Advice to Winston and Greensboro: Focus on improving the papers, not on cost savings

“My instinct is there will be ways for the two newspapers and their managers to work together to figure out where the efficiencies are. We expect the efficiencies will improve our product for readers and advertisers.”

That’s Terry Kroeger, chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway Media, quoted in the Winston-Salem Journal about his company’s purchase of the News & Record.

My experience is that “efficiencies” rarely improve the product. However, since it seems as if consolidations are in the works, here’s my advice. (For the record, I have spoken to none of my former colleagues and have no inside information.)

* Do not think that there is one paper to serve both Winston and Greensboro. There isn’t. While business leaders may think of the Triad as one big place, I’ve met very few people in Greensboro who do. If you are interested in local news, as BH leaders say they are — and I applaud that — then you must understand that local to News & Record readers isn’t Winston-Salem.

* There are some likely efficiencies to be had in the production of the papers. Winston has a newer press, and I suspect there is thought of having the News & Record printed in Winston and trucked back to Greensboro for delivery. It would mean significant savings in salaries. And, of course, the N&R’s press could be sold. But it would screw with deadlines, meaning that one paper, probably Greensboro’s, would have to go earlier. The consequence: less late news and sports scores. Update: A Facebook friend at the paper writes: “Terry mentioned yesterday that they don’t see the printing of both papers in one location.  He specifically said that W-S is close to capacity with commercial printing and that it might make sense for some of that to come to GSO.”

* Aligning the computer systems of the papers would be a huge improvement. Not only would the papers be able to talk to each other electronically, it would mean that the terrible system at the N&R would be s-canned.

* The idea of combining copy and design desks — the rage among newspapers these days, including BH — is a terrible one in terms of newspaper quality and accuracy. The mistakes in the News & Observer have earned it a Tumblr blog. (The copy desks for the N&O and the Charlotte Observer were combined and are located outside of Charlotte.) The region is too large to keep all the names and history straight. If you’re not a journalist, it probably seems pretty simple, but it isn’t. If you live in the town where you work, you learn the names of streets, of schools, of city leaders. You know where Friendly Avenue and Market Street connect. Do copy editors in Winston know the difference between Cotswold in Forsyth County and Cotswold Terrace (or Cotswold Avenue, for that matter) in Greensboro? This may lower costs, but it won’t improve the product. Update: Winston has already eliminated its desk operation, using one of the editing hubs in Richmond or Tampa. But it is not inconceivable that Greensboro’s desk would merge into one of those hubs.

* There are some coverage areas that would be improved by the two papers coordinating efforts. (Notice I wrote “coordinating” rather than “combining.”) Business, for one. The economic developers like to consider the Triad as one big region, and it would make some sense for reporters at both papers to work together. The same could be said of college sports. Getting better coverage of Wake Forest and Winston-Salem State sports would please some N&R readers. The N&R could provide A&T, UNCG, Duke, UNC and N.C. State to readers in Forsyth.

Take note, though. This is about the staffs complementing each other. The staffs of both papers are leaner than lean, and both are focused on local, local, local. There isn’t any way to eliminate staff by consolidation without sacrificing the product.

* Both websites could use some help. Both have had redesigns recently. Both, in my opinion, fall short. Presumably redesigns will have to occur once paywalls go up. And as I’ve said before, the content behind the wall better be more than what’s in the paper. Based on early reports from N&R editor Jeff Gauger, digital is an important part of the BH strategy. While I think paywalls are a long-term mistake, I hope that Jeff is right.

* It would be an interesting experiment to join together on investigative projects as Raleigh and Charlotte have done on occasion. Worth a try, reinvigorating the muckraking efforts of both papers.

As with yesterday’s post, these are initial thoughts. I’m sure I and others will add to them. I invite you to.

4 thoughts on “Advice to Winston and Greensboro: Focus on improving the papers, not on cost savings

  1. I believe the Journal consolidated their copy and operations a while back when they were still Media General and from what I’ve observed and what I’ve heard from some friends who worked there the effect was as you predicted. (I believe it’s done at their Hickory paper now).

    You’re spot on with peoples’ perceptions of Greensboro and W-S. Since I live in Lewisville (west of W-S) and work in Greensboro I see the divide every day. My job requires me to serve constituencies in both cities and I can tell you that it’s near impossible to get a Greensboro-based person to attend an event in W-S, and vice versa. I also think you’re right about the coverage areas that could work together and I’d bet Craver (Journal) and Barron (N&R) would love to have a little backup on the business front.

    So what do you think happens with the papers’ coverage of Kernersville now that they’re under the same umbrella? The area’s growing quickly and my perception is that there’s a pretty good split in people who work/play in Greensboro or W-S.

    Last point: since the Journal came under new ownership they launched a weekly community insert for western Forsyth and north Davie county (Lewisville, Clemmons and Advance communities). Not sure if that’s the only community piece they launched, or if it’s due to the new ownership or just coincidental, but I see it as a positive move and an acknowledgement that there are different “locals” even within the current readership of one paper.

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