How One Gannett Paper Is Reacting After ‘Slow Slide’ From Cost Cutting

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CTWhen Gannett, like other “legacy” publishers, began hemorrhaging print revenues in the dawning digital era, its main response was to wield the ax: More than 20,000 staff – the majority of them in the media company’s publishing operations – were let go between 2003 and 2014.

At the Asheville Citizen-Times in picturesque western North Carolina, pink slipping claimed reporters, editors, photographers and mid-level managers in virtually annual cycles. The axings at the Citizen-Times and Gannett’s other 81 dailies helped nearly triple the company’s stock value from December 2008 to mid-October 2014. But editorial quality suffered. In August of this year, the entire editorial staff at the C-T was required to apply for re-employment in a reorganization with new job descriptions, but with salaries staying constant for positions of equivalent responsibility and going up in cases of higher responsibility. In “a few cases” managers whose jobs were eliminated took reporter positions, and those salaries went down “as little as possible,” according to Executive Editor Josh Awtry.

In August, Awtry told readers: “It would have been easier to change nothing in the way we operate — to continue a slow slide, as most papers have done — but we weren’t ready to accept that fate.” Here, Awtry details for Street Fight his team’s major changes in the latest, still-unfolding chapter of the Citizen-Times’ 144-year history:

You say the Citizen-Times under its re-org is delivering “deeper” news to its readers. Some examples?
More than anything, having a full-time investigative watchdog for the first time in years has changed the game. This one body is exempt from daily grind. Since we put this structure in place Sept. 4, we’re already seeing results.

Before, harder-to-answer tips from the public were often relegated to the “wish we had time” file. Now things are different. Our investigative reporter just spent a few days digging on one tantalizing community rumor: a local sheriff was allegedly training a private militia and billing taxpayers. We investigated and pored over the documents to find that the rumor was overblown, and the training was legal. We’ll share that finding with readers in a smaller way, but tracking down the records and cross-checking them takes time we didn’t previously have. In the past, this rumor would have continued unchecked.

Our investigative reporter also has an amazing series coming up in a few months — we were able to obtain an unprecedented level access for a reporter and photographer to be embedded in a local health system. He had access to the emergency room, confidential budget meetings, staff retreats and the like. When we’re done, readers will see a definitive account of the changing face of community medical care. I’ve seen the budget lines and early drafts — I can’t wait to share it with folks.

We also have a dedicated question-and-answer columnist who takes questions from the public and seeks out their answers five days a week. This is daily service journalism at its best, and it’s a resource we were previously only able to use twice per week.

In all, not too shabby for a 35-person shop in a few weeks’ time!

In the reorganized newsroom, what qualities are you most looking for?
Initiative and curiosity, above all else. Initiative, because future journalism can’t be some hierarchical, top-down, old-school method of leadership. We need reporters who ask, “What if?” What if we tried to do something differently? What if we tell that story a different way or interact with our audience in another fashion? I want people who are bold and who feel comfortable trying something a little crazy. And curiosity, because you can train skills, but you can’t build in that innate sense of needing to know WHY something works, or HOW something happened. That nature of needing to dig past the surface is critical to where we’re going.

You now post on flat screens in the newsroom data on readership of online stories. Does this data include “attention” and “timing” — metrics your sister paper the Journal News in Westchester County in New York is using, via Chartbeat, reportedly with success?
We love listening to our audience via what they read. It’s become a big part of our water-cooler discussions. Behind every click or view is a real, live soul living in our community. With the rise in sensationalistic headlines and superlatives being lobbed around as recklessly as wiffle balls at a kindergarten field day, looking at measurements that go past “clicks” and “pageviews” has never been more important. Page views are a fundamentally infinite measurement. But time? Anyone who’s tried to cram for an exam knows you can’t manufacture more time. When we see that readers spent a minute longer on today’s enterprise story versus yesterday’s, that’s a direct measurement of quality.

