What It Means to be a President/Publisher in the Digital Age

The Internet has blurred the line between the ways media enterprises have traditionally been defined. Successful media organizations attract, retain and grow an audience through a variety of platforms. In this case study, William R. “Bill” Barker – Florida southwest regional president for Gannett and the USA Today Network – discusses how media entrepreneurs and leaders can survey the competitive landscape for opportunities that drive growth.  

One of the most meaningful misnomers in our industry today relates to the term “paper.” We’re not just newspapers — we are live news organizations. We curate our content on multiple platforms and serve personalized offerings that satisfy and inform our consumers. We are multimedia and multifaceted organizations.

Bill Barker, Southeast Regional President of Gannett Company and president/publisher of the Naples Daily News and The News-Press.

As we transform our business model to meet the digital age, our mission remains the same. It’s not the paper that matters, but rather our watchdog journalism and more. We strengthen communities and help businesses grow. We have a lens on the local, regional, state and national marketplace that gives us an unparalleled understanding of our area. We hold the powerful accountable and give voice to the voiceless. We convene and help bind communities together for the greater good. We uphold the foundations of our democracy. 

All of this drives us to solve the business model challenges, for there is no mission without margin. What lies ahead? It’s instructive to first look back briefly. 

The newspaper industry has been reshaping its business model ever since the internet disrupted a cozy and simpler life. Adding to that disruption: the downward acceleration of revenues driven by the recession in the mid-2000s. While we’ve done an admirable job aligning revenue realities with costs, pressures remain. So we’ve worked to find more effective ways to meet our financial goals. That’s included efficiencies and other economies that allowed us to scale operations and ancillary services. And while revenues continued to fragment, and retailers to consolidate, we’ve found more direct ways to interact with our most loyal customers.

From local publisher with a legacy in print to a multifaceted media powerhouse 

So, how has all that shaped the president/publisher role? Publishers must now be highly aware of the ever-changing dynamics within the media landscape. The job increasingly centers on revenue and market development, and we constantly seek to stabilize and develop new revenue streams for market share and profitable revenue growth.

Presidents and publishers must better understand the entire competitive marketplace. Some have dropped the term publisher and retained only the president title to stress the emphasis on revenue growth and business development. The message behind the title change is clear: Today’s role must first be about developing business and producing sustainable revenue growth as an organization.

Others still use both titles to reflect the ongoing role at the community level, as it distinguishes the organization from just any other business in town. It is an advantage. But the consensus is clear: Priority one is sustainable, profitable revenue growth.

To gain economies, many organizations have adopted a matrix structure – in which reporting relationships are set up as a grid rather than a hierarchy – to leverage expertise in supporting roles. This frees the publisher/president and other influential leaders from the operating committee to focus on share and market development. Different organizations have taken slightly different approaches to their organizational design. But the goal is consistent: stabilize and start to grow top-line revenue.

Consumer interests and behaviors vary widely, in part based on generational differences. We must demonstrate our sophistication in designing solutions for the audience that best achieves a client’s objectives. It is also important to connect to various generational groups and navigate the differences in consumer interest and consumption habits of those groups. When we align a business’s solution to a consumer’s desires, value is achieved on both sides. While value may be subjective and intangible, repeatedly achieving it in the customer’s mind promotes sustainable growth.

Most of our business today is anchored in traditional print advertising accounts. We are challenged to retain those advertising accounts and yet acquire new ones. In our efforts to grow, we must be wise and discerning. Today’s publishers need to be digitally savvy, but they can’t throw out print just yet. As we grow our percentage of digital business, we don’t want that percentage to increase due to losses in print. We need to drive the value of print as part of a good media mix. We must also appreciate how digital adoption differs from market to market. 

Most corporations that own both traditional broadcasting and publishing companies have separated them into stand-alone companies, allowing each to concentrate on its own value proposition. From an investor point of view, it was challenging to clearly distinguish the equity value of the broadcast assets from the publishing ones. The investment community had cooled to the publishing side and even questioned whether publishing was depressing the earnings of broadcast. This move allowed the new companies to best demonstrate value and make investments on potential long-term equity having to debate the various values of each group. Each entity could better demonstrate its long-term vision for a sustainable path to profit and growth. Plus, in many cases, the broadcast group retained much of the debt. This allowed traditional publishers to start with a clean balance sheet and capital to invest in digital assets to support growth, including technology improvements and acquisitions. 

Local to national scale 

Remember, we have two important missions: strengthening communities and helping businesses grow. How do we capitalize on this reality? Companies of any size must balance the benefits from economies of scale as an operating organization against a more traditional holding-company philosophy. Ideally, you want the strengths of both, while minimizing the natural conflicting consequences. We must leverage the benefit of scale and a national footprint through our multi-market ownership while improving the local value of each individual entity we own. 

Presidents/publishers need to position themselves to be investor-minded. They need to lean more toward the ownership mindset, in which the operating committee conducts itself more like a board of directors of the local business. Regional executives are in position to execute the scaling model to ensure we capitalize on our investments, best practices and talent to maximize returns. 

Presidents/publishers need to show how investments in staff and products lead to equity growth and sustainable income. They must then scale best practices across regions and multiple locations. This is easier said than done. Dynamics vary across markets, as does the interpretation of what needs to be done. Custom solutions cannot be provided for all markets, and the natural friction in balancing national consolidation with local customization can lead to mixed messages and conflicting priorities.

Many times, it’s more about what not to do. We can’t expect to be able to win by layering on. It’s not about more. We lose opportunity when we are misguided in our efforts.               

