Few media companies could be in more dire need of a turnaround than Tribune Publishing.
The company’s 11 metro and regional papers include some of the industry’s most storied brands, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun. But newspapers are in free fall, and metro papers even more so. In the third quarter, Tribune’s advertising revenue excluding acquisitions fell 9.6 percent year over year. And like other newspaper companies that have recently been spun off from their more lucrative broadcast and digital corporate siblings, Tribune Publishing under Jack Griffin’s leadership has to make its case on its own in an unforgiving public market.
Scale is the cornerstone to modern publishing. In the case of a sprawling newspaper company serving diverse markets, the trick is to bring efficiencies to the operation while preserving papers’ local distinction. Figuring that out falls to Denise Warren, who as a 26-year vet of The New York Times helped build its paid subscription strategy. In her first extensive interview since starting in May, Warren — who is digital president as well as CEO of the East Coast papers — talked about how she’s trying to transform the company.
Tribune Publishing has 81,000 digital-only subscribers, up 37 percent year over year — which sounds impressive, but it’s less than 0.2 percent of Tribune’s overall digital audience, which is less than papers of comparable sizes. “We know we can do a lot better,” Warren said.
Part of the reason was the failure of the company’s past paid model, where sites sold premium content. But it was confusing to readers, especially when they’d land on a site from a side door and didn’t have any context for what made a piece of content “premium.” A metered approach, on the other hand, Warren said, “enables the user to decide what’s important to them; it really puts the power in users’ hands.”
So Tribune plans to roll out metered paywalls across the company next year. Unlike at the Times, Warren has to figure out how to tailor the offer to multiple markets. Tribune also hasn’t done a good job getting print subscribers to authenticate their digital access: only 40 percent do, compared to some 90 percent at the Times, according to Warren. Promoting that ability will be important, as the more products people use, the more likely they’ll be to renew.
Tribune’s sites all use the same digital CMS, but it isn’t built for the modern newsroom’s need for speed and editorial flexibility. The CMS also needs to work equally well for the company’s big metros and regional papers, some of which require specific features, like the L.A. Times does for its entertainment coverage. Overhauling it falls to Rajiv Pant, former CTO at the Times and Tribune’s first chief product, technology and user experience officer. His goal is to tailor the CMS to meet different use cases, like the reporter who’s trying to file a story quickly and an editor who needs to use more functions, such as adding tags. At the L.A. Times, for example, “there are a lot of rich features, but a lot of people using them on a daily basis didn’t need them or didn’t need them all the time,” he said. Beyond catching up, he also wants to make the CMS easily accessible on mobile devices. “I don’t know of any large, mainstream company that does that well,” he said.
To keep costs down, Tribune Publishing has to spread the cost of services across its papers. Warren is centralizing functions like audience development, digital strategy and business development that can work across the papers while leaving locally driven functions like editorial direction and paid subscription execution to each market. The future CMS will be designed to facilitate articles to be shared across papers, but she stressed that content-sharing wouldn’t be mandated or with an eye to cutting staff (concern about that would be understandable, given the state of the business; cuts are already underway at the company through a recently announced buyout).
“Nobody’s going to know [the markets] better than the editor of a particular paper, so I want to leave the customer-facing opportunity in the local market but support it with centralized infrastructure,” she said.
Putting mobile first
Like nearly all publishers, Tribune’s digital audience, at 49 million monthly uniques in October, is growing faster on mobile than on desktop, with more than half now coming to the papers on mobile devices. Now the organization has to catch up in its thinking. Warren is trying to instill a mobile-first culture, through hiring execs with a mobile track record, making the CMS mobile-friendly and emphasizing mobile, not desktop, in new product development. “If we’re going to talk about a product redesign, I want to see the mobile version first,” she said.
Distributing on platforms
Publishing today requires reaching the audience where it is. But publishers have to weigh the benefits of distributing off platforms with the need to get readers back to their own sites, where they can control their brand experience and better monetize readers through advertising and in Tribune’s case, paid subscriptions. Given those concerns and the importance of digital subscriptions to its future, Tribune has taken a measured approach. When the Apple News app came out, for example, Tribune got on board but decided to limit its distribution, to 10 articles a month. Tribune also has not joined the publisher stampede to get on Snapchat, whose young audience isn’t the core newspaper reader. Users often don’t recognize the publisher brand on platforms because it’s not well identified, Warren said. “But,” she said, “we can’t operate in a walled garden.”
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