After 2 Spinoffs, Journal Media Group Looks to Strengthen Digital Offerings

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The big story in legacy media in recent years has been spinoffs — with the newspapers going in one corporate direction and TV stations going in another. The new Journal Media Group is the result of a double spinoff. It includes the 17 dailies that used to be part of E. W. Scripps and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which used to be owned by Journal Communications, which Scripps bought as part of the spinoff deal that also put all the TV stations with Scripps.  Journal Media Group’s dailies cover communities located in four coastal corners of the U.S.  — South Florida, South Texas, Southern California and Washington State — and many medium-size cities and other communities in-between, including Milwaukee, home of JMG’s flagship daily, the Journal Sentinel.

To find out what JMG will be doing to succeed as an all-newspaper company — in both print and digital — I put these questions to its president, Tim Stautberg, who formerly headed Scripps’ newspaper division:

Digital is  becoming the dominant platform for newspapers. What does Journal Media Group have to do to make sure it’s number one in its markets in digital over the long run?
We must deliver a high volume of relevant local news and information at the time and on the device of the consumer’s choosing. We also believe it is imperative that our newsrooms lead each of the communities we serve in coverage of critical issues. We’ve focused on the latter in our establishment of “franchise” topics in all of our markets — such as education, development and the outdoors — to cover subjects of high interest to local readers in creative ways on digital platforms. Another key to success for us is real-time reporting. This concept goes beyond “breaking news” to create unique coverage of events as they happen on digital platforms, incorporating social media, narrative text and video. We also have to invest time, energy and resources in creating a seamless consumer experience across every content platform.

The newspapers in Journal Media Group, like the rest of the newspaper industry, have gone through painful rounds of cost cutting, especially in editorial. How big of an issue is that for JMG in the fast-growing, more competitive local digital space?
Newly created, Journal Media Group has the opportunity to leverage our scale, taking advantage of all our resources across our entire network of publications and local brands. We can offer the tools and suggest techniques to help our folks work smarter and more efficiently, and share knowledge and best practices across the company. In the newsroom, it’s about re-thinking long-held roles that primarily serve a print audience. For example, it makes no sense for our best wordsmiths – the copy editors who vet content before publication – to focus most of their time and energy on print. So we are restructuring those operations and retraining those folks as digital producers. We are also establishing a national digital desk to handle non-local news content and subject-matter verticals so that local staff can focus on serving their communities.

Your biggest paper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has a strong reputation for investigative journalism that has made a difference in the community. With the new resources it has, will it be doing even more in that area?
Investigative reporting is important in all the markets in which we operate, and we are fortunate to be able to leverage the investigative work done in Milwaukee, especially in matters that transcend geography, by publishing this work on print and digital platforms in 13 additional Journal Media Group markets.

Journal Media Group consists of newspapers. Will the individual papers establish partnerships with other news sources, including TV stations that were part of the two companies that have merged into JMG?
Local partnerships with other media outlets often makes sense for both parties, and we will continue to leave those decisions up to local leadership. For example, the leadership teams for our newspapers in the Treasure Coast of Florida and the Scripps TV station in West Palm Beach have decided to continue to work together.

Are your papers the dominant local digital platform in their markets, based on audience and ad revenue?
Yes, our digital products sit at or near the top position in our local markets compared with other local media brands.

Will you be doing anything new in social media, including possibly establishing an expanded relationship with Facebook, as some other publishing companies are planning to do?
As more and more millennials cite social media as a primary news source, we are evaluating the potential of a Facebook partnership in conjunction with an adjustment to our paid content strategy.

National advertisers are getting more involved at the local level through targeted messages. What will your papers be offering those advertisers to capture the lion’s share of targeted spending in your markets?
We will attract national digital revenue through a combination of increased scale, a commitment to leveraging data and the introduction of premium native advertising options.  The aggregate digital audience of our newspaper sites is larger than ever, and therefore, is more appealing to national advertisers. We’re building attractive audience segments from user engagement on our owned and operated sites and we plan to offer those data-rich segments to national advertisers via both private and open marketplaces.  We’re also working to create high-impact native advertising positions on our home pages and section fronts that will appeal to national advertisers trying to reach our audience.

You don’t have any debt. Might you be using that power to make acquisitions in the local digital markets of your various papers to make sure Journal Media Group is the dominant platform in those markets?
That is certainly an option available to us, but any such opportunity would need to make strategic and financial sense.

Do you plan to you technology in any ambitious new ways – in editorial, advertising or user profiling?
We want to use technology to help our news staff spend more time creating and curating content for digital platforms and less time producing content for print – without sacrificing the quality of the print reading experience. We are in conversations with our content management system vendors to help us determine ways to accomplish this.

We’re also using advanced technologies to understand our users and their consumption patterns; feeding this information back to our business units to help them make better programming decisions – in real time. We’ve built mathematical models around forecasting of KPIs, understanding what topics drive traffic, real-time click mapping and modeling next-click probabilities … and we’ve only just begun. We’re making investments in technology and talent that will grow our capabilities and let us apply them in creative ways.

Tom GrubisichTom 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.