LMA CEO Nancy Lane: 6 themes from the past 20 years in local media and 8 predictions for the next 20


Reflections from LMA CEO Nancy Lane on 20 years at Local Media Association

This article was also published on Nancy Lane’s LinkedIn blog.

Nancy LaneCEO, Local Media Association

Twenty years is a long time. On Oct. 30, 2000, I took a leap of faith and left my job in the for-profit media world to run what has since become Local Media Association.

I was 35 years old, working as a publisher for Journal Register Co. I was making crazy good money and had a company car, country club membership and stock options. These were the good old days in the newspaper industry.

Nancy Lane

Lane

Yet I was not satisfied. I had been with the company for more than eight years, but everything changed when we went public. The focus was no longer on quality journalism and investing in our future, particularly our digital future. It was about the quarterly earnings. At the time I was running a $25 million operation with profit margins of nearly 70%. It was never good enough.

I was also on the board of a sleepy industry organization called Suburban Newspapers of America. When our executive director resigned, I decided to apply. I took a huge pay cut and gave up entertaining clients at concerts and sporting events in luxury boxes to run a small, scrappy and purpose-driven non-profit.

I never looked back. It was one of the best decisions of my life. That organization became LMA.

Throughout my 20 years, LMA has been underestimated. I would say we still are and that is just fine with me.

As I reflect back, several themes come to mind:

  • The inability of the industry to collaborate has held us back.
  • The slow and painful transition to a digital future is our biggest failure.
  • The loss of strong local leadership, fueled by consolidation, has had huge consequences.
  • Innovators are often met with skepticism and distrust.
  • Arrogance still exists, even today.
  • Newsrooms were largely shut out in the shift to digital in the early days.

An industry that refuses to collaborate

In February of 2001, I invited Jeff Taylor, co-founder of Monster.com, to keynote the SNA Spring Publishers Conference. You would have thought I invited the devil. I received hate mail from publishers and CEOs. Less than four months into my new job, I was already ruffling feathers.

Regardless, our progressive board of directors forged ahead and we scheduled a follow up meeting at Monster headquarters in Boston. Our goal was to work out a partnership. While Monster was willing, albeit, at unattractive terms, the newspaper industry was not. The discussions quickly fell apart. Our next step was to meet with CareerBuilder executives in Chicago. Our goal was to work out an arrangement that would put the entire newspaper industry behind one coordinated effort. CareerBuilder leaders told us that they had no interest in partnering beyond the five companies that owned their company. The rest of us were viewed as competitors.

We never stopped trying. In 2010, LMA and 20 media companies launched zip2save.com. Zip2Save was a national shopping site featuring digital preprints, coupons and deals. Bill Caudill (with Borrell Associates at the time and now at Nexstar Media Group) and I went out to train sales reps on how to sell mobile using the zip2save app (we were way ahead of our time!). We started strong, but many of the companies that invested stopped selling the product and launched daily deals instead, in response to Groupon’s success. At the same time, my friend Chris Hendricks was behind another industry effort called findnsave. We tried to bring the two together, and create a mega-site owned and operated by the newspaper industry. Politics came into play and the two sites eventually went out of business. I still wonder what if to this day.

Chris Hendricks calls it the “cult of the willing.” During my 20 years, there hasn’t been enough “willing.”

Fast forward to 2020, and I’m proud to say that the industry is collaborating more than ever. At LMA, our labs and digital clubs bring broadcasters, newspapers and digital sites together. Our news collaboratives in Oklahoma and Chicago do the same. These efforts are not easy and there is still an unhealthy amount of distrust.

My wish for the future is wide acceptance of industry collaboration. Going it alone is not a good strategy for any of us.

A slow and painful digital transition

Less than two years ago, a local media company with multiple properties canceled its LMA membership. The cancellation email simply said, “Y’all are too digital for us.”

We have always beaten the drum for digital transformation. We encountered enormous resistance along the way. We were the first to feature Gordon Borrell at industry conferences, at a time when his message was not well-received. Newspaper publishers and broadcasters didn’t like his forecasts about where the money was going (hint: digital).

