Case study: The Commercial Appeal

Nitzana Mamane

The Commercial Appeal published its first edition in 1841. Its existence has endured wars and plagues over the years, but nothing quite as challenging as the rapidly changing media landscape. Print is not dead, but it is no longer the number one priority of newspaper publishers.

David Waters has been a columnist for the CA for more than 20 years. He shared with me the difficulty of producing twice the product with half the staff.

The CA has responded to the changes in media delivery by reorganizing the newsroom to put more emphasis on digital content — breaking news, short videos, blogs, special digital-only news products and social media engagement. At the same time, they’re maintaining their focus on producing a high-quality print product every day.

The staff has re-imagined their roles as print journalists who also produce digital content to move toward becoming digital journalists who also produce print content. They are learning to change the way they approach, report and package the news by forming committees to plan and develop digital content plans around a handful of ‘franchise’ topics — such as education, sports, business. They’ve brought in trainers to conduct digital platform workshops for video, smartphones, etc. We’ve subsidized smartphone data plans for all reporters. We’ve got air cards and laptops for all. I’m leading an ad hoc digital innovation team to brainstorm ideas/ We’ve done several digital projects, including one last week on college football fans. In short, they’re thinking more like broadcast journalists — more visually and with more immediacy.

In the last 10 years, the CA has seen its daily circulation decline by half, including Sunday circulation. Revenue has declined by more than half. The decline has whittled down the staff from about 200 journalists to fewer than 100.

The CA is trying to grow their audience and revenue in print, online and through other digital platforms. One way is by producing zoned editions of the paper — print products that give local advertisers a way to target their customers geographically. They’re also producing free weekly zoned print products. Both have generated increased audience and revenue. On the digital side, they’re growing their subscription base and expanding digital-only content to paid online subscriptions earlier this year. The options are that Newspaper subscribers get online/digital products for free or you can buy a digital-only subscription. So far, it’s going well.

The biggest challenge is to find a way for the digital products to generate enough revenue to support the news operation in a time of declining print revenue. Newspapers generally have lost a lot of ad revenue over the past decade to digital substitutes — classifieds to Craig’s List, national display ads to Google, satellite/cable TV and so on. They’re also trying to shift the revenue model from one that is more dependent on ads to one that is more dependent on subscriptions.

They’re trying to get their audience to pay for digital content that they’ve been giving away for years. “That won’t be easy,” Waters said. “But ultimately it’s about the content. We believe people will pay a reasonable and fair price for quality journalistic news and information about their community. My specific job/challenge is to help deliver that content.”

Eventually, to compete, they’ll have to be able to offer a la carte products/content, but it isn’t possible but not for the CA yet. Technology is the biggest obstacle. “We’re not Google or even Disney-backed ESPN. We’re operating with fewer and slower technological resources.” They are working on upgrades to the website and tablet and smartphone apps to enhance User experience, but they don’t have the staff or resources to make the upgrades needed as fast as they need them. “We’re getting there and getting a lot of corporate support for that.”

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One thought on “Case study: The Commercial Appeal

  1. Carrie Brown says:

    Great work. So glad you interviewed David. I’ve been helping them a little bit work on those plans for “franchise” topic areas and I think they have great potential, although as he says there, doing it well with a smaller staff is difficult.

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