Small newspapers will lead the way as industry adapts

Remarks prepared for delivery at the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention, April 2006

By Charles Pittman
Senior vice president, Schurz Communications, South Bend, Ind.

Good evening. Thank you for the opportunity to speak in front of you today. I am always excited to speak in front of newspaper people because ours is an industry facing great challenges and only people like you understand those challenges intimately.

Some might say the reason for this kind of get-together is that misery loves company.

And to the outside observer -- an outsider that doesn’t feel the same passion and love for this industry that you and I do – they might believe all the doomsayers. After all, overall industry readership is down – does anyone disagree? (Pause) Younger information-consumers are choosing the internet as their provider of choice. Isn’t that what you’ve heard? (Pause).

And, the Big Three of newspaper revenue drivers: classifieds, automobile and real estate advertising are leaving in droves for places like Monster.com; carsoup.com and any number of online real estate listing services. Isn’t that correct?

Doom and gloom. That’s what it looks like, right? [pause]

OK. That’s all I have to say – thank you and good night! [pause]

Those were my prepared words in the event that I stood in front of you and TRULY BELIEVED that the newspaper industry, particularly the smaller publications, were about to go the way of the typewriter industry. I have to admit that preaching doom and gloom makes for a much shorter speech -- but I’m more of a realist and I’ve got a little time to kill.

Author James Baldwin once said: Fires can't be made with dead embers, nor can enthusiasm be stirred by spiritless men. Enthusiasm in our daily work lightens effort and turns even labor into pleasant tasks. I sense your enthusiasm and your energy. And, I am confident that the newspaper business, which some have been predicting to die for more than 50 years is not going away.

I KNOW we are not in the last days of our business; we are simply at the frontier of a new era. And, you, the representatives of smaller newspapers are the ones who will be the innovators. You WILL discover better way to run your business. And, then we will ALL steal from each other.

I’m not psychic; I’m simply aware that Steve Jobs started Apple Computer in a garage and Bill Gates once had to borrow money.

Great things have ALWAYS come from things that were once small. You are small and able to adapt more quickly to the realities of the market. You look to the future because you hear something coming down the tracks and you refuse to let it knock you off course.

Good for you, because great things are about to happen. Your opportunities will come from adversity – don’t they usually? I’m reminded of a story:

A teen-aged boy walks into his house with his friend and his mother is waiting at the door for him. She pulls him away from his friend, takes him to the kitchen and says, “I told you not to leave the house last night, but I saw you kissing some girl at the park as I was driving by. Who was it? I’m going to call her parents.”

"I promised not to tell!" the young man says.

"Was it Patricia, the butcher's daughter?" his mother asks. "No. I said I wouldn't tell."

"Was it Elizabeth, the printer's daughter?" "No, and I still won't tell!"

'Was it Mary, the baker's daughter?" "No," says the boy.

'Well, son," his mother says, "I have no choice but to ground you for two weeks.

When he walks his friend to the door; his friend asks him what happened.

"Well," he says, "I got two weeks… but three good leads."

In my capacity as senior vice-president; I am entrusted with a portion of the future success of Schurz Communications. I am honored by that trust. I take it seriously. I consider it an important part of my job to assess the newest technological advances; to be one of the first to listen to podcasts; to understand what wi-fi or RSS means for our business and calculate how our print can co-exist with our internet.

My job is to look FORWARD; be an advance scout for what will affect our business model AND our people. You can’t have a business model without people. And, several years of doing this has NOT made me an optimist – as I’ve said, it’s made me a realist.

And, the realist in me knows THIS to be true: people buy FLAMES not MATCHES. Your paper’s physical appearance MUST draw your readers in, but it is simply a means to an end. They buy the match to get the flame – so provide it.

This afternoon, I will GIVE you 12 ways to improve your readership; I will GIVE you statistics; I will GIVE you advice. But, what I need you to TAKE away is this: All of you here offer a service that readers don’t even know they need.

