Paper Chase: A Q&A with Randy Siegel

The Newspaper Project leader on why newspapers will endure

Monday’s New York Times, as well as around 400 other newspapers and magazines, featured a full-page ad, its lettering yellow against a deep blue background: “More People Will Read A Newspaper Today Than Watched Yesterday’s Big Game.” In smaller lettering, the ad discussed newspapers’ “supersized” readership, their audiences’ reliance on the information they provide, and the journalism they produce—“the best journalism found anywhere,” as the ad had it.

The ad was sponsored by the Newspaper Project, a grassroots coalition of newspaper editors and executives—Randy Siegel, president and publisher of Parade Publications; Brian Tierney, CEO and publisher of Philadelphia Media Holdings; Donna Barrett, president and CEO of Community Newspaper Holdings; and Jay Smith, former president of Cox Newspapers—intended, essentially, to defend newspaper organizations against the pervasive pessimism about their future. “While we acknowledge the challenges facing the newspaper industry in today’s rapidly changing media world,” the Project’s Web site declares, “we reject the notion that newspapers—and the valuable content that newspaper journalists provide—have no future.”

CJR’s Megan Garber spoke with Randy Siegel to learn more about the project.

Megan Garber: How are you defining newspapers in the context of the campaign?

Randy Siegel: It’s really about newspapers both in print and, obviously, the newspaper Web sites. We’re using “newspaper” as an umbrella term for all the news and information that newspaper companies provide, both in print and digitally. We’re really looking at this both in terms of the print and the digital portfolios that newspaper companies will continue to build and evolve with.

You know, you get outside of New York, and in most cities and towns across America, all the good-quality journalism comes from the local newspapers. And in recent years we’ve seen the decimation of local television news, local radio news, etc. I enjoy bloggers’ work—I read a lot of blogs, myself—but this notion that bloggers will somehow fill the void if local newspapers were suddenly to disappear—we reject that out of hand. We just feel that that’s an overly simplistic solution, and some classic wishful thinking.

MG: So there’s something inherently valuable about the infrastructure of news organizations?

RS: Absolutely. It’s the infrastructure, it’s the professional training, it’s the ability to condense massive amounts of information into accessible prose for the reader and the online visitor. It’s the editing. I mean, this notion that you don’t need editors anymore is laughable. Editors make things accessible for readers and online users, and they help educate all of us about stories and issues that we otherwise might not see. I highly doubt that your favorite blogger, for example, is in a position to fly to Iraq and cover what’s going on there, or to fly to the far East and decipher our relationship with China as an economic superpower, or to go into City Hall and expose instances of municipal graft and corruption, or to get behind the scenes of a major sporting event and help people understand why a game turned out the way it did. I believe that, in journalism, you get what you pay for. And quality journalists will always have a role in our society. And as newspaper companies evolve, great journalism will now be more important than ever. Across multiple platforms.

MG: I think most of us would agree that quality journalism depends on good reporting. Do you see a distinction between, say, The New York Times and Talking Points Memo, or between the Times and other Web-only outlets that do good, original reporting?

RS: Absolutely. The New York Times creates some of the most marvelous content in the world, both in print and online. And I think that a lot of online aggregators exploit Times content for their own gain. I know that some of the online aggregators purportedly drive a lot of traffic to certain Web sites, but I don’t believe that newspaper companies are extracting maximum value from those aggregators, which sell millions of dollars of ads around the content created by hardworking journalists. And that’s one of the issues that I think newspaper companies are starting to, thankfully, reevaluate.

MG: How so?

RS: I know that Eric Schmidt at Google says that “all information wants to be free.” But it’s easy for the folks at Google to say that, when they’re making billions of dollars by selling ads around other people’s content. And the content of news organizations, in particular, which have to incur the costs of the journalists’ work, and of all the investment that goes into creating compelling journalism.

In just the past couple of days, there have been reports that The New York Times, the Dallas Morning News, other companies are starting to take a look at the liability of giving away all of their content for free, at the same time that they’re trying to charge for it in print. And in this new world we all live in, that issue is in need of reevaluation.

MG: Are there any models you’re particularly optimistic about when it comes to that?

