the “hard copy” but since less than 2 per cent and in most cases less than 1 per cent of a newspaper’s current revenues come from internet based products, where would you put your emphasis for the next while?

What was your favourite newspaper memory?

January 8, 1998: the day the ice storm whacked eastern Ontario. The Whig, whose enviable record as Canada’s oldest continuously published daily newspaper was at stake, not only kept it but served the community unlike many other newspapers many times larger.

We proved our relevance (my favourite word in describing a media outlet) and our resilience and not only published on time but helped get a competitive newspaper out to its readers (Brockville). Management and staff, union and non-union all pulled together in a manner that was a true sight to behold. Maybe what newspapers need today in order to become relevant to their local communities and to prove they care is another ice storm.

 

This post was originally published on Ladurantaye's blog, and has been re-printed here with permission.

Comments

The self-annihilation of Canadian newspapers continues apace.

I notice that the St. Catharines Standard is one of the papers that has had its head lopped off.  Let me tell you about the paper.  It used to be quite good, heavy on local content, including reviews of movies, music, and books. . . yes, books, till 1995 (I reviewed books for the paper under a pseudonym until Conrad Black bought the paper and immediately dismissed all opinion other than his own). 

Through a series of changes we have arrived at a Quebecor-owned mouthpiece for right-wing claptrap spewed out by the company's consolidated offices.  Most of the "opinion" is entirely predictable; the so-called "news" frequently borders on the theatrical, recycled from the various Sun papers with  its own brand of "impartiality". There still is good local opinion, but how long these few columnists will be left is anyone's guess.  QMI Agency provides the rest of the content. 

During the most recent election campaign the paper was nauseatingly pro-Conservative - hell, we might as well call a spade a spade, it was rabidly pro-Reformer.  One of the continuing hot spots in the letters section is the Bible, Christianity in schools and such, with the same three or four people lobbing the subject back and forth as though they are playing Olympic ping-pong.

There is very, very little actual, thoughtful content from the community.  But there is plenty of syndicated trash from the U.S. and paginated articles from Quebecor, frequently with the same story, in varying lengths,even with the identical headline, to fill the white space around the ads.  Meanwhile the Toronto Star-owned community newspaper  This Week continues to mop the floor with the pale remnants of a once-proud paper.  It outclasses the Standard in size, editorial content, neutrality and exposition of a broad range of opinion.  It will also carry letters from the religious crowd, but is much more even-handed in selecting and displaying them.  And while This Week carries reviews, it is The Standard that maximizes those articles so that white space will not call attention to the fact that its staff is beyond anemic.

This is happening when the newspaper is the perfect vehicle for addressing and covering such important local concerns as the need for one regional government, one regional public transportation system, a concerted effort to find and entice job-rich companies to relocate.  What, besides three or four pages of movie ratings, is a focus for discussion?  Jessica Simpson's bust, accidents on the Skyway, the Ice Dogs -

And no, you will not find in the pages ot the Standard the news that Judy Bullis, a senior group publisher for Sun Media Niagara and publisher of the Standard, has been sacked today.

Passing that news along, online, is Bulletnewsniagara.com, a website developed by Dave Martineau, Peter Conradi and John Robbins, all former print journalists.

 

 

 

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