Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.
Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3. Sunday’s guest is Louis Clark, president of the Government Accountability Project. They’ll be discussing government and corporate whistle-blowing.
To LISTEN to the full interview with Tim Kennedy, go HERE.
It’s been a year since The Post-Standard reinvented itself, reducing home delivery to three days a week and reorienting itself so its reporters feed the online medium, the Syracuse.com website, before the traditional newspaper. The changes were instituted in response to changes in the industry that have been felt across the nation: declines in circulation and ad revenue as Americans turn more to the Internet as a source of their information. In this edition of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher talks with the head of the company, Tim Kennedy, about changes in the news business, the aftermath of new emphasis on reporting online and what the future may hold.
Grant Reeher (GR): I wanted to start by getting a sense of the scale of some of the changes that The Post-Standard has gone through in recent years, and I wanted to peg this to the first buyout of the staff that happened in 2007. What is the size of the full-time reporting staff now compared with, say, right before that time?
Tim Kennedy (TK): Well, I’ve only been on the ground here for a year, so the history going that far back is a little foreign to me. Our staff currently is about around 100 when we look at sort of news gathering and digital operations. Direct comparisons are also difficult because one of the things we did was, you mentioned The Post-Standard, but Syracuse.com — which is a big part of the operation in Syracuse.com — is actually coming up on its 20th anniversary. … We had to fold Syracuse.com, which was operating somewhat independently, into the operations at The Post-Standard as we created this new business that we call the Syracuse Media Group. But, we’re around 100, sort of news gathering, reporting staff, digital operations type folks.
GR: It’s my impression as a reader of the paper, and I’ve been a reader of it for 20 years, that the proportions of the content have changed a lot in recent years as well as the overall amount of the news that’s in it. … What is the proportion of the paper’s entire content that’s devoted to substantive local and state news stories that are written by your reporters? How has that changed in the last five years or so?
TK: I don’t have hard data, but my sense is, especially in the past year, the proportion of local news or regional news is higher as a proportion of (the) total, especially if you look at the Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday home-delivered newspapers. That’s where we … try to build and put together the best local package for those subscribers, for those print subscribers, as we can. But it’s all built upon really a different way of reporting, which has us looking at how do we create? How do we report the news with an eye toward the digital world, and digital platforms first?
GR: That’s interesting, because that does run counter to my impression as a reader. … It feels like it’s a shorter [news] read for me than it used to be.
TK: There’s actually more content on the paper on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays than there was before we made the change. And I think, again, proportionally, when you look at local news, there’s more local news.
GR: And you’ve mentioned the online piece a couple of times. Can you give me a brief description of the business model that informs the shift?
TK: Sure. Well, it starts with the old business model, I think. And that’s the one that you, and many, are familiar with, where we had a lot of readers and they paid us, and we had advertising who wanted to reach those readers, and they paid, and that created a great position where we were able to hire and put a lot of reporters and journalists on staff, and it was a great business model for the better part of 160 or 170 years.
Since (2000), advertising revenue for the U.S. newspaper industry has declined about 60 percent, so the new business model really starts with the decline and the demise of the old business model. I think where we are and the decisions that we made, started with that conclusion that the old business model wasn’t going to sustain us into the future. We could not bury our heads in the sand and wait for that world to return; it was not going to return.
So we had to figure out, how do we survive and thrive in the new world, in the new world that is digital? We’re on campus here at Syracuse (University), and you just have to look at how the students behave, how they are getting news and information, to understand that it is today, and tomorrow even more so, is going to be a digital world.
So our new business model is based upon the idea that we need to deliver, in some ways, the same news and information that we’ve always provided, but we have to do that into a world and a consumer that’s digital first. And so, how do we that?
GR: Is it working? I mean, did the paper turn a profit last year?
TK: We are profitable, and I think it is working. … I think the early returns are quite good. Our digital revenue is growing at a 30-plus percent rate. Our audience continues to explode in terms of growth; February of this year was our best traffic month of all time. …
So, what I tell our folks is I think The Post-Standard has been a tremendous newspaper for generations. And I think the latest results tell us that we’re on the right track, that the wheels have not fallen off, and we should take pride in that.
GR: I would have thought that when the paper starting having this round of deep financial problems — that you’ve reacted to by creating this new model — I would have thought that the Newhouse family would have come in and shored up the paper, given that the (S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University) is here, the paper’s award-winning history and (given) I believe the really distinctive piece of history for that family’s investment in papers, that Syracuse means to them. Why didn’t that happen?
TK: Well, I’d argue that it did happen. I think if by investing in print and doubling down on the old business model — we clearly didn’t do that. But I think the family and the leadership looked at the future, and didn’t look at the future with an eye toward what did we used to be, but what do we need to be in order to not only be successful, but survive and thrive in 10 years?
