May 5, 2016 Last Updated 12:26 pm

Lessons can be learned from the ‘old days’ of print publishing on how to handle change

In their eagerness to cut costs, too many publishers are actually decimating their revenue potential, and failing to let the new staffer learn from their experienced staff, and the experienced staff learn from the new talent being brought in

During a conversation with an old friend about how newspaper and magazine publishers are handling their efforts to grow digital publishing, and their failure to make much progress, the conversation turned to how sales staffs are organized these days.

Many publishers are moving to category organized staffs, while some who have previously gone in this direction, but failed to improve sales, have decided to move back to brand organized staffs. Both ideas have merit, though neither seem to be providing the magic solution to falling print and digital advertising at these publishers.

What’s going on, and why is it proving so hard to transform these companies from print advertising driven profit machines to digital revenue entities that are at least breaking even?

The first thing we agreed on is the weakness in the management teams running many of these companies today. Looking at the executive management teams at major newspaper and magazine companies today someone like Bob Dickey, President & CEO of Gannett, stands out. Dickey joined Gannett as a retail ad manager in Reno and later was made ad director.

The standard question I like to ask publishing execs – ‘have you ever sold an ad yourself? – could likely be answered in the affirmative by Dickey.

So, it is not surprising that many major publishers today have so little faith in the advertising side of the business. Everyone, it seems, is now a big believer in paid content, data and other forms of revenue outside of advertising. Yet still, when the time comes to announce earnings (and this is earnings time, after all) it is the decline in advertising that most executives like to point to as the reason for falling profits.

But the conversation with my friend eventually reached a point where a question was begged to be asked: how did the industry handle change in the past?

We talked for a few minutes about the late nineties and into the next century, the big challenge for everyone was how to start selling digital advertising? Should a new department be formed to handle digital, or should the existing staff be trained to do the job?

People came down on both sides of the debate, those that were for throwing out the old crew and bringing in new, younger staff, and those that felt the old crew could do the job.

I don’t think there was ever a satisfactory answer found, as companies tried both solutions and found them wanting.

I think the thing that is confusing the issue is bringing into the conversation the words “print” and “digital”. If you thought about the problem a while without these loaded terms you might see how the industry once handled change.

Long story:

When I joined Hearst in Los Angeles, I worked my way up from the classified phone room to launching a real estate advertising driven Sunday tabloid. Later, I joined the retail department when I was getting pretty sick of the management team over in classifieds. Once the retail manager heard I was unhappy I was told “come on over here, we could use you.”

Within a year or so I approached to run the national and retail food advertising. I was to work under a gentleman named Floyd who had seemingly been at the paper for years. Some, including Floyd, thought that I was being given the job in order to push Floyd out.

I was the young gun, the guy who knew the “new” things – like how those damn beepers worked, how to turn on the only PC in the department (it was the button on the front that said “On”).

But I didn’t push out Floyd, and together we proved to be a damn good team. Floyd knew the clients, he knew the market, but just as importantly, he knew how to get things done at the newspaper.

Our job was to increase grocery advertising in the Herald Examiner, something Floyd was, by now, pretty convinced was an impossible task. All the grocers ran 12 to 16 pages every week inside the Los Angeles Times, we were lucky to get a page from each. I immediately went to work creating proposals that typically said “if you were to drop a page in the Times, you could run four in the Herald Examiner. Floyd said it wouldn’t work, but if I wanted to try he’d line up the call. Together we’d pitch the idea.

Floyd was right, the grocers would not drop even one page from the Times for fear of encountering their wrath and pushing their pages further back in the Food section.

We went back to the office, my tail between my legs. But Floyd was happy, at least we had tried – and besides, the young guy didn’t embarrass him by instantly improving sales.

For weeks we talked about the strategy and what we might be doing wrong. Floyd talked about the old days when the Herald Examiner had far more circulation and a better story to tell against the Times. Then, one day, he said almost in jest, that the real problem was that the grocers simply didn’t have a pile of new money laying around to hand out to us.

That’s when the bells went off in my head, we needed to find the money, once we did that we would get the business.

If you know the retail business you know where this goes, we needed to find co-op money from the food brands, money not currently being exploited, have the brands sign off on the new advertising, then make the presentation to the grocers.

It worked and we got a few new pages.  When we returned to the office our manager approached us both separately and asked how the call went. Later the manager gathered the staff together to tell the good news. “Floyd told me Doug gets the credit, Doug told me Floyd gets the credit. That’s the way it should work!”

The old guy working with the new guy led to new revenue. Simple concept and one that worked in the days before the Internet. Can it work today?

Well, at a few places it has been – and at a few places it did before executives instituted layoffs and decimated their own digital sales staffs.

I’m afraid this kind of corporate knowledge rarely exists at many publishing companies today. For many, it is the executive management’s job to push down change and innovation – and absurd idea on its surface, how can an over paid executive who has never worked in the digital media business, been on the revenue side of the staff, ever be able to accomplish this?

They can’t, and judging by this quarters earnings reports, they aren’t making much progress. For those seeing any gains at all, it is coming for new acquisitions, that while offsetting some lost revenue, is adding costs and debts to the bottom line. Found in the earnings statements, right there under the revenue section, are the usual words: “new revenue was offset by declines in advertising…”

  • Donald Mazzella 6 months ago

    You are so right….there are pots of money around if we can find it…great article