Before you overanalyze that statement, let me ask a question: If you came across a genie who offered to grant you three wishes – after your first two wishes for money and power or peace on earth and a set of graphite clubs, or whichever two you choose – what is your third wish?

Most of you would ask for… MORE WISHES. Not because you’re greedy or indecisive, but you NEVER KNOW what you might need in the future.

We ARE our readers’ THIRD WISH. We’re not the wish for money; we’re not the wish for power. We are the wish for MORE.

More accurate information; more honest information; more watchdog journalism; more context for our information. We are the hedge against the future. Just as having money can answer the question of whether your child will go to college, a good newspaper can provide answers for our important questions.

A survey done by Quinnipiac University [It is in Connecticut] in 2005 indicated that by a margin of 49 to 42 percent, most current workers do not think that Social Security will be able to pay them a benefit when they retire. Wherever you sit on the issues, the reality is that situation is basically impossible, barring an economic collapse of the U.S. And, in very few places when I read about Social Security do I get this bit of context – that the system was in just as dire, if not more dire, circumstances in 1965. It required two major tax increases in the following decades to continue. The 49 percent of people who think they would get nothing upon their retirement NEED what you have to offer – they just don’t know.

Or, on the foreign front. Our soldiers, the men and women who are risking or giving their lives for our country right now, were polled by LeMoyne College/Zogby researchers. Almost 90 percent of the active duty troops surveyed believes the war in Iraq is our retaliation for Saddam Hussein’s role in 9/11.

Those brave men and women NEED what you have to offer – they just don’t know it.

I will go even further and say every high school dropout NEEDS what you can give them; every teen-aged mother; every ex-convict; anyone who is struggling with their lives, needs what you can provide.

Are the kinds of misconceptions I spoke of coincidental? No. Powerful politicians, powerful corporations all know their way around the court of public opinion. They hire spinmeisters; they do push polls; they – and I get a kick out of this phrase – they engage in “campaigns of willful misinformation.”

Simply put. Sometimes they lie.

And, their goals are often quite sophisticated. Powerful interests aren’t always there to win over the hearts and minds of everyone; most of the time they just want a hung jury. They want reasonable doubt in ENOUGH of the public’s minds that they can proceed as the hoi polloi argue amongst themselves. Or, in terms of politicians, they attack our shield laws.

In the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court case Branzburg v. Hayes, the court said, “News gathering is not without First Amendment protections.” But, the justices could not agree about the form or breadth of those protections. As a result, to this day, no nationally recognized newsgatherer’s privilege exists. Instead, the protections currently in place for newsgatherers are set forth in a patchwork of inconsistent court decisions and state statutes.

AND, in RELATED news – the current administration has made it harder to extract information about the federal government via Freedom of Information Act requests.

There is an old African saying that when elephants fight; the grass suffers.

What can you do? What can your small paper do? You can tell the truth as best you can. You can be the touchstone. You can see their eyes light up one-by-one as they find the truths they NEED -- in YOUR pages.

Make that truth YOUR truth; make it local. All the spinmeisters aren’t on Wall Street or K Street. They’re also on the Main Streets of Decatur, IL and Davenport, IA and Loveland, OH. You know them; you go to the same parties as they do. But, you have to recognize that sometimes their jobs are to disseminate half-truths. Half-truths are easy to put out into the public consciousness and very difficult to erase. But, they CAN be erased.

I’ll be blunt. You are outnumbered and your job is difficult. The truth is hard to tell and harder to sell. But, you HAVE to BE what your readers WISHED for.

As your newspaper evolves and become a more interactive 21st century medium, you will have to FULFILL those wishes. You will have to CREATE a new market for what is essentially a new entity.

As I said, most people don’t know they need you. Will an 18-year-old girl in your town tell you she NEEDS your newspaper? Will a 65-year-old retiree tell you he NEEDS your newspaper?

It may good for your ego to hear ‘yes,’ but realistically, the answer is ‘no’ … unless you CREATE that need.

Unlike internet and broadcast media, newspapers have a higher hurdle for admission.

