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,
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!
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
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
'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
"Well," he says, "I got two weeks… but three
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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.”