Reviving my role as a Wall Street equity analyst, I conducted an interview with the publisher and the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer as part of a small fundraiser for the Cleveland Film Society. While the formal discussion probably lasted 45 minutes, the conversation continued throughout the remainder of the evening. The conclusion was that newspapers matter. While I would like to think that is an obvious point, the revelation for me was that newspapers need to re-engage their respective communities to remind them of that fact.
The audience seemed dazzled by Egger & Goldberg, the typical criticism stifled. There seemed to be a better appreciation for the complexities of the business and the difficult decisions that needed to be made daily. Perhaps if papers were more direct with their community they would both get more respect and better readership.
Terrance C.Z. Egger became publisher of the Plain Dealer in May of 2006; among his many achievements to date was the hiring of Susan Goldberg in May of 2007. They are a terrific, convivial team that did a nice job of communicating their passion, especially for the active role a newspaper can play in its community.
Recognizing that Cleveland has a perpetual cloud over it, Susan is trying to shake it loose. It doesn't hurt that the Cavs and Indians had exciting post-seasons with the Browns continuing that momentum. With that as a backdrop, the front page has changed dramatically and has come to life. More color, more local stories, less structure, a left hand bar highlighting content -- just like a real newspaper. Cleveland is a sports town; the coverage has been beefed up with tremendous promotion of the individual columnists. Restaurant reviews appear on line first so that readers can comment resulting in a print version that captures both. Readers can contribute photographs and commentary each week on high school sports and other topics. Blogs have been launched, albeit with some controversy; but better to make mistakes and learn from them than sit still and get passed over. In short, rapid progress is being made; towards what eventual end is less clear, but that is an industry issue, not a local one. .
Major metropolitan papers need to increase their relevance to their readers. They can no longer be everything to everyone as the resources are constrained. Tradeoffs need to be made about what can be covered comprehensively and what cannot. Newspapers need to focus on what makes them distinct in their market and stick to their core strengths. Increasingly, community dialogues are taking place online; newspapers are doing a better job of participating, More data driven stories are being developed that should result in stories with potentially longer shelf lives.
Newspaper matter as they can help ferret out the good guys from the bad. They can keep the dialogue civil. They provide a watchdog role
All told, I was more optimistic about the newspaper industry at the end of that evening than I have been in some time. The industry won't return to its former profitability but it strikes me as far from dead.