First, our readers HAVE to be literate, they have to know how to read; second, they have to CHOOSE a certain publication; third they have to actually READ that publication, fourth they have to be DRAWN INTO the publication by virtue of its writing, graphics or usefulness.

Then, and only then, can you even talk about need. With a television set; just flick on the channel and you’ve got a best friend, a babysitter and a VERY efficient need-generator. Don’t believe me? Tune into a home shopping network and look at how many people are buying $20 chocolate-making kits at 3 in the morning.

I will give you an example of the high hurdle for newspapers – by a show of hands, how many of you read the Wall Street Journal or New York Times print editions cover-to-cover 10 years ago? How many do that today?

Still, what may be considered barriers may also be advantages. Having literate consumers means, for the most part, educated and motivated consumers. Choosing a publication creates a fan of your work and if you do well by the consumer, oftentimes they will recommend you to the people they know. Reading is more active than watching television and the time required to read and process is time to draw them into well-written, important stories.

In the July 12, 2004 edition of BusinessWeek magazine, it was noted that newspaper advertising had increased per unit of circulation about tenfold. As narrowcasting becomes more common, the niches you have created grow in importance. In that same article it was noted that in the 1960s, an advertiser could reach 80 percent of U.S. women with broadcast ads on CBS, NBC and ABC. By 2004, with hundreds of channels to choose from, the reach is now a fraction of that.

Ladies and gentlemen, our newspapers do NOT beckon from darkened rooms and yet we survive; we don’t have laugh tracks that pique our readers’ interest as they are walking a few feet away and yet advertising dollars remain; our advertisements don’t offer chances to shoot a monkey swinging across a screen, but still we are picked up by readers.

Our readers and potential readers don’t KNOW they need us because they think of us a PRODUCT. But, we don’t offer our readers a product; we offer a service and it is more valuable to them than they can imagine.

Our SERVICE is accurate information; our SERVICE is information you can trust; our SERVICE is watchdog journalism.

Right now, I am going to share with you the 12 things our research combined with research from the Readership Institute suggest you to do to make your service more perfect for your reader. These four I categorize as related to STYLE.

First – be relentlessly local; second – be people centered and feature ordinary people and young people; third – VARY your writing styles. Use Q&A, sometimes; use a feature tone for news; fourth – Break it out; use breakouts on every page, suggest places to go to and things to do; list contact information for volunteering or website addresses.

In one of our newsrooms, there was a wonderful plan to have readers embrace the paper’s online sister publication. So, they bought an inexpensive video camera, a couple of digital recorders, some video editing software and some training. They now put video clips on that website and traffic is up substantially. The total cost was $300.

That newsroom gets it. It is working with the news consumer in a new way, but maintains a high standard of journalistic integrity. And, that kind of creativity is the great equalizer for smaller publications. The New York Times can spend more money on its staff, but one Jason Blair can rip the fabric of all the news that’s fit to print. If you do good work in your market; you will do well in your market.

But, here I have to caution you. Be careful. Be careful with your facts because the loss of your reputation can be the work of an instant. I always say ‘You never get what you EXPECT; you get what you INSPECT. Guard your integrity as if it were the most precious thing in the world.

Your readers may not have time to recall how many journalism prizes you’ve won, but your readers – and most Americans -- have an AMAZING capacity for remembering bad reputations. WorldCom, Enron, DeLorean, Union Carbide, Exxon and its Exxon Valdez all resonate with negativity because of acts that were self-serving or short-sighted.

Like Google, which helps you search the internet, the service we offer is simple to describe. We can give our readers accurate, true, credible information.

And, we need all three: accuracy, truth and credibility. Just as when you put your hand on a bible in the courtroom and the bailiff asks if you will “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” it’s all or nothing.

You have no credibility without truth and accuracy. The same thing applies to accuracy without credibility and truth and so on.

We are pioneers in a new land, ladies and gentlemen. There are new technologies to conquer, a new audience, but the spirit of frontier is an old one. A spirit built on trust and honesty.