RS: I don’t have it all figured out. But what we’re trying to do with our effort,, is to create as much productive debate and discussion over what the right models need to be to make sure that the marvelous news and information newspapers provide is both widely distributed and also valued by the people who receive it. And one of the things that I think the newspaper industry will need to ask itself is, “Are the online aggregators paying enough for what they receive?” We’ve created a classic free-rider problem. You can build billion-dollar companies around the quality content that other people invest in and pay to create. The value proposition is completely out of balance.

MG: Are you currently planning anything beyond the Web site and the ad campaign?

RS: We have our print ads that ran in Ad Age and The New York Times and The Washington Post—about 400 newspapers ran our first ad—and we have online banner ads that have been running on Web sites. And of course we have the Web site up and running. And we’re going to be producing a series of print and online ads; I think the next round of ads will be more focused on consumers. We started off with a simple, straightforward message: “Newspapers have great reach and a lot of readers.” That’s a nice point of departure, but that’s not the be-all and end-all of the campaign. What we hope to do is to create discussion amongst consumers about how people still depend on newspapers. It’s a 55 billion dollar a year industry with 100 million satisfied clients who every day who read the paper. It’s not going away overnight, despite the wishes of some of the pundits and prognosticators.

MG: What about op-ed pages and commentary sections—do you see those as integral components of newspapers, or could they ostensibly be ceded to blogs?

RS: I’m just speaking personally, but I think that op-ed sections, and the opportunity newspapers have to publish interesting voices from an audience, are really under-leveraged. There’s a hunger among consumers to see wider ranges of viewpoints—and there are certain editorial pages and op-ed sections across the country that do a marvelous job of that. I feel that the elimination of op-eds, and the elimination of editorial pages, is a big mistake. Instead, they need to be a lot more interactive, and a lot more inclusive, with new, emerging voices, as well as older, established ones. They’re still in a great position to thrive in print and online. And, online, there’s a lot of exciting work to be done around social networking—particularly as it pertains to people who want to discuss and debate mutual areas of interest. A well-done editorial page and op-ed section can be a linchpin for newspapers to develop very effective social networking platforms that would be not only be very popular, but also very engaging for important subsets of their audience.

MG: Do you see local papers and national papers developing those platforms in ways that are fundamentally different—or fundamentally similar?

RS: At the end of the day, it’s about how well papers can serve their readers, and how well they can build an audience, both in print and online. And once they build those audiences, whether they’re able to sell advertising and subscriptions around them, with all the new products they’re developing. I know from my travels at work that a lot of the mid-size and smaller-market newspapers are doing much, much better than their brethren in bigger, major metros. So it’s hard to generalize about what the appropriate evolution will be. But at the end of the day, the question is how they can serve their communities with quality news and information, and make it accessible to those communities on all sorts of different platforms. And, in that respect, there are definitely many different formulas for success.

MG: How did the idea for the project come about?

RS: We discussed amongst ourselves, periodically, how there’s this feeding frenzy of negative news about the future of newspapers. We felt that it was all out of proportion. The reality is that certainly newspapers have challenges—and we’re not being Pollyanna-ish about them—but everyone in the media has challenges, whether it’s at Yahoo, whether it’s at CBS, whether it’s at ClearChannel, whether it’s at XM Radio, whether it’s at a big consumer magazine. Everyone needs to innovate and evolve, because we’re in the midst of a media revolution. And at the end of this, newspaper companies will be left standing, because I believe that they’ll do the right things to evolve and thrive, both in print and digitally, that those innovations will help safeguard their future. People want quality information now more than ever. That’s one foundation that newspapers are in a great position to build upon.

In terms of the project itself, this whole effort was created in the last four weeks. We pulled some staff together, and we update the content on the site every single day. And hope to build out a bigger staff for that. But this has really been done as a grassroots effort. It’s a collective of newspapers. It started with four of us in Parade’s office, on January 7. We had our first and only meeting, and then we’ve been calling each other and e-mailing each other furiously, and we just started emailing all our contacts and making phone calls. And our colleagues responded beautifully. Now we’ve got 400 of our colleagues involved.

I think people in our business realize that we’ve done a mediocre job of telling our story and communicating the viability of newspapers going forward, and there was a real hunger for this sort of effort. And that’s what we’re really excited about continuing over the days and weeks and months ahead.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.