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YDR publisher talks about media transformation

Sara Glines and Hanover Evening Sun editor Marc Charisse, background, listen during a town hall meeting earlier this year. In addition to serving as president of the York Newspaper Company, Glines is publisher of the Hanover Evening Sun. Reps from WGAL, co-sponsor of the event with the Evening Sun, interview the audience in the foreground. These town hall meetings consist of questions to newspaper and television journalists about their business and the community.

York Daily Record Publisher Sara Glines talked about transforming the newspaper business in a presentation before York Rotary this week.

When she finished, she received several questions from an interested audience. In fact, some members commented that she received more questions than any other speaker in memory.

They were good questions, probing the future of the news business. It was gratifying to see the level of interest in where we are going.

Sara deftly answered the questions, which amplified her presentation.

Her remarks to Rotary follow:

I’m here today to talk about the newspaper business, or as we more correctly call it today, the media business. But let’s get right to the first question I’m asked by everyone I speak with these days about this business I’m in: Are we going to go the route of the Patriot-News in Harrisburg and cut print publication days?

As I’m sure you all know, the Patriot-News,  a Pulitzer prize-winning newspaper, renowned for its coverage of the community and state government, has given up 4 days of print, focusing on its digital products. You can now only get a newspaper in that market on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.

I have no plans today to cut publication days in any of the newspapers I oversee – The York Daily Record, The York Dispatch, the Evening Sun in Hanover, the Public Opinion in Chambersburg or the Lebanon Daily News. But, let me be equally clear, we are all kidding ourselves if we don’t believe that one day, we will be doing exactly the same thing. I just don’t know when that day will be. I don’t know if it is a year away, a decade away or a month away. But I’m certain, that one day print will go away.

What’s interesting to me is that before the Patriot-News made its announcement, I heard this all the time: “Are newspapers going out of business?” And those that didn’t ask it, said “How are you doing?” as if we had a terminal illness.

The newspaper industry has been very vocal about its challenges. Being part of a media company can be the best of times and the worst of times. The best of times when you can unveil dirty deeds and corruption. But when the focus switches to our own business, I assure you every publisher has wished for a less powerful fourth estate. The publicity about declining print revenue and unsustainable legacy costs has put a pall on the industry. And everyone who works in it has at one time or another become an apologist for it. Our own fear and disbelief have colored the way we’ve talked about the difficult decisions we’ve had to make to transform our business.

But I assure you it is not a dark time, it is a new time.

Let me instead talk about transformation. I want to talk about the fact that life has changed in the past 4 or 5 years. It has changed significantly and permanently. We’re all seeing it in our businesses, in our relationships and in how we conduct our everyday lives. And yet we want to believe it is just incremental change.

I’ve talked to business and nonprofit leaders since arriving here in April, and they all tell me the same thing: Life is different in a digital age. I’ve talked to community leaders who tell me that they used to rely on a small number of large donors to support their initiatives and programs. But today, they have to find more and more donors who give smaller amounts to maintain the same level of community support.

It is the same for newspapers. John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media, which oversees our newspaper and 75 others around the country, says that today we have to stack digital dimes to replace print dollars. That is, print advertising came in big chunks from a smaller number of advertisers. Now, we serve more advertisers, but each spends a little bit less, because we have more digital advertising and it costs less than print.

So when I say that life has changed significantly and permanently, let me explain.

In 2005, the newspaper business started to see serious erosion in print advertising. National advertisers were beginning to shift their spending to less expensive digital networks. We scrambled to develop new products and national reach to remain competitive. And we looked at each other and asked is this cyclical or systemic? That is, is this a storm that will blow over or has our business really changed?

But you know the problem with that question is that when you ask it, you’re really looking for reassurance that it is cyclical. Things will get better.

By 2007, we hit more rough water. The economy worsened, digital grew faster and you saw headlines about mass layoffs, furloughs and bankruptcies. In early 2008, it got worse. Advertising revenue sunk. By the end of 2008 we felt we were holding on for dear life. The economy all but stalled.

To put that into perspective, since 2005, newspapers across the country have lost 60 percent of their advertising revenue.

And so we scramble to cut costs. And our newsrooms talk about it, a lot. And more than one of us prognosticated about the demise of the industry. The measures we have taken to conform to our new reality are met with derision from our readers and our advertisers and often our own staffs. Everyone wants to weather the change with no impact to what currently exists. I understand.

The challenge for all of us is that the old model isn’t completely broken. Print still works. It still drives people into stores. It still delivers the news, and it still has a core of loyal readers who never want print to go away. That is particularly true in central Pennsylvania. On a personal note, I’m among them.

