It’s important for the Napa Valley to have its local newspapers because they make up a valuable part of the fabric of our communities. Newspapers bind the communities together, they are a forum for conversation and a place to get unbiased information.
On Friday, Nov. 30, Davis Taylor, new publisher of Napa Valley Publishing and Sean Scully, editor of the Napa Valley Register, spoke to the editorial board about the future of newspapers. Both were upbeat.
The digital revolution has changed nearly everything, including the way news is consumed. Generally, we no longer wait for the news to be printed in a newspaper; instead we pick up our smartphones and seek the information there. As an industry, Taylor said our challenge has been to keep going, even as our revenues have fallen. He said it’s like changing the tires on a car that’s driving at 90 mph.
It’s been a bumpy ride, but the “deep dive” of the industry, overall, has stopped and we’re now able to think more strategically about what we need to do and how to go forward.
Taylor said the really large papers, the New York Times, Washington Post and others are doing well and their websites are filled with the latest news from all over.
The small community papers, like the daily Napa Valley Register and the weeklies that make up Napa Valley Publishing, fill a very specific niche. Generally, they are doing well, too, Taylor said.
The mid-sized metro papers, the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News and others, can’t compete with either the largest papers nor the smallest. They don’t have the money to pay for reporters to cover the White House nor do they have reporters in all the small communities.
On Nov. 1 Taylor was named the new publisher for Napa Valley Publishing, which includes the Napa Valley Register, the St. Helena Star and The Weekly Calistogan. All are owned by Lee Enterprises, based in Davenport, Iowa.
Before coming to Napa, Taylor spent five years at another Lee newspaper group, the Hanford Sentinel. He has been in the newspaper business since the early 1980s, working at the San Jose Mercury News, the Seattle Times and others. Overall, Taylor said the Lee newspaper chain is performing better than Gannett, the Tribune Company, McClatchy and Digital First Media.
According to its website, Lee is a leading provider of local news, information and advertising in 49 markets in 21 states. It owns 46 daily newspapers, another 300 plus weekly publications, 73 million digital views per month and 1.1 million subscribers. It was founded in 1890 in Iowa by A.W. Lee.
In the early 2000s, Lee bought the Pulitzer newspaper chain, which included the St. Helena Star, taking on a debt service of $1 billion. It has paid that debt down to $650 million, Taylor said, and Berkshire Hathaway has both bought some of that debt and has hired Lee to manage its newspapers.
In the five years that Scully has been editor of the Napa Valley Register, his newsroom staff has been cut 30 percent. In 2013, if you had asked Scully of the future of newspapers, his view would have been dim.
Today, he said, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Scully, who has attended two conferences for Lee editors, said in the first quarter of 2019, the company will roll out an aggressive campaign to grow digital subscriptions. We’re changing the way we market digital subscriptions – people will pay for access to the news content on our websites. Different levels of subscriptions will be available.
Let’s talk about our newspaper print readers: mostly older and maybe they read the morning paper with their coffee at breakfast, like they’ve done for years. For that population, we’ll continue to print newspapers, even though it costs us something like $3 to deliver a 50-cent newspaper to your door.
The challenge is how to change the perception that a reporter’s work is valuable. As an online reader of news on our websites, today you’re being asked to subscribe. The newspaper business is in the midst of a transformation and Scully said you’re going to be asked to join us to pay for content, much like you’d join the local NPR station.
It is estimated that in four or five years, this membership model – come join us – will be significant revenue for our company. We’re already seeing good growth in digital subscriptions over last year, Scully says.
The digital revolution has allowed anyone to get virtually anything on their smartphone. The other industry challenge — one that is harder to solve – is getting people to determine the truth and value of that content.
The analysis of our web traffic shows that we’re reaching those who are in the 25-34 and 35-44 age groups, which are so desirable to advertisers. Those groups routinely exceed the 45-54 and older groups.