Just how far local newspapers have to go to plant their flag commandingly in the fiercely competitive world of digital is summed up in a revealing story told by Robertson (Rob) Barrett, the new digital chief at Hearst Newspapers. “Every single editor I’ve spoken to feels they’re flying blind,” he said. “They don’t have information about the interests of the people in their market. Everyone is going like this…[holding up his finger to find the direction of a figurative wind].”
If this is the situation at Hearst, whose 17 dailies and 57 weeklies have strong local identities, you can imagine what it’s like in an industry where four of the biggest groups of local newspapers have gone through recent Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, and why the recent, much-quoted academic study “Reality Check” concluded that the decade-long struggle by papers to succeed digitally has produced “underwhelming” results.
Barrett, who told his story at the recent Sustain Local 2016 conference hosted by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair (N.J.) State University, is ordering up terabytes of new user data and forging new staff awareness and interplay so no editor is flying blind anymore – and, in the process, Hearst Newspapers is building a new media model to sustain them in a digital world that has much promise but many snares.
To do this, Barrett told his panel at the Montclair State conference, he and his editorial-product-engineering team are developing two seamlessly connected “muscle groups” at the front and back ends of the Hearst papers’ websites.
The front end is the “user experience – the product part,” he said. “Let’s take the game up to designing everything we do to make sure it’s servicing the user and that we’re tracking this. If someone comes to an app or a site or content on Facebook, and they are passionate about local political content in Houston [where Hearst’s daily Chronicle – Chron.com – is the dominant regional news property], we don’t know how deeply engaged that person is. If we knew that, we could put it together with other data that’s within Hearst and out there, and know more about that person that’s constructive, and then, if we do a paywall, maybe we could create a City Hall product, a newsletter, that we could promote to the right person at the right time.”
Part two is what Barrett calls the “data group,” which is “very heavy on engineering.” He continued: “They’re concerned with every conceivable type of data, so we can understand more about users and have that knowledge influence the front end, including our investment in content.”
The end result of the interaction of the new “muscle groups,” Barrett said, will be a “sustainable new media model starting with the premise of service, relevance and value. It doesn’t mean the journalistic mission is secondary – it’s endemic to this new model. It opens up the table to what you’re able to do” in the digital world.
A major new player in Barrett’s front-to-back-end strategy is Ashok Krishnamachari in the new role of VP of Revenue Engineering. Krishnamachari comes to Hearst from the New York Times, where he spent more than 16 years in a succession of classified advertising, circulation and tech-related positions. One of his key responsibilities was leading the integration of the digital and print systems during the Times’ adoption of a metered paywall, which has been called one of American newspapers’ most successful digital-only subscription models, with 1.3 million sign-ups and an annual yield of close to $200 million from fees as low as $1.88 per week for basic service.
Krishnamachari’s hiring may indicate that Hearst is looking at adding some level of paywall to its free-access major breaking-news websites. (At present, there is only a charge for premium products offered by larger papers.)
According to his new boss at Hearst, Esfand Pourmand, SVP of Revenue, Krishnamachari, when he was at the Times, “worked very closely with the marketing teams in defining the customer experience vision and building products and solutions to support the vision” – all central to Barrett’s new front-to-back-end strategy for Hearst that emphasizes service to the user.
The Sustain Local 2016 panel on “The Future of Business Models Supporting Local Journalism” where Barrett spoke also included Jim Friedlich, Executive Director of the institute for Journalism in the New Media, who sketched out his own group’s new media model recently in Street Fight – here and here – and Jeff Jarvis, Director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Moderating the discussion was Bryan Mercer, Executive Director of the Media Mobilizing Project.
Jarvis, who in the past has been harshly critical of daily newspapers for a digital strategy that is built on astronomical traffic numbers, nodded his head up and down at key points of Barrett’s remarks. In his own comments, Jarvis said: “If we can build a relevant, valuable product for local communities of all definitions, we can get off the treadmill of volume and reach” and create a sustainable model for all varieties of news.
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.