Why I’m Feeling Bullish about Small and Medium Publishers

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I have a pretty incredible job.

I spend my working hours reaching out to and talking with interesting people (editors, executives, audience development folks, social media people) at publishing and media companies around the world. My day is never boring and If I do my job well, I walk away from every conversation with distinct perspective on this amazing, dramatically-transforming industry. It’s fascinating to see this change through the eyes of the people on the other side of the conversation and it can be incredibly eye-opening.

After hundreds of conversations and interactions over the past year, I’ve developed a special affinity for Small and Medium-sized Publishers (SMPs.) When I talk to SMPs, their challenges and opportunities feel different. By the sheer nature of their size, everything feels much more acute. Their challenges and opportunities rest on the shoulders of a few. They have people wearing so many different hats it feels like a one man performance of Riverdance. Whether it’s simply the law of small numbers when it comes to their teams, or the nature of their content and coverage (local and regional news or niche topics and themes), everything feels more personal with these organizations.

Unfortunately, although these are some the hardest working, most unrelenting people I’ve ever worked with, their industry has been anything but smooth sailing in past few years:

  • Higher losses than gains: In 2011, print losses were greater than the digital gains by 10 to 1[1]

  • Cutting to profitability: Net margins – after interest, taxes and special charges – are razor-thin. And most papers achieved profitability, in any, largely through cutting[2]

  • Uncertain business models: Of a random sample of 1,400 SMP’s (Circulation < 25K), 50 percent thought an online pay model wouldn’t have much of an impact.

Which makes what I have been seeing and what I am about to say seem a bit crazy. What’s my point-of-view on SMPs, you ask? Bullish and optimistic! Like every NFL fan before week 1 (except maybe a Browns fan), every college graduate entertaining the world, every daily affirmation enthusiast, I’m feeling good. Why? Because I see such an energy, willingness, capability, and desire to adapt and transform that frankly, I’d be crazy to think any other way. In fact, I’m beginning to see the tide turn before my eyes. Strong trends. Building momentum. All emerging from my interactions with SMPs. Strategies that were once experiments by a few publishers on the fringe now serve as models and examples of best practices. More and more SMPs are embarking upon their own journey to today’s golden age of journalism.

For those looking for some ideas, I’d like to share three of the most popular themes and trends I associate with successful SMPs. In the spirit of keeping it simple, I’m borrowing from a model you may be familiar with: stop (what successful SMPs stop doing), start (what successful SMPs start doing), and continue (what successful SMPs continue, even accelerate, doing.)

  1. STOP: Stop missing opportunities when they present themselves. Momentum may not exist on a newspaper, but it does exist in digital. For SMPs, big opportunities are fewer and farther between, so the cost associated with missing one is that much more pronounced. But they have one huge advantage: they can be far more nimble and reactive than their larger counterparts. Seize every opportunity the moment they arise by creating a culture that focuses on opportunities and a structure that enables (decentralize data and decision-making) not encumbers.

  2. START: Start being smart and efficient with your resources. As Nieman Journalism’s, Justin Ellis said, SMP’s “margin for success is significantly different than their larger counterparts, but the stakes are just as high, if not higher.”[3] Where a large publication might be able to afford to swing and miss, you can’t. Figure out how to be efficient and cloak yourself in it. It’s what makes you successful between those aforementioned moments of brilliance and massive opportunity. For SMPs, success means having a repeatable strategy for the day-to-day that not only maximizes reward, but minimizes risk.

  3. CONTINUE: Continue doing what’s working, and focus on doing more of it. Almost every site (of the hundreds I review each week) has something magnetic about them; something special that keeps their readers coming back day after day. Dan Gilbert, CEO of Deseret News, says it best: “when you are a click away from something better, you have to be differentiated…You can’t do everything. So I am getting out of anything I’m not the best at.”[4] If Tom Brady is manning your helm, you’re wise to throw the ball, if Adrian Peterson is in your backfield, time to hand it off, and if you create a type of content that is blowing your readers’ socks off? Concentrate on that and create a whole lot more.

As an SMP, you have to figure out what you do that is better than anybody else and embrace it, because that is how you keep your audience happy and coming back for more. You have to do it better and more efficiently than your competitors on a daily basis, because your business model and economic factors demand it. And you have to make sure you remain informed and opportunistic enough to capitalize on amazing when it happens, because the risk of missing an opportunity is that much more painful.

Many people are beginning to bet again on the SMP, however there’s been no better vote of confidence for this group than Warren Buffett’s $344MM investment in 28 daily newspapers over the past 2 years.

“Newspapers continue to reign supreme, however, in the delivery of local news. If you want to know what’s going on in your town – whether the news is about the mayor or taxes or high school football – there is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job. A reader’s eyes may glaze over after they take in a couple of paragraphs about Canadian tariffs or political developments in Pakistan; a story about the reader himself or his neighbors will be read to the end. Wherever there is a pervasive sense of community, a paper that serves the special informational needs of that community will remain indispensable to a significant portion of its residents.” [5]

If you’re an SMP and that doesn’t jack you up and give you goosebumps, you might want to consider getting a new day job. The white knight is in your corner! And for what (little?) it’s worth, so am I.

If you’ve taken the time to read this far, first and foremost, thanks! This post was an opportunity to share what I hear and what I’ve learned. But more importantly, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on the post, or on the challenges and opportunities facing SMPs based on your experiences. Looking forward to having my eyes opened even wider. Would love to hear what you have to say – you can reach me via Twitter, Email or in the Comments section below.

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