We were accused of being anti-print. It just wasn’t true. We were concerned about local journalism’s future and wanted the industry to fast-track and invest in digital. Some did. Many did not.

For more than a decade, debates at industry conferences focused on getting “buy-in” from employees on all things digital. Whether it was the newsroom, sales reps or even the CEO, getting employees to transition to a digital future was a nightmare (and still is for some companies). Just three years ago, we published an industry report called “The Big Disconnect” based on phone interviews with CEOs, focus groups with top digital leaders and surveys with sales reps and editors. The goals were not aligned. I believe that is still the case for many local media organizations.

My wish for the future is a firm commitment to a digital future. My favorite example is the Houston Defender, led by CEO Sonny Messiah Jiles. When COVID hit, less than 4% of her revenue came from digital. Today it is 10 times that amount and growing. In six months, this company’s transition to digital is nothing short of amazing. They have diversified their revenue to include community contributions, digital promotions/contests, virtual events, newsletters and more. It can be done.

Local leadership is key to success

As family-owned media companies sold to large chains, the leadership in the towns they operated in also changed. Eventually, many newspapers eliminated the role of the publisher.

This has had serious consequences for many local media outlets. There is no publisher or person with strong connections to the community to participate on community boards and organizations. As newspapers look to philanthropic funding of journalism projects as a new business model, lack of local leadership will be a problem for many.

When I think about newspapers in the top tier when it comes to truly transforming their businesses, they almost all have one thing in common – strong local management and/or local ownership, such as The Seattle Times, The Post and Courier (Charleston, S.C.), The Miami Herald, The Southeast Missourian (Cape Girardeau, Mo.), The Record-Journal (Meriden, Conn.) and many others.

Their leaders are invested in the communities where they operate. They care deeply. Jon Rust and his family live above the Southeast Missourian building. Everyone in Cape Girardeau knows them. The Rust Center for Media at Southeast Missouri State University is named after Jon’s father, Gary W. Rust. Rust Communications faces the same challenges as every other news media company that is tied to print circulation. The company eliminated print days earlier this year in response to COVID-19. Still, my bet is on the Jon Rusts of the world to survive.

In Seattle, Frank Blethen is another great example, as is the White family in Meriden, Conn. and the Wick family in Arizona. Some chains have also committed to strong local leadership. McClatchy comes to mind with Tim Ritchey in Fresno and Mindy Marques in Miami. It’s no surprise that Fresno and Miami have great success funding journalism projects through local philanthropy.

My wish for the future is to bring back the publisher role. It’s key to our long term sustainability.

Innovators in our industry have not been met with open arms

Meeting Clark Gilbert and spending time with him in Salt Lake City (on multiple occasions) is one of my career highlights. For many, Clark’s ideas were a threat.

He challenged their way of thinking. His views were deemed radical. We featured him as the keynote speaker at a Mega-Conference and our partners asked us not to invite him again as some of their members found his ideas offensive. Like Jeff Taylor and Gordon Borrell, speakers that challenged print-centric thinking were viewed as enemies.

We need people like Clark Gilbert in our industry. I miss his impact every day.

When digital sites started to emerge, many in the newspaper industry dismissed them as inferior. To this day, many state press associations do not allow local news sites to be members of their organizations. The defensive posturing has never entirely gone away.

When NewspaperNext came out more than a decade ago, many quietly criticized the effort. To this day, we all still use those terms that we learned back then, including “fail fast, fail cheap,” “beware the sucking sound of the core,” and “jobs to be done.”

My wish for the future is an industrywide effort on the future of local media. A place for industry innovators to be respected and revered. We need more of them.

There is no room for arrogance

As a woman running one of the smaller trade associations in the early 2000s, I experienced a lot of arrogance. When our board complained to the Audit Bureau of Circulations that the metro dailies were shutting out weekly newspapers, I was given a seat on the NAA/ABC liaison committee. I was there to represent weeklies and smaller dailies.