GR: I do want to push you on this because it’s one thing to say this from a business perspective, but the paper does have a unique and central role for the public and civic life of the city. Correct me if I’m wrong, but in the rounds of the buy-outs, you did lose a lot of reporters whose beats were things concerned with community and politics and public affairs in the city. You lost a lot of folks, and so it’s hard for me to see in that regard, that this is an improvement.
TK: Well, we’ve hired 50 people, we’ve got a lot of people on staff. We’ve done a lot of great journalism. … I think we have done a number of tremendous stories in the past year, and we’ve won 18 awards in the New York Associated Press competition in the past year. Some of those were new folks, some of those were folks that have been with the paper a long time.
But, we have done, whether it is the Lockheed Martin story that we broke, where Lockheed was working on a plan to shut down, the largest private employer in Syracuse. We broke that story, it was an anonymous tip — came to us. We had to do old-fashioned journalism and find and make that story happen. And as a result of the work that we did, Sen. (Charles) Schumer got involved, and the company promised that they would keep the plant and not shut it down for a year. So that’s old-fashioned journalism and that was a great story. The story we’ve had recently about the [Carrier] Dome, or the Dome replacement. Again, how we broke that story, how fast that story broke, was something that we did. And we’ve had a series of stories like that.
GR: Does this new model affect how you choose stories?
TK: It does. We have, in some sense, we have and we’ve improved the data that we get about stories that people are reading. And we look at that, and we say, “OK, well, what does that tell us about working that story more?” Or what doesn’t it? So there’s always been news judgment and editors who have looked at the community, looked at the sourcing of stories, looked at the maturity of the story and decided whether we should work it hard or whether we should call it a day, or whether we need to get that to the front page. We still do that.
GR: This is something that you know always gets discussed when the topic of Syracuse.com comes up, and that’s the comments. The anonymous nature of the comments have always been an issue, I think, for folks in the community. I just visited the site this morning and found a lot that were pretty bad. Some other papers and sites have changed that anonymous feature and made people put their real names to things. Why have you not done that?
TK: Well, I think a couple things. One, it’s not as though we demand that the site be anonymous, right? So if you want to disclose your own name — like I do, and many folks do — you put your name in and you put your user name in, and it could be you. … So, it doesn’t have to be anonymous.
GR: No, but it can be, and that’s the thing.
TK: And it largely is, agreed. I think the other thing that you hear is, “well why don’t you verify?” Well, many of the verification systems, again, I think you’ll find other media companies that use, say Facebook, and so you can sign in on Facebook and I can pull a number of examples of dialogue where people disclose who they are through their Facebook identity, that are every bit as offensive as some of the comments that come through our anonymous comments.
At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is engage the community in a new way that you frankly couldn’t before in a print, one-way conversation. … So what we’ve found, and I think the answer is, we’re improving the technology. So we’re working on a new commenting platform now, and that’ll help us. So I think the answer is going to be, the way we improve, and we want to improve the tone and the quality of that comment. Because, when it’s good, I mean people can always go and point out the poor commenting and the offensive commenting, and there’s no doubt about that. But when it’s good, and there’s plenty of time where that commenting is excellent, it’s good, and it adds value to stories, it adds value to the dialogue and the community, and we’d like to see more of that.
So somewhere between improving the technology to allow us to weed out more of the offensive comments, and the other thing that we’re doing is, where we see reporters dive into the comments and respond — and we’re quicker to move and delete comments that don’t abide by our commenting policy — we see that the tone of that conversation improved dramatically. And I can tell you that from personal experience. I mean, the stories where either I’m a part of or quoted or have to do with the business of the paper and Syracuse.com, I’ll dive in and talk to people, and where I don’t agree, I’ll let people know, and I think where we see that kind of engagement, we see the quality improve in that discussion. So, it is uncomfortable, it is uncomfortable for many people. It’s uncomfortable for us. But we want to continue again, to try to improve how we engage the community there … we’d like to see that improve as opposed to abandoning that commentary altogether.
GR: You had a newspaper that had the Sunday circulations around 200,000 at one point. So what’s the number of unique individuals that are now driving this conversation? I’ve got to imagine it’s much smaller than that.
TK: If you’re talking about pages and how audiences are related, which would relate to circulation size, we’ve expanded our audience. We did 39 million page views, 3 million unique visitors — somewhere around there. And we reach, on a weekly basis, somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of adults in Syracuse will go to Syracuse.com in any given week. So, it’s a big number, and those folks are coming maybe once, maybe they’re coming for sports. Maybe they’re engaging more frequently. You know, we’re getting smarter about understanding how customers are coming to us both on a desktop, and in a mobile environment, which is exploding.
GR: Tim, thanks so much for talking with me.
TK: Thank you, Grant, I enjoyed it.
Grant Reeher is director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is the creator and producer of “The Campbell Conversations.” You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.