DENVER– On a flight back from Denver last week, I sat next to a man on the airplane who talked to his wife in a sad tone on his cellphone. It was the middle of a snowstorm, and we were way late leaving. While I wasn’t eavesdropping, promise, I heard “it’s over” and “Singleton.” As a newspaper person, I knew exactly what he was talking about, namely the Rocky Mountain News.
But then I looked down at the actual copy of the E.W. Scripps-owned Rocky Mountain News and I said, WHOA! WAIT. This puppy might be soon be sold or shut down, but there is STILL lots of revenue and advertising in it. Not enough advertising to break even, but advertising nonetheless. This is a cost issue. If the newspaper completely changes, it can survive, though we can’t help Scripps (NYSE: SSP) with their $130 million of debt to the Denver Newspaper Agency. That’s a whopper mistake beyond any reason. But that shouldn’t stand in the way of realizing some value out of this historic newspaper.
Millions in earnings
According to the E.W. Scripps release on the sale, their operating income (accounted for as “equity earnings”) from the Denver Newspaper Agency fell more than 50 percent to $5 million in the first nine months of 2008 (excluding the one-time gain of $4.4 million from the sale of property). Rocky Mountain News editorial expenses in the same period approached $16 million.
We hope Scripps will try something other than just shutting it down, as buyers will not be easy to find. “Some will be tempted to immediately write the obituary of The Rocky, but we’re hoping this step will open the way for a creative solution to the financial challenges faced by Denver’s great newspapers,” said Rich Boehne, president and chief executive officer of Scripps, in a release on the Scripps corporate site. “The loyal readers and advertisers of Denver deserve the very best and we’ll work hard to find a solution that benefits this great city.”
Richmond, Virginia faced the issue when Media General shut down its afternoon daily, the Richmond News-Leader. It was a horrid mistake, and the loss of competition made the Richmond Times-Dispatch lazy and even more boring, with columnists writing about their dogs and morning coffee. Media General stock is now down to just above pennies, even as it owns icons like the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
But there was an alternative, that I didn’t feel like sharing with them because I was in the midst of starting up my own weekly, The Richmond State, using an energetic combination of retired staffers and college kids. (Confession: The Richmond State didn’t make it, me being naive, 28 and under-capitalized, but it almost did, and most certainly could have done it with the resources of Media General.)
The idea was to take the Richmond News-Leader weekly, perhaps free, and have it concentrate on its core strengths, namely city news, society, history and editorial rabble-rousing. Weeklies, even in larger cities, are doing well. This same approach can be used to preserve these historic newspaper brands.
Read our past editorial, 20 Ways to Save Your Dying (Daily) Newspaper. There you can also download a PDF White Paper on ideas.
Here are some ideas you won’t read about anywhere else:
- Consider converting to a Sunday only newspaper. Immediately, add the word Sunday to your Sunday newspaper flag. That will help to separate the newspaper into two properties. If worse comes to worse, at least a Sunday edition can be preserved.
- Are there stand-alone pieces of your paper that are viable? For instance, the International Herald-Tribune survived after the New York Herald-Tribune died. New York magazine was the Sunday supplement to the Herald-Tribune, founded by the late Clay Felker. You might not think you have “pieces” that could survive on their own, but you do.
- Don’t look to folks like Singleton. If you have read The Hard Way by Alexander (Sandy) Brook, you will see that Dean Singleton is not the sort of person who will help the situation in Denver, though you have to deal with folks like him everywhere. Get your hands on the book. Singleton is emblematic of the problem that you can fix newspapers by cutting staff. Yes, sometimes you have to cut but first you need to figure out how you are going to grow before you cut. You will need these folks’ support, but you don’t want to go to them for ideas.
- Separate your online product from print. Make your online compete with the daily paper print folks. Take your online staff, add a few stars from the print side, and rebuild with a separate staff.
- Recast the staff. Newspapers weren’t so big back in the day. They grew fat, with all manner of layers of stupid EEO compliance, sub-editors, sub-desks, Poynter conference people, photo research, this department and that, with hundreds of reporters on all sorts of beats. Make page designers take photos. Cut back on classifieds staff. Make sales managers SELL! Make reporters edit other reporters. Try running the newspaper on bare-bones before you shut it down entirely.
FIND BEST PRACTICES: For more information, talk to BrandlandUSA. We can help you with the research and insight to re-brand your venerable newspaper brand. Email us.