I served on that committee for years and was not well-received by many of the members. A man lunged across the table during one memorable meeting and told me that the “riff-raff” weren’t welcome here. That’s what he thought of weekly newspapers, even though major retailers were spending tens of millions of dollars in preprint revenue with them at the time (thanks in large part to LMA’s efforts). The retailers wanted the weekly papers to be audited by ABC, deemed the gold standard. The big guys successfully blocked it every time (except the weeklies owned by their companies were allowed to participate).

You would think the arrogance would go away by now. Much of it has, but it still exists. Digital subscriptions come to mind. I hear many publishers say, “Readers must pay for digital content!” I prefer a different approach that focuses on what readers want and need and then delivering it, so they are delighted to pay. There is a big difference. While content is expensive to produce and payment should absolutely be expected, it all comes down to meeting the consumer’s needs.

I was at an industry conference two years ago where a major daily newspaper was bragging about how hard they make it for a customer to cancel a subscription. Many in the audience were laughing and nodding their heads in agreement. I felt sick.

I am encouraged by the broadcast industry as it transitions to a digital future. Even during years of record revenue gains, broadcasters have never been in denial. They have invested heavily in digital business units and continue to do so. That doesn’t mean that arrogance doesn’t exist – it certainly does and needs to be kept in check. Disruption is lurking everywhere.

My wish for the future is for our industry to exercise humility and take a customer-first approach in everything we do.

The role of the news department has never been more important

In the early days of digital, the news department was largely ignored. That was a major mistake.

Today, digital transformation must start with news leaders. I look to Mitch Pugh, editor at The Post and Courier, as the perfect example. When publisher P.J. Browning hired Pugh seven years ago, she looked for someone capable of heading up the company’s reader revenue strategy. Today, Pugh is one of the leaders in the industry when it comes to digital subscription growth.

The news department needs to be involved in all things digital. Journalists need to have a seat at the table, even on the advertising side. As branded content becomes a bigger part of the advertising mix, editors need to be comfortable with the policies and processes. As the opportunity to fund journalism projects through local philanthropy emerges, they need to play a lead role. On the broadcast side, this is also very important. All company projects must have the buy-in and support of the news department and the only way to do it is to have journalists be part of the discussion from the start.

Graham Media Group recently participated in Table Stakes for broadcasters. Chief Innovation Officer Catherine Badalamente recently shared how valuable this was for Graham’s news teams in particular. They have since changed their approach on many things.

What do the next 20 years look like?

I wish I had a crystal ball, but here are my predictions in no order:

  • Broadcasters will be disrupted in many ways, but they will adapt, innovate and remain a strong part of the local media ecosystem.
  • Digital subscriptions for local newspapers will take off when the technology and user experience are greatly improved (think The New York Times app for local newspapers)
  • Sadly, more newspapers will go out of business, including some in top-25 markets. The ownership structure will play a significant role.
  • Journalism funded by philanthropy will be widely accepted and will account for 30-50% of news department costs (even broadcasters will get on board).
  • Digital news sites will continue to evolve and become an increasingly important part of the local news industry. They will be a mix of hyper-local, regional, state and national.
  • The Black press and Latinx publishers will reinvent themselves in new ways, playing a much more significant role in the industry going forward.
  • More non-profit news organizations will emerge, making this a common business model for local news.
  • Membership and contribution models will become more popular than digital subscriptions for small local news organizations.

Cheers to the next 20 years. What we do matters more than ever. I am extremely proud to work for the Local Media Association and carry out our mission of reinventing business models for news every day.

A big shout out to the hard-working LMA team – Jay, Lindsey, Janice, Julia, Steve, Frank, Emilie and Tonya – and the courageous, risk-taking LMA and LMF boards, led by Bob Brown and Liz White.

Nearly 50 ago, SNA was founded by entrepreneurs who were competing against metro daily newspapers in suburban markets. We still have that scrappiness in our DNA. I wouldn’t change it for anything.