Transforming A Local News Organization:
3 Lessons in Leadership
The United States has lost more than 2,100 newspapers over the past 15 years. The vast majority of those papers were weeklies serving small and mid-sized communities. In order to survive, publishers must lead the way in transforming both the culture of their organizations and the business models of their newspapers. Kirk A. Bado, (MA, UNC, 2019) currently a staff correspondent with Atlantic Media, explores how Andrew Olsen, publisher of three weeklies on Long Island, nurtured transformational change in the
150-year-old news organization.
Each member of the team represents a different functional area of the business which is run in a fully integrated manner with an emphasis on transparency.
Andrew Olsen had a problem. It was 2010 and the recession had hit Suffolk County in New York hard. Olsen, publisher of Times Review Media Group, knew that his family-owned business was in danger. Audiences were shifting away from print publications in favor of nascent digital news sites, and local advertisers were following them. Staff members at his three weekly newspapers were jumping ship to digital publications like Patch, or starting their own local blogs, instead of working for a paper that did not even have a website.
Olsen knew that something radical had to happen in order for his company, the largest independent media company on New York’s Long Island, to survive. He rented tables from the local fire department, called an all-staff meeting and then proceeded to lay out all the depressing details. Subscription numbers had fallen at all three weekly newspapers that served the North Fork and Shelter Island – the Suffolk Times, Riverhead News-Review and Shelter Island Reporter – and print advertising revenue was in a tailspin. “It was a hard gut-check meeting,” Advertising Coordinator Cerria Torres recalled.
Without transformational change, Olsen told the staff, the media company, established in 1857 during the James Buchanan administration, would cease to exist – like hundreds of other newspapers in small and mid-sized communities throughout the U.S. Olsen then outlined how the organization would try to claw its way back. The staff would have to jump feet-first into the volatile world of digital publishing. It would be a years’ long process, he said, and if anyone was uncomfortable with the new direction of the company, he or she was welcome to leave. A handful of staffers took him up on the offer and left, but most stayed, committing to the new vision.
Olsen felt he needed total buy-in from the remaining staff. “It's an evolution and you just have to be very clear about the vision,” he said. “At the same time, we were patient with people and let them come aboard. You can’t just flip the switch.”
In nine short years, the Times Review Media company and its 36 full-time employees have gone all in on a digital-first experience for their customers, without abandoning the print publications. So how did Olsen take the 150-year-old newspapers and re-position them for the next generation? He points to three key lessons and hopes other independent newspaper publishers can learn from his experience.
First Lesson: Collaboration across departments leads to innovation
Skilled analysts know something about the business side, and people skilled on the business side know a bit about analytics. This creates a virtuous circle where everybody makes each other smarter.
- Nieman Lab on the urgency of newsroom collaboration
Traditionally, news organizations have been separated into distinct silos. A church-state cultural divide exists between the news staff and the business departments, such as advertising and circulation. To break down the silos, Olsen put together a cross-departmental team, consisting of his executive editor and content director from the news side and the business manager, creative director, sales and marketing director and his operations manager form the business side. He charged the team with working together to solve challenges company-wide, not just in their own departments.
“If you think about a floor plan of a house, what we're trying to do is break down all the walls. That way, everyone on the editorial side knows what is going on with sales/marketing, and sales/marketing knows what goes on with the digital piece,” Olsen said. Automating the design and sales process has freed up his sales staff to pursue more clients and collaborate with other departments on new initiatives.
One of the fruits of this cross-departmental collaboration is “The Work We Do,” series, which consists of 300 multimedia segments on blue-collar workers and professionals such as movers, realtors, teachers, dairy farmers and dock workers. In addition to a written interview with the subject, the newspapers also produce a podcast and a video. All of these multimedia channels are underwritten by local businesses through advertisements or sponsorships.
Other recent multimedia projects include an investigative piece about a murder, “Gone,” which ran as a 10,000-word special section in the print papers and as a three-part documentary video, streamed online. In addition, Olsen’s team is looking to collaborate with other news organizations in the area. The East End News Project, organized by the editor, brought together reporters from all the papers in Suffolk County to produce stories on the opioid crisis.
Second Lesson: Recognize deficiencies quickly and innovate constantly
Times Review Media might have been late to adopting a digital-first mindset, but the company quickly became the region’s innovative leader. When major media corporations began pivoting to video, Times Media Review followed suit and made video production a top priority for its reporters and sales team. Olsen gives high praise to his talented leadership team for not only meeting his challenge to change their priorities, producing those 300 videos in only a few months’ time.
