“We need to be interesting”: Editors of metro dailies talk about their biggest opportunities and challenges now

“We can no longer afford to be the paper of record,” Brian McGrory, the editor of The Boston Globe, said in a gathering of metro daily editors on Tuesday. “We need to be the paper of interest.”

He added: “There’s incredible competition for people’s time and their pocketbooks and their attention, and if the Globe is not interesting, searingly relevant, provocative on a day-to-day basis, we’re simply not going to survive as a news organization.”

The panel, “The Digital Transformation of The Metro Daily,” was hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, and was moderated by Jennifer Preston, who’s a senior fellow at Shorenstein’s Technology and Social Change Project and was formerly VP for journalism at the Knight Foundation. Besides McGrory, panelists included Suki Dardarian, editor and SVP of The Minneapolis Star Tribune; Gabriel Escobar, editor and SVP of The Philadelphia Inquirer; Michele Matassa Flores, executive editor of The Seattle Times; and Mizell Stewart III, VP of news performance, talent and partnerships for Gannett and the USA TODAY Network.

Some interesting excerpts from the panel are below. You can watch the whole thing once it’s posted here.

On pricing

Brian McGrory: In addition to what Mizell was saying, we’ve also launched a program here called Fresh Start in which people who have been depicted in crime stories — petty crime stories that we never followed up on, or where they somehow had a good result in court and we weren’t there, or you know, it’s just not relevant to anybody at this point in anybody’s life — they can petition us and ask us to delink it from Google or anonymize a story. We’ve gotten a really good reception from the community. We’ve had about 150 requests, we’ve acted on the vast bulk of them, and we think that’s an effective program.

On new formats

Michele Matassa Flores: We grew from like 48,000 digital subscriptions before the pandemic to over 80,000 now. The other way the pandemic helped us was that it taught us a lot of lessons about what people want and how they want it. We started a coronavirus daily live update, which is almost a blog-style updating thing. People got hooked on that. It’s hard to do. It’s very labor-intensive. But we’ve now recognized that that is a way that people like to receive their news. And so we’ve used that with all kinds of things, most recently the Supreme Court leak and the Roe v. Wade decision, but we’re doing it now a lot and looking at more ways to apply it.

Maybe when coronavirus finally dies down, if ever, we’ll start a general interest news one. That’s one idea that we’re looking at. But it’s just been fascinating to watch what hooks readers now, and how we can use that to get and keep people. Our retention of all those new subscribers has been better than the rate that we had before the pandemic, which was a pleasant surprise.

On print

Gabriel Escobar: Print is critical to us now — maybe actually too critical, if you look at the revenue balance. I remember strategy sessions maybe four or five years ago where we were trying to map the future, as silly an exercise as that is, and [if we’d done what we thought we’d do then], by now, we would not be publishing seven days a week. We also publish a tabloid, The Daily News. We would not be doing any of that based on that misguided prediction of six years ago. We’re still publishing seven days a week, we’re still publishing the Daily News, and the simple reason is that it’s still helping with the revenue.

How long? I don’t know. I would be shocked if we were still publishing seven days three or four years from now. [But] I think there’s real import to print. Minneapolis has done an excellent job with their Sunday newspaper. We look at that as a model for us and hope to do that in the next year or two.

Suki Daradarian: Doing right by digital does does just as well for print. We’re all saying that we’re trying to be more audience-focused in what we do and how we think. The way we craft our stories, the way we share them, the headlines — that all benefits print.

On local vs. regional

Mizell Stewart III: Gannett’s business is really fundamentally different from, say, providers such as the Times and The Washington Post that can achieve global global scale. Covering local news continues to be very labor-intensive and very expensive. And so what we’re doing is redeploying our reporters to cover local issues with a more regional approach. Instead of focusing on one very small geographic area, that same reporter may look for commonalities and trends across multiple areas, in a more regional and enterprise-driven approach to coverage — as compared to that coverage of record in terms of town meetings and school board meetings and so forth.

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