…And, of course, a suggestion on how to fix it.
While spending time in Northern Nevada recently, I was saddened to hear that the paper of record there, the Reno Gazette-Journal, will liquidate in May.
The newspaper dates back to the Gold Rush era and was founded shortly after a reporter by the name of Samuel Clemens made his mark in the region as a boom town fabulist. Now owned by the Gannett Company, whose stock (just over $8) is about half its value as its 2015 high of $17.10, a Sunday issue of the RGJ barely coughs up enough newsprint to line the bottom of a puppy crate.
And once the reader strips away AP, wire stories and columns that begin with the sentence, “Webster’s Dictionary defines _____ as…” they’re left with fewer than 100 inches of local, traditional, daily reporting.
Muckrakers need not apply.
The paper’s demise is a story too often told of our mid-market dailies and the RGJ’s presumed final chapter is a sad one indeed. By its own admission, the RGJ, in order to pay the outrageous vig at Check City, is fire-selling its only remaining bullet-proof asset — its land/building/print operations — and will transition production to local competitor Swift Communications’ facility in Carson City.
Note: As a former Swift employee I can attest to the fact that their printing press is more than capable of handling the workload of the RGJ, the Nevada Appeal and Swift’s several shrinking weekly publications around the Tahoe Basin…plus probably whatever is left of the print versions of Playboy, Good Housekeeping and Redbook. I was in the Appeal’s newsroom when the decision to invest in the $10-million-plus albatross — to essentially double down on the tactile medium instead of trying to make a significant inroad into a digital — was made in 2007. …A few weeks after the printing press was installed, I stood in line at the IHOP three blocks away from the industrial park newsroom and when asked to be seated, replied, “I was actually wondering if you have any job applications…”
For his part, RGJ president Ryan Kedzierski tried to put a positive spin on the paper’s pending pennies-on-the-dollar sell-off at Pawn World: “The decision was made to create operational efficiencies, and as a result of Carson City’s newer equipment, color capabilities will increase, giving advertisers more options.”
Actually, I take it back. He didn’t try to spin it at all.
Oh wait, here it is: “We plan to relocate RGJ Media to a more modern and cutting-edge digital office atmosphere.”
Modern, cutting-edge, digital office (?) …yeah, in the words of Pauly Shore in Encino Man, “Those are desperate words of a loser.”
The likely scenario for the RGJ and its remaining staff of a designer, a copy editor and an editor/publisher sharing the wi-fi off one of their T-mobile devices, is working side-by-side in a recently vacated fly-by-night laser hair removal/permanent eye makeup clinic somewhere on South Virginia trying to produce a daily fucking paper with all the resources of a junior high science project.
If there’s any place in the lower 50 that a paper should be growing instead of fireselling, it is Reno, a trying/thriving city with a river walk, a new Tesla factory, a university on the uptick, 50k burners stopping over annually (and some staying for good), an abundance of new reclaimed wood-paneled and chalk board menu coffee shops, the only fucking airport left in North America which gets you from parking-to-gate in under 15 minutes, a reputation as the new/more affordable Boulder complete with a colorful past that includes a name check in Johnny Cash’s most famous song — and yet, the biggest media company there is simply a fucking Circus Circus-bright neon sign of why mid-market daily newspapers are blowing across the landscape of this stratified nation like tumbleweeds …when they should be the new cornerstones of cities rising.
The solution? Enter Jeff Bezos. As much as the bald tech billionaire is a fucking psychopath, what has happened under his watch at the WaPo since he bought the dying 140-year-old family-run paper in 2013 for a quarter-billion dollars is noteworthy. Prior to the Bezos acquisition, the paper, a once venerable mother ship of the American and world politic, was mired on a sandbar of bloated contracts and family squabbles taking on debt like saltwater on a punctured Zodiac with nothing but inconsistency in terms of editorial voice, tone and direction.
The general, and oversimplified, analysis of the WaPo under Bezos is the paper stopped thinking like a newspaper or even a traditional media company and started thinking like a tech company, notably a giant data machine. This is important only because newspapers for decades, even (especially) during their own demise, have tried to revamp by desperately clinging on to some business model that no longer exists. It’s like if you tried to win your ex back by just doing more of the things — and with more intensity — that annoyed the shit out of them in the first place.
For large newspaper companies like Gannett, the more-of-the-same game has taken them from 30-percent profit margins in the ‘80s to being driven, quickly, to extinction in the 2010s: relying on display advertising, classified ads, and, for more regional publications, the almighty legals to save their asses and keep the lights on and the presses rolling while giving “digital-first” lip service by re-skinning the web site and bumping up to more prominent placement the Facebook and Twitter icons. And the best part, overloading reporters with the mandate to roll up a half-dozen stories a day plus accompanying social media, plus video, plus “do you do Snapchat? We heard that’s becoming a thing….”
On the surface, Bezos may have ordered up a WaPo website that was more user-friendly with better SEO capabilities, apps that actually worked and a steady stream of relevant e-newsletters (if you’re not a subscriber to the Daily 202 you’re missing out on the day’s best summary-execution journalism, period). But behind that, Bezos recognized what the FANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) have known for more than a decade, that the foundation of any tech company today lies not only in the data it owns but how it is used.
Yes, WaPo now employs almost one thousand and hardly any of them are traditional reporters. There are literally hundreds of engineers and data scientists who are constantly tweaking and improving the product based on numbers and analytics, not just what an editor/publisher ‘feels might be right” ← this is, by far, the most oft-used term I’ve ever heard in newspaper editorial meetings when the subject is “shaking things up” with no real evidence or plan.
Along with the basics of A/B testing and using reams and reams of ones and zeros every minute of every day to determine what to push, what to pull back on and what to roll out more of, the back of the house guys who are data mining for an edge are at the same time building a new media fortress, a combination of critical information and eyeballs to keep growing the company and the product moving and changing into a position that will deliver it to the most end users, and keep them coming back.
As a result of this methodology, the WaPo is once again stand-alone profitable. And in December, thinks in part to a landmark year marked by the media boon that was the 2016 election, the difference was seen in the front of the house with the hiring of more than five dozen new… ready? Journalists.
See how that works?
A mid-market daily could implement the same business model on a smaller scale without a ton of shakeup or financial commitment. SEO farmers/young gun engineers/inspired content generators are everywhere. Many of them are now tired of making $175k but not being able to afford an apartment that’s not a two-plus hour commute in the Bay Area. And many of those who can afford to live there are ready to graduate from a soulless job working for a shit app or getting harassed…constantly, by sushi- and kombucha-guzzling bro coders in a constant state of solidifying Coachella plans on Slack.
In other words, there are people out there — right now — with the skills required to make the RGJ a true tech company and at the same time are looking for a more beautiful and affordable community to settle down and make an impact.
“One thing we will never lose sight of during these transitions is that we will continue to serve the community with local journalism,” Kedzierski wrote in the RGJ’s eulogy masked as a released statement. “We take great pride in partnering with community leaders and being the community’s watchdog.”
If he truly means it, then we should see the RGJ posting ads for some of the following positions in the near term: custom content strategy writer, senior producer, associate producer, digital coordinator, digital ad coordinator, dev/ops administrator, digital operations and q/a administrator, brand program manager, programmatic platform manager, data scientist, SEO analyst, senior developer, senior developer full-stack, product marketing manager and product director.
Till that day, it’ll be more of the same which means less and less …in a moment that growing communities need and crave local coverage more than any time in history.