But the pre- and post-production of the video took valuable time away from other duties, including those that generated much-needed revenue. Olsen calls the pivot to video a “learning experience.” Times Media Review is still doing video but has cut back on the quantity. The staff is now investing time with audio and video projects in a much more targeted fashion.
Content Director Grant Parpan is “the Chief Innovator,” according to Olsen. “I love listening to national podcasts like the New York Times’ The Daily, and Serial,” said Parpan. So he began experimenting with audio storytelling, and in 2018 convinced Olsen to invest in high end podcast equipment. The Daily Update is a free five-minute podcast produced every morning and sponsored by local businesses. Either Parpan, or another reporter, run through the biggest stories of the day for thousands of daily listeners. The Daily Update has not only filled a gap in the market – since no other news outlet was providing such a podcast – but also allowed the three newspapers in Suffolk County to reach nonsubscribers, introducing them to the content published in the newspapers. “What makes us successful is constantly experimenting, failing and trying again,” Parpan said.
Third Lesson: Don’t lose touch with your community
Despite his emphasis on a “digital first” mindset, Olsen hasn’t lost track of what’s most important to the papers’ long-term survival: delivering quality journalism that has a local impact. “We wouldn't cover a hurricane in East Hampton unless it broke your dishes in Mattituck. That's how localized the content is,” Olsen said. “We're covering stories that nobody else is covering. That makes us valuable and not a commodity”
After regularly scheduled biweekly meetings with his senior management team, Olsen distributes an update to the entire staff, which includes a run-down of community meetings, events and functions the leadership team has attended since the last staff meeting.
“It’s a reminder to our larger staff about who we serve and how vital we are to the community,” Olsen said. “How can we (adequately) cover the local hospital if (the senior leadership team doesn’t) have a presence at their annual fundraiser?”
As Olsen looks ahead to his third decade at the helm of Times Review Media, he believes his success will be depend on how he responds to the rapidly changing demographics in the area. What was once a largely blue collar community is now becoming a tourist destination as more people from Manhattan, Boston and other nearby cities in the area buy vacation homes in Suffolk County.
Olsen, born and raised in Long Island, said the transformation started in the late1980s when the ubiquitous potato farms on the north fork of Long Island became wineries. “If those farms had to change to meet the need, then so do we,” he said.
Catering to the interests of the evolving potential audience in Suffolk County, his team is creating more lifestyle content. In 2013, the paper launched northforker.com, a digital site covering food, drink, real estate and other activities in the area. Its online success inspired management in 2017 to create a print Northforker magazine, published 10 times a years.
More and more, the Suffolk County media company is distributing its lifestyle coverage on print and digital platforms. After noticing the response to stories on the papers’ website about weddings and related events, the company is now producing content aimed specifically at couples looking to tie the knot in a picturesque beach community. While the editorial team produces stories about venues and services aimed at bridal couples, the sales and marketing team brings in local businesses to provide financial support for the publications. Olsen hopes sales and editorial working hand-in-hand creates a “virtuous circle” that will propel his publications into the future.
The Times Review Media company is on solid footing now, but Olsen and his team are pushing forward with innovative ventures and new ways of measuring impact. For example, in addition to tracking the number of new subscribers to the weekly print editions, the staff also follows page views and downloads as a measure of reader engagement.
Having successfully implemented a paywall for the Suffolk Times, Olsen plans to follow suit with his other publications. Simultaneously, the staff has begun posting content on Instagram. Like the podcast, Instagram content is free and aimed at reaching new audiences. It is an example of the “frictionless experience” that meets potential subscribers to the company’s print and digital products where they are – and on the media platform they are using in that moment. If you commit to passionately covering local news and responding to the interests of your readers and the needs of local businesses, they will reward you, Olsen believes.
“We are in the process of redesigning our websites which will give us a lot of new digital capabilities, and we are getting much more selective with the projects we are taking on,” said Olsen. “I’ve challenged our management team with increasing revenue 7.5% and reducing expenses 7.5% in 2019. Our profit margin target is 14%.”
By diversifying the company’s revenue streams and attracting new audiences, Olsen and his team have been able to continue providing quality local news to the residents of Suffolk County while providing businesses with new opportunities to improve their profits. “Honestly, it's about asking: ‘Can I make money from doing it or am I going to lose money?’" Olsen said. “That’s my thought process because I want to invest the money I make to produce great journalism. I want to be able to pass the company onto the next generation.”