When the newspaper publisher formerly known as Tribune Publishing changed its name to "Tronc," people started snickering. When the company released this video touting Tronc’s disruptive new business strategy, it was subjected to merciless mockery from across the internet:
"It’s about meeting in the middle," says Tronc chief digital officer Anne Vasquez in the video. "Having a tech startup culture meet a legacy corporate culture and then evolving and changing."
"That’s really the fun part," she says, with no hint of excitement on her face. "That’s exciting."
Reforming the "legacy corporate culture" at Tronc’s stable of local newspapers — including the Los Angeles Times, the nation’s fourth largest by circulation — doesn’t actually sound all that fun. But Tronc’s effort to reinvent local newspapers for the internet age is pretty important.
People in major cities like Orlando and Chicago rely on the journalism performed by Tronc papers, and those publications have suffered from wave after wave of layoffs over the past decade.
Painfully scripted delivery aside, the video shows Tronc management making a sincere effort to change the company’s culture and business model to adapt to the realities of the internet. The problem is that this task is stupendously difficult, and it doesn’t sound like Tronc has found a strategy that is likely to work.
Midsize newspapers are facing a grim situation
In the late 20th century, owning a newspaper like the Hartford Courant or the Baltimore Sun was highly profitable. Tronc owns about 10 of these newspapers around the country.
Thanks to decades of industry consolidation, most major cities had only one or two daily newspapers, making them de facto monopolies and allowing them to charge premium rates for advertisements.
Competition from the internet changed all that:
Between 2004 and 2014, newspapers’ print advertising revenues fell by almost two-thirds, from $47 billion to $16 billion. Digital advertising generated $3.5 billion in 2014 — nowhere near enough to make up the difference.
Newspapers’ basic problem is that they were built for a world in which consumers got a wide variety of timely information in one big newspaper bundle — not only local news, weather, and sports coverage but also national and international news, national sports coverage, the comics page, movie reviews, and so forth.
But on the internet, these functions are increasingly unbundled. People can get their political news from Politico, weather reports from Weather.com, sports news from SB Nation (including local SB Nation blogs for their local sports teams), and so forth. So not only do people spend less time on a particular newspaper’s website than they once spent reading the print newspaper, but the increased competition for ad dollars means newspapers can’t charge as much.
The best-known newspapers — the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post — have benefited from an offsetting advantage: Their brands are so strong that they’ve been able to take their product national and attract millions of new readers. This has worked especially well for the Times and the Journal, both of which have convinced huge numbers of readers to sign up for their paywalls.
But this isn’t really a viable option for midsize Tronc newspapers like the Orlando Sentinel or the San Diego Union-Tribune. Many readers outside of Orlando and San Diego haven’t even heard of these newspapers, and they certainly aren’t the kind of iconic brands that can attract paying subscribers.
So for the past decade, the kind of midsize newspapers that make up the bulk of Tronc’s portfolio have been fighting the relentless force of economic gravity. Revenues keep going down and down, forcing more and more layoffs.
Why modernizing newspapers is harder than it looks
The solution to midsize newspapers’ woes seems obvious: The papers need to refocus on areas where they have a comparative advantage — especially local news — and they need to use the internet to become leaner and more efficient. There is a significant audience for local news, and organizations like the Orlando Sentinel and the Hartford Courant have strong local brands that make them ideally positioned to deliver it.
But that’s a lot easier said than done. There’s no easy way to transform a complex organization like a daily newspaper into the radically different structure required to succeed in online news. A daily newspaper’s structure and culture reflect the accumulated wisdom of many decades in the newspaper business. Adapting to the web means tossing out a lot of that and starting over. There’s a risk that this will mean tossing out many of the values and skills that made the newspaper successful in the first place.
Adapting to the web is likely to involve substantial layoffs — both to reduce overall headcount and to make room to hire staff with internet-specific skills. But mass layoffs are terrible for morale. They can cause friction between a newspaper’s editorial and business wings and can scare away a newspaper’s most talented personnel.
Changing a newspaper’s culture and processes to adapt to the web is even harder than reducing its headcount. An organization’s structure and internal processes tend to be extremely durable — once people get used to doing things a particular way, it’s very difficult to get them to change.
That’s especially true because newspapers are still going to have to put out a physical publication for another decade or more. Print ad revenue may have fallen by two-thirds, but newspapers’ remaining print revenues are still worth about five times as much as digital ad revenue. So news organizations have to straddle a line between putting out an adequate print product in the short term while managing a long-term shift to the web.
Change has to happen from the bottom up
This brings us to Tronc’s new video. It’s easy to mock (I did it myself), but it’s also important to give Tronc credit for trying. Tronc was absolutely right when it said in a tweet yesterday that "change can be terrifying, but we know what happens if we do nothing."
Tronc’s corporate thesis seems to be that digital technology is the source of its woes, and digital technology can also be its salvation. And once you strip away the buzzwords, most of its ideas seem sound.
Tronc plans to use software (which it calls "machine learning" and "artificial intelligence") to help reporters with the more tedious parts of writing a story — for example, choosing a photograph or video to accompany the story.
Tronc also plans to focus on embedding more videos in Tronc stories. Video ads pay better than old-fashioned banner ads, and so a lot of online news organizations have made video content a priority — here at Vox, we have a team that does exactly what Tronc is talking about, embedding videos in high-traffic posts.
Then there’s this:
It’s not clear why these newspapers are in outer space, but the basic idea seems sensible — Tronc’s corporate headquarters will have a team whose job is to help avoid duplication of effort and maximize the audience for content created by Tronc papers. If the Baltimore Sun’s restaurant critic writes a popular article that’s not Baltimore-specific, the content optimization team will look for ways to drive readers from other papers to the article.
The basic problem the company is trying to solve is that a midsize newspaper like the Hartford Courant doesn’t have either the culture or the scale required to build technology tools that allow its journalism to have the maximum possible impact and generate the maximum possible revenue. So Tronc is trying to build some technology tools that will be available for all of its papers to use.
That’s a fine theory. The problem is that making this actually work is going to be really difficult.
The basic issue is that these kinds of tools and strategies only work if the corporate office gets buy-in from rank-and-file reporters and editors. Tronc’s new content optimization tools won’t do any good if reporters ignore them.
Conversely, reporters are only going to use these tools if they actually help them do their jobs better. Centralizing development creates a danger that developers will build tools that sound like a good idea on a white board but turn out not to actually help reporters do their jobs. The more ambitious the plan is, the longer it will take for them to bring it to fruition and discover that it’s not working as they expect.
So the key to making the Tronc vision work is going to be to find ways to get Tronc’s software developers and its reporters actually working together. This tends to work best by starting with small experiments, then scaling up those experiments if they work well. The Washington Post, where I worked from 2013 to 2014, has had some success with this, launching a series of blogs and expanding the ones that caught on with the public.
And this is why I’m skeptical that Tronc’s ambitious reinvention plan will actually work. The thing the company needs most isn’t a splashy video laying out a grand vision for the future of journalism. It needs concrete examples of times Tronc’s technical talent boosted the profile of specific reporters at specific local newspapers.
Buzzword-laden promotional videos are going to make Tronc’s seasoned reporters roll their eyes and go back to doing their jobs the way they always have. If Tronc wants to actually get reporters and editors excited, it needs to start racking up a bunch of small wins in some papers that it can replicate in others.
Correction: I got the Tribune Company confused with Tribune Publishing.