This story has been updated. Details are at the bottom. 

From the better late than never department: McClatchy wants 2019 to be the year it starts competing for — and winning — national digital advertising campaigns.

The legacy publisher, home to 30 newspapers including the Miami Herald and the Sacramento Bee, is in the home stretch of a multi-year project in which it reorganized its papers’ sales and operations into four regional offices, standardized the CMS and ad delivery infrastructure across its titles. Most recently, the company also hired a new head of advertising, Nick Johnson.

This week, the company will announce the hire of its first vp of national digital sales, Darryl Winter, who will begin building the publisher’s first sales hub in New York. Starting next year, Winter’s job will be to build out a team that wins business by combining a scaled audience with the importance and quality of local journalism. Winter’s team will have “a handful” of people at first, according to a McClatchy spokesperson.

“Before we start selling widgets, the first thing we’ve got to do is introduce the top digital agencies and the top digital buyers to McClatchy, writ large,” Johnson said. “Journalism’s never been more important. That’s got to be our differentiator.”

The national sales team will have their work cut out for them, with intense competition both from other national publishers as well as platforms including Google, Facebook and Amazon. McClatchy hopes that a message about the importance of local journalism resonates.

“A national approach to buying local news has long been a very appealing approach to advertisers,” said Chris Wexler, svp and executive director of media and analytics at media agency Cramer-Krasselt. “The local paper is more often than not the number one source via digital or print of sports, real estate, government, housing and many other news areas. Bringing them together means you have platforms as powerful or more powerful than the big national platforms.”

McClatchy has had executives work on selling digital advertising in the past, though those executives often had print responsibilities too. It is also an owner of Nucleus Marketing Solutions, a digital ad network co-owned by Gannett, Hearst Newspapers and Tribune Publishing.

McClatchy’s new focus on national digital ad budgets comes as the publisher’s print revenues continue to decline. In the third quarter of 2018, McClatchy’s overall ad revenues declined 18 percent to $95 million. But digital ad revenue rose 47 percent year over year. Digital ad revenue also surpassed print advertising for the first time during the third quarter, the company said in its earnings. Most of the digital ad growth has been driven by video ads, digital marketing services provided through Excelerate and branded content programs, which have been growing healthily since McClatchy launched a branded content studio a little over two years ago, Johnson said.

The role that digital ad sales play in the future of McClatchy’s product and direction will be determined as it grows. But whether it takes priority over, say, digital subscriptions will be determined. “As Darryl and his team start putting wins on the board and driving more direct national volume, there’ll be a different narrative that happens with the product and design team if there’s an opportunity to goose revenue,” Johnson said.

McClatchy’s pursuit of national digital ad revenue comes at a moment when digital publishers of all kinds are trying to diversify away from advertising revenue. There are open questions about whether things like digital subscriptions or commerce can bridge the gap that digital advertising has so far failed to make up in lost print revenue. But publishers need to take revenue where they can get it.

“It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing,” said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute. “But [McClatchy] and Gannett and Tribune just can’t seem to get off the treadmill.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Darryl Winter was McClatchy’s first vp of national ad sales. Numerous executives have held that title in the past. Winter is McClatchy’s first vp of national digital sales. We regret the error. 

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