The wisdom of continuing to print a newspaper seven days a week is a question that must be answered market by market. We are already seeing some markets move to three or four days a week. They have seen that revenues can be concentrated within fewer days. Will consumers fill the void on nonpublishing days with our digital alternatives and maintain the reading habit? Regardless, Sunday print delivery will be viable for a long time if we can figure out how to handle the costs of printing and publishing just once a week.

Looking ahead, our connection with the community continues to be a key. We must be active in our market, and we must be listening. We must reflect our community. The local relationships we cultivate are huge competitive advantages for content, solutions and partnerships, especially in the digital arena. 

We are curators. We gather information, develop sources and tell stories across multiple media. The increase in technology and artificial intelligence will help us do more of this. What differentiates us is that we also analyze this information and provide context. We are the trusted source and brand, always there to engage with our audiences and help people make sense of the news.  

 Storytelling will continue to evolve along with the technology that enhances the user experience (e.g. virtual reality). Mobility has forever changed how people consume media. Video is consuming more of people’s time, and video quality is measured differently today. It doesn’t have to be perfectly produced, but the storytelling must be spot on and concise to hold attention.

Broadcasters are now challenged as more consumers eliminate cable and go directly to internet solutions. That, in turn, is an advantage for us. We don’t need licenses, satellite trucks, expensive studios or a broadcast tower. Local news affiliates, meanwhile, are trying to act more like local newspapers on the web and with mobile. Some are even testing paywalls to charge for their digital offerings. 

Broadcasters often have a larger social following, thanks in part to promotions and contests. But we are also gaining ground and typically have a more engaged digital audience, especially as with our subscribers and paid members. We’re rewarding loyalty and offering more exclusive experiences to our members. Membership as a model is familiar to consumers, especially younger ones, who access content through subscription platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, Spotify and Amazon.

Clients must see us as both a trusted adviser and a sound investment, not as a cost to potentially eliminate or minimize. When we say we are driven by return on investment (ROI), that literally means more investment by our clients leads to more earnings for them, up to a point of diminishing returns. We must demonstrate this to them.

As media companies continue to merge or be acquired by bigger companies, the inevitable question arises about the balance between being a local publisher and part of a chain. Is bigger truly a significant advantage? The jury is out for now, or at least it seems that way. Scale allows access to technology, expertise, processes and economies. This can free up investment in new, value-creating aspects of the business. It also allows for experimentation with content and innovation. It allows markets to save money by sharing content. However, we still are the fabric of our local community. Can organizations take advantage of economies of scale, yet retain a localness that reflects the markets they serve, and all the while maintain the nimbleness and speed to market required today to be competitive? If this balance can be achieved effectively, the benefits of scale and size are an advantage both locally and nationally.  

 It is vital that publishers/presidents take an active role in their communities and personally drive the business forward. We are to be engaged in local events, serve on boards and create business development opportunities that lead to self-funded, sustainable, profitable revenues. And we should support community ventures, while continuing to act as a strong watchdog.

What’s needed to be a publisher/president in a digital era 

Presidents/publishers will have the primary responsibility for driving local controllable revenue, and they will justify their cost basis on revenues they can generate locally. Simultaneously, the operating company will benefit from the collective ownership it has at a national level through group and regional sales. Local operations must be able to justify their journalism and overall cost within the revenues the business can drive locally. They need to demonstrate they can stand on their own.

Regional presidents/publishers will oversee a network of sellers and be market development experts. They will watch for shifts in market dynamics and understand how to earn share of mind, wallet and advertiser confidence and, thus, investment. They must have a big picture vision of the future.

 Presidents/publishers must be proved trustworthy, transparent and successful with talent development and acquisition. People should want to work for them because they believe in them: in their intelligence, genuineness and their desire to win across the team, both professionally and personally, with an appreciation for quality of life and work-life balance. They possess confidence in data to determine whether goals are being achieved while avoiding micromanagement. They inspire their team in an ever-changing media environment. 

It’s one thing to be strategic, smart and innovative, but an executive who cannot communicate rationally, frame concepts, inspire, motivate or be trustworthy will never realize full potential. This is where many top managers are lacking. Yet it is so important that we believe leadership will be why we ultimately prevail, or don’t. We have plenty of book-smart managers who know their disciplines and their jobs. But can they inspire others?

Presidents/publishers must desire to continually learn. They must personally demonstrate their company is as digitally savvy as they advocate in the market. For example, most media companies still have too many employees who do not “like” or share content on social media. They don’t engage in our work and advocate socially or otherwise for our brands.

The pace and evolution of the marketplace are only going to intensify. But we are up to the challenge and will determine how to connect all the dots for the greater good of our communities, the businesses we serve, our company and our employees. 

We must. Our democracy depends on it. In that spirit, our top leaders need to be:

  • Investor-minded, deploying resources and time against priorities. 
  • Inspirational, more aligned to leveraging resources and team, and less about control and direct management. 
  • Masters of complexity and laser-focused on priorities, capturing scale without it becoming costly and unproductive, capable of balancing an internal versus external focus. 
  • Focused on the workforce and developing a talent pipeline, excellent at mentoring and talent development, and respected enough to attract talent. 
  • Able to leverage collaboration. 
  • Market-development oriented, understanding market dynamics and share, competitive and confident in developing and crafting solutions, aligned to market direction and shifts. 
  • Forward-thinking and visionary. 
  • Good, solid communicators in all forms. 
  • Patient and active listeners. 
  • Role models for how it’s done. 
  • Supportive of a culture in which one can be respectfully challenged for the benefit of the greater good. 
  • Encouraging to others.