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So How Is One Mainstream Media
Paper Coping? The Answer is Niches.

Brett Thacker, Managing Editor, San Antonio Express-News

‘Brett [Thacker]... in April, your newspaper was Named Newspaper of the Year here in Texas at the APME annual meeting...How do you
characterize the financial and editorial health of your newspaper?’-
— Peggy Kuhr

Growing Vertically Versus Growing Horizontally

As editors, we’re a lot more familiar with the business side of things than we used to be, because business does drive our ability to do things, unfortunately. The Express-News is, by all measures, a very successful newspaper, both financially and journalistically. We are the poster child in our corporation for success on both levels. I think we’ve been able to achieve what we’ve been able to do, and also deliver to our corporate fathers, the returns that they need. Now, could we take more money out of that? Absolutely. We wish that we could.

. . .Weeklies readership is up 10 percent in the last 15 years. Dailies are down 13 percent in the last 15 years, Sunday, about 7 percent. These [stats] are from the NAA [Newspaper Assoc. of America] So, in San Antonio, our circulation base is pretty solid. Our advertising base is pretty solid.

We have lost, like a lot of other newspapers, classified advertising through the years because of and because of Craigslist. These are phenomena that are out there and that we’ve got to address if we’re going to remain viable. Also, department stores. The big auto dealers. Foley’s, which is one of our largest advertisers, is going away in the next year, and Macy’s will not advertise as much as they did. We lost Montgomery Ward’s, we lost Kmart.

So, fortunately, we’re in a growing market where new business activity is almost constant, so we’re able to replace that business. But there’s going to come a point—we underwent a strategic conversation last year on where’s our business headed—and the mantra was, we’re not going to keep growing like this, which is the core product—it’s gotta be horizontal, like that. That means niche products.

Launching Niche Products

Niche products take some investment in terms of manpower and the corporate fathers also have to bless this, too.

One thing that we had done a couple of years ago—honestly, it was a cost-saving measure to save newsprint on our full run—is a publication we do every Saturday called “Business Express,” and I have it here. It’s—the main motivation, and several other markets have done this—is, stock pages are not used very much. Everyone goes online for the most part, but there is a die-hard core of readers, older readers, who still want their information out of the newspapers.

At the same time we knocked our stock pages out of our Saturday newspapers, we provided to them—at a cost, of course—a publication, it’s 36 pages each week, half of it is stock listings, the mutuals, a full run of them, plus some pretty good journalism too, along the way. And we’ve achieved our goal in terms of the circulation on this. We wanted to get the circulation to a certain point to where the returns would not be diminished by—I hate to use this phrase, as an editor—the bottom line.

In the meantime, we’ve produced some good stories in this newspaper, in this 15,000 circulation, and it’s gone over to the main sheet, too. So that’s been a success journalistically as well as saving our resources.

Now, last year, about a year and a half ago, . . . we launched a bilingual weekly called Connexion....We envisioned this originally as half Spanish, half English. If you know anything about San Antonio, about half the people here can speak Spanish. The reading and writing proficiency is about 10 percent or less. A lot of those people actually have no preference; they can go either way. ... A lot of people who come up from the South will go to Dallas, they’ll go to Houston, they’ll go elsewhere, but this is a very acculturated community. A lot of our Hispanics have been here for many generations.

As a result. . over time, Connexion has gone from 50/50 to more like 80/20, English to Spanish. People ask, well, how do you figure that out? It’s more by feel than it is by anything else. People tend to like shorter blocks of Spanish so they can at least test it. . . That’s been a big success in terms of advertising. Our circulation is ahead of budget, ahead of plan. We have 50,000 circulation weekly. . . .

Beyond that, there are other niches too that we need to look into. Of course, online plays a big role in that. In fact, we are blogging here today. Getting our arms around the youth market—that’s the big issue. The median age of our readership continues to creep upward. I think our daily readership is, like, 50. Our Sunday readership is in the mid to upper 40s. That just creeps upward and upward. . . and the question is, how do you appeal to the younger readers? Do you do it online, do you do it with a print product? We tried dedicated pages in our feature section, with a dedicated editor—that didn’t work that well.

Now we have an annual advisory board called the Teen Team, where we take a couple of dozen kids from around the area and our features editor. . . works with these kids to help them develop their writing skills, so we get their voices in the newspaper.

They have voiced their opinion on the election, they do movie reviews, they do all kinds of things, so we’re getting them into print and hopefully planting the seeds in them . . . it’s a start. We’d love to do a stand-alone publication, we’re trying to get our arms around it. . . And there are blogs too, getting back to the online factor.

Reporters as Bloggers, Citizens as Contributors

We’ve toyed with a lot of things. We can only do so much at once. A lot of our reporters are starting to do blogs now, in their areas of expertise—for instance, we have a beer blog, a gardening blog. We will blog big events, like, we blogged the hurricane recently—we had our reporters out there filing dispatches from various points around the map in Texas and Mexico, where they were.

I would like to see something that Seattle has done, Houston is doing it, where your community is broken down within your large metro area and you build a site for them—essentially, here are some links to the community, here are stories out of the main product to populate the site, but then you have citizen journalists who can help to put more content there.

That’s a model that I think we’re all going to go to at some point if we’re going to stay relevant. We’ve been here for 140 years, I think we’re going to stay around, but we’ve got to adapt. I think niche is definitely where it’s at, but we cannot ignore the main product because, being all things to all people, that all major metro dailies are, you’re not going to please everyone. With the Internet, obviously, we’re hearing more and more each day from them, and we’ve answered them. We try to be as interactive as possible, but in the end—I think really, 10, 15, 20 years from now. . . we’re still going to be here, I think.

Have any of you seen the epic 2015 video that’s online? It’s very scary at first. When I first saw it—this basically—go Google Epic 2014, there’s a 2015 version now—it envisions a world ten years from now, taking the technology we have today and extrapolating it forward, so that basically Google and Amazon rule the world. Mainstream media is just for the infirm, the elderly or something. . . it’s kind of a doom and gloom scenario.

I think we have brand names in our community that we can parlay into something special, it’s just a matter of getting the motivation from our corporate fathers to say, this is the future, and I think at Hearst we’re starting to see this now. We have a very bright man named Lincoln Milstein who is on board with us now who is pushing us more to the blogosphere, more to other areas online to extend the franchise and insure our future.

Question from the audience: It seems to me the notion of niche media has a dilemma built into it: journalism is supposed to create common ground, common understanding. . . but if everyone is reading what is interesting to them and what is relevant to them, how do you reconcile that with this need to create a broad understanding?

Brett Thacker: . . . I think we have to pick our niches, at least from the get-go, the ones that make the most sense. But in terms of being all things to all people. . . the Internet is a great democratizer of information, obviously. You can get it out there, you can say what you have to say, you can find whatever you want out there. . . By the same token, I also see a coarsening in the dialogue that we have, with our readers and just among each other in all of society, because I think the great broad center is either mute or people are gravitating to either end of the spectrum and as a result, we are polarized. That’s what we’re seeing every day, because people can seek out—if they disagree with something in the newspaper or on our website, they can go find something contradictory or say, “Why didn’t you print this?” Well, what they’re talking about is extremely partisan and, quite frankly, to use the word, it’s biased. But it appeals to their sensibility. They can seek it out. They feel warm. They’re conforming in their own way. Here we are, trying to occupy the moral and journalistic high ground, and we’re getting shelled from both sides because people want what they believe. And it’s out there and they can seek it and be reaffirmed daily, online.

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