I love print. I grew up in a newspaper family. My father was an editor. I started working in newspapers in high school and have been here since. But when I heard the announcement from the Patriot-News, that they are giving up 4 days of print to focus on digital, one part of me was envious. Because by doing that, they are focusing on their future. They are focusing on the part of the business that will sustain this generation and generations to come. And it’s easier to transform your business if you can give up the piece that is in decline.

So let’s be clear about what your newspapers face today. We are changing our business model, downsizing, shifting to new products and becoming experts in digital audiences because the world – that is you, me, your children, your children’s children – have changed to embrace the new digital possibilities. We can buy products on our cell phones, we get up-to-the-second breaking news, we put our personal calendar “on the cloud” so a whole family can stay in sync without talking to one another about it. It gives us the Arab Spring. It tells us about imprisoned Chinese dissidents. It tells us the new iPhone 5 is available right now!

What started in 2005 to today is transformation. It is something bigger than simple “change.” Our world, our businesses, our relationships have been transformed into something we couldn’t have imagined seven years ago. And it’s been hard, and sometimes we’ve handled it badly. But we’ve transformed nonetheless.

To show you what I mean, I’ll throw some data at you:

· Nearly 9 in 10 American adults (88 percent ) have a cell phone. Almost half of those (45 percent) are smartphones. The days when you could walk into a coffee shop and see nine out of every 10 people reading a newspaper are gone.

· Six in 10 adults go online wirelessly with either a smartphone, laptop, tablet or e-reader

· 86 percent of smartphone owners used their phone in the past month to make real-time queries to help them meet friends, solve problems, or settle arguments. I think of it as my memory backstop. “Who was that guy in that movie….?” That number isn’t important to my point, but I find it comforting to know everyone needs the same memory backstop.

· But this, I think is the most significant statistic of all: 17 percent of cell phone owners do most of their online browsing on their phone. Not on a computer or even a laptop, on their phone. Most do so for convenience, but for some their phone is their only option for online access.

That last statistic is the one that will grow the fastest. I can see a day in the very near future, when tablets and smartphones take on all the work that we’ve reserved for desktops and laptops. With cloud computing, you don’t need a lot of resident memory, you just need to be able to connect to the internet.

The world is a different place and we all know it, but we hold on to things that no longer are necessary because the familiarity is comforting. How many still have a land line phone in their homes, but sometimes don’t you think that you only get tele-sales calls on it? But you keep it because it’s hard to give up something you’ve always had.

And it means that businesses, yours and mine, have to figure out a new model. It means that newsrooms have to provide information on Facebook, via Tweets, on the Internet and cell phones. It means we have to find better ways to reach the audience our advertisers need.

This year, in the U.S., it is expected there will be more advertising on the web than in newspapers, and by most estimates more Americans now access their news via the web than print.

Change is not only inevitable, it has already happened. When you go to the grocery store, or your son or daughter’s basketball game, or the local diner, what do you see?

You see people texting, tweeting, updating Facebook. They are not going back to print. They are not going back to land line phones, to letter writing or to bulky Day Planner notebooks. They are not going to wait until tomorrow to find out what those sirens were about or what happened at a council meeting or who won the local high school football game. We all go online for everything from news to coupons to dinner reservations.

So, the Patriot-News is taking a bold step, but only because of what they are willing to give up. At the York Daily Record, we are digital first and have been. Our news breaks online and via mobile. We now lead with digital advertising offers. Our advertisers can now reach their next customer online with our help, and often on products that are not our own. We can place your message where our sites and products don’t even reach. We can deliver your next customer through search engines, through competitors’ sites, on Facebook, Twitter and our own sites and mobile apps. We’re proficient at it, and we’re excited by it.

Every journalist in our newsroom knows how to Tweet, how to shoot video, how to write a blog. All of our advertising sales representatives know how to help you find customers online and on mobile devices.

Sometimes, we have to let something go to make room for the new reality. It is a time we will look back on and say we were at the beginning of the new world. I remember when there was no color television, I worked on a switchboard where I connected callers with a plug-in cord; I remember when typewriters put words on actual pieces of paper. And I remember when the internet hit and when mobile phones were the size of a shoe.

And I remember when newspapers were delivered to your doorstep 7 days a week. I am none the worse off for any of those changes.

Also of interest

Nine publishers have sat in top chair at York Daily Record/The Gazette and Daily in past 100 years

*Photo courtesy of Hanover Evening Sun