As Legacy Media Companies Evolve, ‘Culture Trumps Strategy Every Time’

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The Local Media Association used to represent only newspapers, but now its 2,400 members include radio and TV stations, directories, and “pure-play” digital sites, as well as more than 100 research and development partners. This transformation has happened under the watch of President Nancy Lane, who came to the nonprofit 16 years ago and has seen firsthand how local media companies have had to make major shifts as they have transitioned to digital and now mobile.

In this recent Q & A with “The New News,” Lane talks about how the LMA helps its members achieve sustainability in the relentlessly competitive world of local media.

What’s behind the morphing of your organization to include not just newspapers but also a wide range of local media?
At LMA, we are intensely focused on helping local media companies discover new and sustainable business models. So it makes sense that we would want to share best practices and case studies across all media and not just one platform. We can all learn from each other and also partner when appropriate (especially in areas such as events or through the work of the Local Media Consortium.) There was a need for an association to bring all local media together and I’m proud of our work to make this happen.

While you represent all kinds of local media today, newspapers remain the dominant category of members, right?
Absolutely. We were a newspaper association for 41 years before making the change in 2013, so it will take time. But increasingly we are seeing more and more participation from non-newspaper media companies, especially broadcasters. In fact, more than 200 broadcast executives participated in LMA training and certification programs last year and that number continues to grow.

Your members share a big challenge — they’re trying to make the transition from print or analog to digital. Is there one big and common impediment to that transition?
That quote “culture trumps strategy every time” applies here. The legacy culture is the biggest impediment, for sure. Those media companies that have separated traditional and digital are clearly ahead of others. But it’s a tough concept and it requires an investment. Legacy media companies don’t naturally think like a start up and are not patient for profits. That needs to change.

Your focus is “helping local media companies discover new and sustainable business models.” What are some examples of successful discoveries your members have made?
Three examples come to mind: events, sales structure and native advertising.

First, events are not new but creating a separate events division is for most media companies. The companies that have done this (Tribune, Utah Media Group, Emmis Communications and more), are seeing profit margins up to 50% and revenue well into the seven  figures. It is a no brainer (but can’t be handled by existing staff.) Billy Penn, the digital start up in Philly, built events into their business model from day one. Events account for more than 50% of their revenue. This is a must-do for local media companies.

Second, every company that has truly separated traditional sales from digital sales has moved the needle in a big way — every single one of them. We present case study after case study, but most media companies remain committed to an integrated sales model. We just had a member that attended our DDM boot camp make bold changes upon their return. They took the top 25 digital accounts away from the print rep and gave them to a new digital rep. Guess what happened? Revenue from those 25 accounts increased significantly. They are now rolling this out in other markets. This is what drives us every day; seeing that our case studies are really helping local media companies transform.

Third, native advertising represents a tremendous opportunity. We have media companies in very small markets that are bringing in six figures a year and growing. We think that native is here to stay and should be a top priority for 2016. We have many case studies that show local media companies how to implement a successful native advertising strategy.

Local Media Association President Nancy Lane
Local Media Association President Nancy Lane

One of your members, Dan Easton, publisher of the Victoria (Tex.) Advocate, says, “I think much of what limits our industry today are the same things that were a big part of our success just a decade or so ago. Because these things were part of our sustained success in the past, it is nearly impossible to see beyond them, much less let them go and change.” Would you explain that dilemma, and how widespread is it among local media?
Dan is truly one of the local media industry’s shining stars. He gets it. He didn’t come from the newspaper industry. He is an engineer by trade and he sees us through a different lens. He separated print and digital a few years ago and now has 16+ FTEs working on the digital side. It’s a profitable business for them that is growing. They just moved into beautiful new offices away from the newspaper (all of the successful case studies do this, by the way.)

Clark Gilbert told us in 2011 when we visited Deseret Digital that “legacy business executives can’t see the new business opportunity that exists because they are holding on to the legacy business and trying to protect it.” That thinking still exists today, but we are finally seeing some improvement. We suggest hiring top talent from outside the industry because they will not be bogged down with legacy thinking. We have three LMA board members that came from outside the industry. They didn’t know what a double truck was! But they do know how to grow digital.

Many independent community news sites stay away from programmatic advertising. They want to focus on serving local advertisers. Do you think this is a good idea?
Not at all. I think programmatic is here to stay and needs to be part of a local media company’s strategy. I do know of a few that are able to sell out their inventory at high CPMs and of course, they should continue to do that. The key is hiring the right person to oversee programmatic. We cover this in case studies, and the Lawrence Journal World comes to mind. They tripled their revenue after assigning programmatic to the right person. This requires more of an engineering mindset than a sales focus.

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.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.