In the past two years, the News & Record has replaced its editor, ad director, digital manager, production director, business manager and No. 2 circulation manager. Soon, it will replace its publisher. That is almost a complete turnover in the newspaper’s leadership team. (I was one of those who left.)
And now it’s an opportunity. With so many relatively new faces on board, the opportunity is to remake the company so that it truly embraces its audience and community in all of its possibilities.
Currently, the newspaper — the print edition — went through a redesign aimed, best I can tell, at reducing newsprint. (They haven’t actually said why they did it.) They broke apart the Sports/Life section on Monday and Tuesday, but didn’t add space or content. They eliminated most of the Op-Ed pages, but added back a weekly TV book. (I haven’t figured out the TV book addition; before it was killed four years ago, it never made money.)
The website was redesigned within the last year, and I admit that I don’t visit it often. It’s format isn’t helpful or easy to navigate. Besides, most of the time if there is something I’m interested in, I find a link on a social network or via a Google Alert and go directly to the story. And, as a newspaper subscriber, I see the news in the paper. There needs to be something particularly good and fresh to send me to the website.
Normally, I would argue that Berkshire Hathaway should find a publisher with local ties, someone who knows the community and the business. Bringing in someone new who doesn’t know Greensboro from Greenville usually results in missteps. But these aren’t normal times.
I hope the new publisher has the charge to remake the business. She — and I think having its first female publisher would be good for the paper — need only to look at the years of declining readership and ask herself, what are we doing to be where the community is?
Warren Buffett has said that the future of his newspapers is strong local coverage. Got it. I know the news staff and know they are smart, hard-working professionals. But their numbers have been slashed over the years. (Yes, I did much of that myself.) They need more help. Please give the Orange County Register philosophy a try. Invest in the newsroom. Create content that has power and relevance.
Wrestle with the truth that most people don’t want what you’re producing. It’s a conundrum, for sure. Local government is a newspaper’s bread and butter, but most people don’t care consistently about what local government does. For instance, the paper has been filled with election information recently, as it should be, but how many people are going to use that information Tuesday? I doubt the percentage of registered voters who go to the polls will get out of the teens. So you must be able to do the sort of public interest journalism vital to democracy AND include content vital to the readership.
Adopt a true digital first philosophy. This is a community that understands digital. We were blogging early. We gave the Google project a shot. We have a large college-student presence. We’re fertile ground. But digital content is not just shoveling. It’s not just finding viral link bait to attract traffic. It’s inviting the community to participate with you. It is examining why a Greensboro Politics Facebook Page can get 100+ comments on a post — and figuring out how you can be that relevant and compelling. It’s using video to tell stories. It’s making mobile easy and seamless. Want a model? Try the Atlantic.
And digital content isn’t a paywall, unless the content behind that paywall is compelling and different.
Yes, this will cost money. But the paper has been focused on monthly and quarterly results for years, and while it has helped a little, that attention hasn’t helped enough. A short attention span means that these things won’t get done. The paper will continue to lose circulation and advertising. The community Buffett wants to serve will be worse for it.
Buffett himself has said that the profits from all of his newspapers won’t make a dime’s worth of difference to Berkshire Hathaway. To me, that makes this a good opportunity for Berkshire Hathaway to become an industry pioneer. Do some things dramatically differently. I know many of the leaders at the paper. They want a vibrant, well-read paper. They are ready to do different things digitally. Bring in a publisher who will lead them there.
Listen to the charge from Buffett himself: “Wherever there is a pervasive sense of community, a paper that serves the special informational needs of that community will remain indispensable to a significant portion of its residents.”
Given the numbers, it is getting difficult to argue the paper is indispensable to most people younger than 60. Now is the opportunity to fix that.