Here’s a paradox: We are selling a service the public doesn’t even KNOW it needs, but it needs it now more than ever.

Why? Check the math.

Statistically, the modern American consumer is saturated with messages to buy. By some estimates we each are subjected to 3,000 advertisements every day; more than a million a year. Our services and the services of broadcast media are WRAPPED UP in those million messages. It’s gotten so pervasive, that every parent tells his child not to always believe the messages of advertisers. What do you think that does for the messengers?

Joe and Jane Public HAVE money; they HAVE education; they HAVE material goods. What is SLIPPING AWAY from them is the ability to quickly get accurate, true and credible information. Everyone is selling something. The information flow has been muddied by bloggers with agendas, infomercials, spin and outright falsehoods.

We have made the job of reporting the news look too easy in some respects. Just like singing in the shower – everyone thinks they can do it, but few do it well. So, now people are putting out shingles on the internet. And, you know what many of those shingles read: News for Sale.

Technology often evolves faster than our ability to handle it and that has happened with all media. People may now choose between conservative or liberal websites for their news – and they can do it 24 hours a day. The result is a public that seems to become ill-informed with each passing year. Note that I didn’t say UNinformed because we ARE getting information.

But, much of it is information that polarizes us as a people.

Can I trust you? That’s what readers are asking us. We CAN’T be timid when we answer them. We should shout our answers out – yes! You can trust us! And, with every issue we should PROVE it.

But, you know what? Everybody else is shouting the same thing. The Republican National Committee; the Democratic National Committee; your local school board; your mayor’s office. All of them are putting an informational product out there. Mark Twain once said “The only difference between a cat and a lie is that a cat only has nine lives.

Your philosophy as a smaller newspaper should be to steward that information as if there were no competition. Get it as fast as you can; but make sure you get it right.

In his book, ‘The World is Flat’ Thomas Friedman interviewed an East Indian high tech executive who had this to say: “The world is a football field now and you’ve got to be sharp to be on a team which plays on that field. If you’re not good enough, you’re going to be sitting and watching the game. That’s all.”

You have got to be on top of your game. When an information consumer gets inaccurate information, it is hard to wipe that away. For example, one of the biggest misconceptions of my childhood was that lemmings had an urge to leap off cliffs in a mass suicide. It is a fascinating concept, but untrue.

The myth began as a result of Walt Disney movie named Wild Wilderness that was released in 1958. The filmmakers wanted to show something dramatic and decided to invent that behavior.

Misinformation can be a powerful thing. But, once it is uncovered by the information consumer, it can sever a relationship permanently. To this day, no lemming will return calls from the Walt Disney Company.

These next four suggestions for improving readership, I categorize as related to PHILOSOPHY.

First – Give your readers news they like to read about; for instance, define the top three local news interests for occasional readers; second – give your readers features they like, things to do, places to go, parenting information and so forth; third – provide motivators for your readers, things that help them live better, look smarter and make sure you don’t waste their time; fourth – Always answer the question – ‘What does it mean?’ for your readers, put it in context and go the extra mile to explain relevance.

How do you get to a place to incorporate these suggestions? One way is to implement a training requirement for your writers and editors. In one of our newsrooms, they have a modest goal of 12 hours of training each year. That newsroom does another thing I like: they shake up the beats and take the role of journalistic watchdog seriously. Don’t make your reporters comfortable. Challenge them! Break the status quo and stretch the talents of these men and women.

Your editors and reporters are the thin line between the power elite and the majority of men and women who experience the effects of decisions made by the elite.

The newspaper industry has done many things right; objective journalism, monitoring the political process. But, what it hasn’t done particularly well is say to its readers that, BURIED in the product we offer, NEXT to the job listings and used cars is the service they REALLY need us for: We won’t lie to you. Moreover, if we don’t KNOW the truth, we consider it our duty to go out and find it for you – no matter what it uncovers.

