Over the last few decades, the newspaper industry has endured some of the most challenging times in its long history. We sat down with Sacramento Bee Executive Editor Joyce Terhaar to talk about revenues, technology and reporting in the modern age.
Declining revenues are a major challenge for newspapers. Is that the biggest challenge?
It clearly is a big challenge, but so is change. What’s going on with us financially is partly related to readership habits around print and how industries that are long-time advertisers of ours are changing themselves. I haven’t seen that anybody has a new business model figured out. Speaking only about the Sacramento Bee, we are diversifying forms of revenue. We do subscriptions now far differently than we did 15 years ago when websites were fledgling. We made a whole lot of money then, and subscriptions were pretty much completely subsidized. Getting, printing and then delivering the news household by household is a pretty intensive manufacturing business, and advertising paid for all of that. But in today’s world, our subscribers pay a much bigger share of the actual cost of delivering print. [Our advertising department] is undergoing its own evolution. I have been very impressed with the dramatic change they are making from essentially selling space on a printed page to actually partnering with businesses to help them figure out their go-to-market strategy. We’re not just selling the Sacramento Bee anymore; we’re partnering with business to help them figure out how to best reach their customer and be successful.
Paywalls have gone in and out of use, though it seems most major publications now use them. Will they continue to be in vogue?
There are a couple different kinds of paywalls. One is the very hard stop where you can’t read anything unless you subscribe. Consumer Reports is a great example. But most paywalls are pretty porous and have different reading limits depending on what device you’re on. But journalism costs money so, of course, I think people should subscribe. There are enough ways for the casual reader, who just isn’t going to subscribe, to get your content anyway. If you’re doing a Google search, you can get to it. Or if you’re coming in through social media, you can get to a certain amount of it. You get that reader when a story goes viral, but they’re not ever going to be your market.
If you think back maybe seven or eight years, all the talk was about citizen journalism, that professional journalists were old school and weren’t going to be the thing anymore. Well, I think we’ve moved past that thinking.
News organizations compete with one another, but we’ve seen some recent examples, like the Panama Papers, where numerous organizations came together to produce some truly explosive and valuable work. Are we likely to see more of these cooperative ventures?
The short answer is yes. The Panama Papers story was so big I suspect that would have been a partnership even if we weren’t in the current media climate. Such a massive data project is just a completely different thing from the usual investigation. But everybody’s doing some partnerships and most organizations are pretty open to it. If you think back maybe seven or eight years, all the talk was about citizen journalism, that professional journalists were old school and weren’t going to be the thing anymore. Well, I think we’ve moved past that thinking. But there also is value to some of the crowdsourcing. There have even been stories over the last few years where somebody gets a dump of documents and publishes them and asks the crowd to go in and read and point out things that look interesting. There’s no reason that something has to be closely held up until the moment you publish, and it actually can be kind of fun to engage people. We’ve looked for those kinds of opportunities here on occasion, but I haven’t found a lot that seem like just the perfect fit, so we still have some experimenting to do.
How about partnerships with social media entities like Facebook and YouTube?
Both entities are well aware that their customers spend a lot of time on their sites reading news. I think both are in many ways as dependent on the news media as the news media is on their distribution platform. Are they going to have a model that makes economic sense for journalists? That remains to be seen. But they have strong reasons to want journalists on their site. A lot of Twitter followers are there because they get news faster. Reporters at the scene can tweet out in a shorter amount of time than it takes to actually file a post to their own site. So they need us and we need that distribution platform. I hope this leads us to something that makes financial sense.
What about the use of virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality platforms like Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard?
Well, being clear that virtual reality doesn’t mean made up, think about what it would feel like for a member of your audience to be able to feel like they stepped into a war scene or a flood. What would it be like if you were stuck on a roof with somebody who was stuck in a flood? There are opportunities for news media to bring experiences home to people in a way even television can’t do — because in TV you’re shooting an image off in the distance, you’re not in the middle of it. I think [virtual reality] is really powerful … We’re just starting to experiment with it.
Some newspapers offer podcasts. Is this something the Bee might do?
We have gotten heavily into video, so over the last three years you might have asked, ‘How are you going to do this with a room full of word people?’ Because that was the challenge. But we do a lot of raw video and it’s really added value to our work. With podcasts, we have purposefully gone a little bit slower than other markets because we are doing a video push. … McClatchy did just hire someone to start developing a podcasting program throughout the company, and there are a handful of reporters here who are very eager to start podcasting.
I am constantly annoyed with how poorly most newspaper websites operate. They load slowly, are clunky to maneuver around in and are loaded with annoying pop-up ads. Why is there not more emphasis on positive user experience for newspaper sites?
I can’t answer that for the whole industry, and I don’t know if I can even answer that for McClatchy. I just agree. We’re too slow and advertising isn’t enough of a quality user experience yet. We are working on it and starting to do the kinds of advertising that will make for a better experience. News sites are complicated creatures. They’re not like every site out there. Getting advertising from many, many, many different sources like we do is the kind of thing that slows down how fast the site loads. There are some technical challenges for news sites that other sites don’t have. But it’s a legitimate criticism.
The term ‘fake news’ has come to dominate much of the conversation around media. How has this proliferation of intentional misinformation impacted the way news organizations work?
The term ‘fake news’ has been co-opted politically to a certain extent and so I’m trying not to use that term. You can just call it ‘made-up stuff’ because that’s what it is — it’s just fiction. And I think that’s dangerous for everybody, not just the media. It has surprised me how many people believe the [false] stuff they read … This is just one of the very many things that play into the distorted view of whether the media is reliable or credible or not. In the studies we’ve seen on how much people trust the media, they never ask, ‘How much do you trust your hometown newspaper?’ or, ‘How much do you trust the main TV station in your market?’ They say ‘the media,’ which frankly includes anything you read on Facebook or anywhere on social media and every single blog out there and every single cable show, whether it’s a national show or not. There is such a range of standards from one spectrum to the other.
Overall, has President Trump been good or bad for the business side of the industry?
Our readership is growing. It seems like everybody’s readership is growing right now. We are finding that we are getting more national readership, and I expect that to continue to grow given California’s response to the administration’s policies.