Home' Local Media Today : December 2015 Contents 14 | LOCAL MEDIA TODAY | December 2015
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Coming from outside the industry, it freed me up to ask a lot of questions – how do
things work, why, etc. I think much of what limits our industry today are the same things
that were a big part of our success just a decade or so ago. Because these things were
part of our sustained success in the past, it is nearly impossible to see beyond them,
much less let them go and change. These aren’t just superficial characteristics, but
deep-seated behavioral conditioning.
Q You’ve said that innovation and daily deadlines are incompatible and akin to
changing a tire while driving down the road. What are some of the key ingredients
to overcoming the inherent challenges?
A When I got into this business, there was a stark contrast between the daily
deadlines of our industry and the relatively long development cycles that a
product company goes through. I was tasked to work with our newsroom on a variety of
projects and I started noticing how incredibly difficult it was to make progress on the
projects. I’d hear “I’d really like to help you but I’ve got to get [X] done by [X]. Maybe
tomorrow?” But the funny thing about daily deadlines is that they come every day. So,
we take these people who have a genuine interest in helping and we tell them to “think
outside the box” and “be innovative” and then follow it up with “be sure to hit your
deadline!” That’s not the way innovation happens. You can’t schedule it between page
In the software product world, we would have huge pushes with 80 hour weeks we
affectionately termed “death marches” that were just about getting the final version of
software shipped. However once we got through that, we’d spend days decompressing.
Maybe go play a game, go to a bar, or just talk. That’s when the innovation struck. That’s
when we came up with the next great idea or new feature.
In this industry, our processes evolved to be highly efficient at doing the same thing
every day – getting a great newspaper out the door on time. The model worked very well
when we didn’t need to be inventing new things along the way. But it didn’t allow for a
lot of quality “think” time.
As far as ingredients, I’d say you need to give people license to try new things and
possibly fail, and you need to carve out some time for some group of people so they can
make a sustained, prolonged effort toward innovating. All of that costs money, so you
also have to be willing to invest.
Q VA digital revenue is among the highest in its peer group. What’s driving your
digital revenue growth?
A For us digital revenue falls into two major categories. The first is “Digital
Publishing”, which is revenue that we derive from audiences we build. This
would be things like typical classified and display ads sold on our site, as well as
directories we own and native advertising that is distributed on our sites. In 2014 that
comprised about 50% of our digital revenue.
The majority of our display revenue comes from ads sold by the day, or Share of
Voice. The approach does take more work to sell but it has a number of benefits over
selling based on CPM or CPC. It creates scarcity (“Thursday is the only day left”), a sense
of urgency (“someone is waiting on Thursday if you don’t want to renew”), delivers
concentrated impact (the ad runs on Thursday and store owner sees lift on Thursday),
and higher CPMs.
The other half of our Digital Revenue is what we call Marketing Services. This
includes things like extension networks to broaden the reach of an ad beyond our audi-
ences, social media management, search engine marketing and optimization, website
building, as well as full service agency services. Editors note: Their digital services
agency is called Advocate Digital Media.
The major growth is coming in the Marketing Services category. We continue to
grow accounts from a small buy into much larger clients, with a goal handling their
entire budget. We currently have about 20 agency-of-record customers. In the Digital
Publishing arena, the only thing experiencing explosive growth is native. Display and
classified upsells have plateaued, although there are still some smaller gains coming
Q What accomplishments of your team make you smile the widest with pride of
achievement and job well done? And, while we’re in this arena, can you give us
some insight into how you reward innovative thinking and experimentation?
A Customer satisfaction is probably the thing I value most. Whether it is about
how a story impacted someone’s life, how great our customer service team did,
or how well an ad campaign performed, that gives me a huge surge of satisfaction. And I
really love sharing those stories with my team. They are the ones who make it happen
and I know it is rewarding to them to see the fruits of their labor. I also love seeing
someone on the team getting excited about an idea and bringing that energy into
execution. It used to feel like an uphill battle to bring enthusiasm into the office, but
now I feel like it all comes from the team, and sometimes I’m the one slowing things
With regard to experimentation, I think just giving license to experiment and making
it OK to fail is a huge step. You could fill a small book with our failures over the past 10
years, but my take is that if we aren’t experiencing failed initiatives we aren’t trying hard
enough. Just be sure to learn something from the failures. Sometimes that’s as valuable
as a success.
Q What are some of the elements/approaches you’ve adopted to enhance workplace
culture? How do you find, recruit and retain the right people?
A We’ve tried a lot of things over the years, and I couldn’t point to any one thing
specifically. I was pretty appalled that we had professionals punching physical
time clocks when I started. I’m sure they made perfect sense for us at one time, but we
got rid of those recently.
When I started working with the company, we didn’t get all the employees together
regularly. No question that a 24/7 operation makes it challenging to gather employees,
but you can’t be a team if you never get together and communicate. We started having
quarterly meetings, but we felt a need to give them very high production value, which
was exhausting for the management team. For the past few years, we just get together,
talk about what is going on in the company, and then have cake to celebrate all the
birthdays of that month. Sometimes we have a surprise like an ice cream truck or free
scratch-off lottery tickets just to keep it fun. Our newsroom has an internship program
that has been great. It cycles fresh blood and ideas through the organization, gives us a
look at some potential recruits, and creates word-of-mouth referrals. I’d like to do the
same thing for Advertising.
Q You’re just back from speaking at Borrell’s Advantage: Geo Marketing conference in
San Francisco and your sessions was ‘Let’s cut the crap: Are digital agencies
profitable?’. Can you share a lesson imparted?
A There were very detailed questions about commission structures, compensa-
tion, and pricing. Those are all important questions, but I get the feeling people
may be waiting to create the perfect plan. With something as rapidly changing as this,
it’s very much about adaptation. I think you just need to pick a comp plan, pick some
rates, and get started. Time will tell and you can adjust. We routinely create and destroy
products at ADM all the time. If we waited to come up with perfect plan, the opportu-
nity may have passed us by.
Q Finally, what’s coming down the road? In the incubation and/or development
pipeline in Victoria?
A I’d love to have a crystal ball, but nobody knows where this is all headed. The
important part is to keep moving, learning, and evolving.
I am concerned about the end-game for news consumption. Google and Facebook
seem bent on “relavent-ing” news consumption to the point where people only con-
sume news that fits their worldview. If you only see content that your friends like or is
similar to content you have demonstrated that you like, where does that lead? It started
happening to TV years ago. Could that have anything to do with the increasingly polar-
ized culture we have?
An important role of newspapers has been to challenge the beliefs of the reader and
make them think. Sometimes making a reader angry or sad is a sign that we did our job.
Will people just unfriend/unlike people and news organizations who share content they
don’t agree with? We need a balanced media diet. Sometimes you need to eat your veg-
gies and not just gorge on dessert.
I’m intrigued with some data I’ve seen for news consumption on tablets. The time
spent is pretty incredible and is much more in line with habitual newspaper readership
habits rather than the drive-by media consumption we see on the Web. We’ve seen
it with some pretty robust tablet apps but also on our own basic digital replica edi-
tions. We are revisiting our strategy regarding apps as a distribution platform. Up until
recently we had settled on responsive websites.
Our Digital GM is very interested in getting into the advertising technology space. It
is a crowded space, but it is rapidly evolving and there are still a lot of holes to fill. So we
are working on some things there.
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