We talk among ourselves about journalistic integrity and SOME of our readers understand, but they don’t realize how easily compromised that mission can be. When car dealers threaten to withdraw advertising because of unflattering stories there is a choice to be made. Does one cater to one class of customer to the detriment of the other?

Sometimes, watchdog journalism bites you on the bottom line. But, these aren’t times for the faint of heart. There is a growing divide between the haves and have-nots in this nation. In 2005, according to a New York Times, average executive pay for CEOs of the nation’s largest companies was $11.3 million. A 27% increase from 2004. Workers during that same time saw an increase of about 3.7%. College educated workers made an average salary of $51,000 in 2005.

Walter Cronkite – a broadcast guy, remember - once wrote "It is the CONTENT that is important and the Republic, indeed no society, cannot live without that which ONLY THE NEWSPAPER provides -- the daily recording of our history and the presentation to the people of the facts on which they can meaningfully participate in this democracy."

We must hold the powerful accountable. We have no choice -- ignoring the right thing to do is the same as doing the wrong thing. Your newspaper has access to information that Jane and Joe Public don’t have. And, we live in a time when politicians deal more than ever in secrets and half-truths. Who else will interpret what the Patriot Act does on the local level? Who else will write truthfully about the choices that school and civic budgets present us?

Who else if not us? Mark Twain admonished us to do the right thing. “Do the right thing,” he said. “It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

And, as I said, make your truth local. Last year, our paper The Herald organized and implemented what it called a Sunshine Week. It filed Freedom of Information requests for all the Freedom of Information requests with the city, county and school boards to see what ordinary citizens were asking the government for. They provided readers with the names of Freedom of Information officers; made available sample forms and posted templates on their website.

That is being a watchdog and creative at the same time. Am I asking a lot of you? Your readers will ask no less. Adversity can bring out creativity; use it to your advantage. Here’s an example:

The final four recommendations to increase your readership I categorize as related to MARKETING.

First – Keep ‘em coming back. Make use of briefs, shorter stories, use photos with informative cutlines, easy to understand graphics; second – promote, promote, promote – give your readers specifics about current and upcoming projects. At one of our papers in ONE EDITION there were 41 specific content promotions; third – embrace the web, don’t be afraid to send them there; fourth – interact with your readers, work to increase those avenues for interaction.

And, respect the diversity of your readers. That diversity will only increase in the future. Respect can be as simple as not having a rotation of the same spokespeople for stories in the African American community. Do the footwork. It is a sore point among many in the African American community that the same voices are heard over and over again in news reports. Work harder to get the voices and faces of the communities of color in your pages

As one young woman said to me, “I want newspapers to understand that we’re a community, not a country with an elected leader. Nothing is more insulting or patronizing than assuming you can find one spokesperson for an entire race of people.”

So, what do you do now? What calls to action have I made? In telling you to be accurate, truthful and credible, I have given you the abstract goal. Specifically, I strongly advise that you keep or expand staff training and to shake up your beat assignments. And, based on research, I also suggest you do these 12 things – be relentlessly local, be people-centered, vary your writing, use breakouts as much as humanly possible, provide news your readers like, provide features they enjoy, offer motivators for your readers, explain more fully what articles mean, do everything possible to keep readers coming back by being respectful of their time, promote your own projects within an inch of their lives, embrace the web and increase reader interaction with your paper.

What you offer is a scarce commodity; accuracy, truth and credibility are the hallmarks of significant relationships. And, in a nation where many people don’t know who or what to trust finding those qualities like stumbling onto a diamond mine. It wasn’t what they were looking for, but it is a precious thing.

Your readers may not know that you have just what they need, but you do. And, one by one, their eyes will open and they will become your biggest advocates.

And, since we began by talking about wishes, I will close the same way, with a quote from author Jim Rohn: “Don’t wish that it were easier, wish that you were better.”


Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
College of Communications and Information Studies

122 Grehan Building, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

Phone: (859) 257-3744, Fax: (859) 323-9879

Questions about the web site: Contact Al Cross, director, al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: April 30, 2006