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54 chapter three How Newspapers Must Change The three newspaper editors who gathered in the spring of 2009 in a conference room at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill shared a number of concerns. Their Internet strategies had stalled, despite their efforts to embrace a digital future. All three were facing significant succession issues over the next several years as the owners neared retirement age. Would the paper stay “in the family”? Or might it be sold? Their most immediate concern, however, was the significant drop in advertising revenue and profit, which had occurred over the prior two years and threatened their ability to continue producing the caliber of journalism for which these three award-winning Carolina papers were known. Two of the three had won journalism’s most coveted honor, the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service: the twice-weekly Whiteville News Reporter in 1953 for its coverage of Ku Klux Klan activity in the rural southeastern part of the state, and the 8,000-circulation Washington Daily News in 1990 for exposing pollution of the water system in the coastal community of “little Washington” (as it is known among residents of the state), located on the Pamlico Sound. The third paper in the group—the twice-weekly Wilkes Journal-Patriot (with a circulation of 12,000)—was well known among members of the state’s press association for taking its role as a government watchdog seriously, aggressively pursuing local officials in the North Carolina mountain community who wanted to hide behind closed doors or withhold public documents. All three had volunteered their papers as “working laboratories” to test out new strategies and tactics that might help other community newspapers throughout the country make a successful transition to the digital age. As they pondered what they hoped to learn from participating in the multiyear research project, Ray McKeithan, the general manager and editor of the Daily News, spoke first. “I need to know what I can do to get the paper back on track,” he said. “Is it a small change? Or a big change?” How Newspapers Must Change 55 Both he and the owner, Ashley “Brownie” Futrell, were already considering or implementing a number of major changes that would significantly reduce the costs of producing the century-old daily newspaper. In the previous year, they had outsourced the printing and distribution of the Daily News to a newspaper in the nearby college town of Greenville forty miles away. In 2009 they would cease publishing on Mondays—“a really hard decision ,” says McKeithan, “that went to the heart of our identity and forced us to consider whether we could still call ourselves a ‘daily newspaper’ if we only published six days a week.” But the biggest change came in 2010, when the Futrell family sold the Daily News to the Boone Newspapers, Inc., a chain of thirty newspapers headquartered in Alabama and Mississippi. The sale ended sixty years of family ownership. McKeithan, who now works for a local potash mining company, looks back on that first meeting in Chapel Hill in 2009 with the unc group and recalls: “I knew we had to change our cost structure. But I didn’t realize we had to change our revenue model, too—that the market fundamentals had changed, and that there wasn’t going to be a revenue rebound, like there always had been before. I simply didn’t realize that any revenue the newspaper got going forward would come from what you did with your own sweat and initiative.” How much change is enough? The question that McKeithan posed in 2009 summarizes the dilemma that publishers and editors of community newspapers face constantly during this time of immense disruption—and the choices they make determine whether they survive and thrive anew. In The Rise and Fall of American Mass Media: Roles of Technology and Leadership (1991), historian Donald Shaw noted three stages in the life of a mass medium: emergence of a new technology (such as the printing press), rapid growth and dominance of the “new” medium, and eventual decline. Whenever a declining medium is displaced by a new one (such as the Internet ), leaders in the once-dominant industry initially “assume that only an ‘adjustment’ is needed,” says Shaw. But that “always fails” because the fundamentals of the macroenvironment in which the medium exists have irrevocably changed. Longtime consultant Richard Foster has noted that new technologies (such as the Internet) attack the business models of existing companies by...


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