Using time and amount read helps us make the case for smaller, loyal niche audiences. Take arts stories, for instance — they don’t always have the largest readership, but we can tell that the community that reads them is incredibly loyal and reads those stories fully, spending minutes reading stories to completion.

And it’s not just digital data — we have services that allow us to effectively run digital-style metrics for our print stories and audiences. Together, this one-two punch of knowing what our readers value is heady. It’s enlightening. It allows us to not walk away from our gut instincts, but to recalibrate our gut to pair actionable intelligence along with old-school journalistic know-how.

Readers want great journalism. Sure, mayhem-related stories drive instant traffic, but we see through the data that a large, loyal audience is hungry for stories that connect dots in their communities. It’s gratifying to see those notions pay off!

Josh Awtry
Citizen-Times executive editor Josh Awtry

You told your readers that, overall, the Citizen-Times would be delivering deeper content with “a little bit less” in staffing. In August you announced that seven newsroom positions were being eliminated. But since then you’ve said that some positions are being restored. As of today, what is the newsroom head count compared to what it was before the re-org?
On numbers, it’s hard to make a one-to-one comparison in Asheville alone. I also oversee the news operation at the nearby Greenville News, so we’ve looked at both operations as a unit. We’ve done a lot of work in reducing what I call “slash beats” to help reporters focus on one topic in a larger coverage area. Asheville, for instance, had a beer/entertainment reporter. Greenville had a beer/nuclear-energy reporter. I really want people to develop deep subject knowledge and expertise.

In this case, we went to one reporter to cover beer for both the Asheville and Greenville markets, and one reporter to cover environmental and energy issues. A bigger geographic footprint, but a much more reasonable subject knowledge and beat structure. All reporters are still based in the communities they cover, but there were positions before where we couldn’t afford a full-time position where we’ve expanded their geographic footprint to help both Asheville and Greenville, and expanded their beat to full-time.

Out of the 79 full-time positions in Asheville and Greenville previously [before the re-org of late summer 2014] we’re now at 74 when all of our journalists are fully in place. We added three journalists to the team yesterday [Monday, Oct. 13].

Is there a clear line of performance between the “newsroom of the future” and increased digital revenue for the Citizen-Times?
I think that just looking at revenue in terms of ads is like looking at one of those 3D puzzles with one eye closed. You can see a picture somewhere in there, but it doesn’t pop into clarity without looking at it with depth.

Our ad departments have moved far past just selling leaderboards or 300×250 spots. Increasingly, our sales teams are working with local businesses to help facilitate their success as businesses — that may include digital buys on our site, but it may include brokered deals on radio networks, Pandora spots, print ads or direct marketing. Whatever the right mix is for that company.

And, beyond ad revenue, we’re also looking for more of our funding to come directly from our readers. In the past, as an industry, we haven’t done the best job of explaining that value proposition. The notion of a “paywall” sets up the transactional element, but what happens when we make your monthly bill include experiences, too? What if that monthly $10 or so provides you with not just digital media and apps, but also access to events, informational forums, and other “insider member” extras?

The plan was implemented only four weeks ago. Changing community perception through content and engagement takes time, and a month just isn’t enough to know whether it’s working.

How’s digital traffic since you started a metered pay wall in mid-2012, with a $10-a-monthly digital-only subscription price?
Pageviews in June 2014 were up 24% over June 2013.

Given all the change at the Citizen-Times, how would you describe morale among editorial staffers?
Last week, we physically moved the newsroom for the first time in 80 years. We’re on the main floor of our historic building now — right by the front door and lobby, close to the public. It’s an open, bright space, with art deco walls of glass block. The team feels great about their new digs, and I can’t help but see the new space and its location as a metaphor for what’s ahead. A shipment of iPhone 6s for all the reporters just rolled in today, and new laptops will be here by the end of the month. We’re reinvesting in our team. Sending people to training and making sure their equipment is top of the line.

We have a more focused mission to deliver depth and a new crop of seasoned journalists that are about to join our team. For the first time in a few years, this newsroom is looking forward — not backward. I’m proud of them.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched earlier this year.