Ups and Downs, Week of May 16
Neighborhood resistance to bad real estate development: When Severyn Development revealed its plans for new-build condominiums on a vacant lot at the corner of Jersey and 14th streets, neighbors were taken aback by the line of six garage doors and attendant curb cuts facing 14th Street. The renderings seemed to try to mitigate that visual impact by including a vision of roof gardens, residents enjoying second-floor balconies, and what appears to be a vintage red Porsche parked partway across the sidewalk in front of one of the garages. (The Porsche might be apropos; the six two-bedroom units are meant to cost $525,000 each; the Severyn brothers said at a May 14 public hearing that the high price point would guarantee quality neighbors.) Homeowners saw only the loss of street parking, safety hazards, and a dead street corner, and they turned out in force to decry the project at Monday’s public hearing. The result: Severyn Development has withdrawn the proposal and promised to go back to the drawing board. They’ll be back in June with a new proposal.
Just Resisting/Black Love and the Buffalo Democratic Socialists are hosting a free brake light clinic this Saturday at the Delavan-Grider Community Center (877 East Delavan Avenue) for folks to get their cars up to compliance. As we’ve reported extensively on the Buffalo Police Department’s focus on low-level offenses including high grass, lapsed vehicular inspections, window tints, and missing brake lights through its now disbanded Strike Force unit, organizers for the brake light clinic aim to reduce police involvement and negative police-community interactions across the board. The brake light clinic will be open from 10am through 3pm this Saturday, May 19. Pull on through and get your ride more pull-over proof.
Local print journalism: Last week, Buffalo News editor Mike Connelly sent an email to his staff outlining drastic and immediate changes to the newspaper, precipitated, Connelly wrote, by the News posting, in the first quarter of 2018, “a substantial loss – the company’s first quarterly loss in more than 40 years.” (Connelly’s email was first made public by UB professor Bruce Jackson in his weekly Buffalo Report email of news and commentary; it has since circulated widely on social media and local websites, and it’s published in its entirety below.) The host of changes to the paper include elimination of the Life & Arts, Next, and Home & Style sections, all in service of reducing the weekday editions from three sections to two. The Niagara Weekend section is gone, as well, along with the Western New York edition, a somewhat different presentation of the paper circulated in suburbs and outside Erie County. There will be staffing changes, as well, which Connelly outlined as part of “much more aggressively reducing legacy costs”: Some people will be let go from the news and production staffs, others will be reassigned or pick up new duties.
Since Connelly came to the News in 2012, the newsroom has diminished by perhaps 20 percent. Avergae weekday circulation has fallen by a third, to below 100,000; at its peak, well before Connelly’s time and the digital disruption that threatens print newspapers everywhere, the News’s weekday circulation exceeded 300,000. That decline, according to Connelly’s email to staff, has been attended by a loss in print advertising revenue: “Our print advertising this year is on track to be less than a third of what it was in 2006,” he wrote.
The week before sending this email, Connelly published a short piece in the News describing the impact of the Trump administration’s tariffs on Canadian newsprint, which were implemented last month. Not only had prices soared (The Public’s printing costs rose 33 percent overnight), but newsprint has become harder to source: Canadian firms are turning to clients outside the US to avoid the tariffs, and domestic producers are few and have never been able to meet domestic demand. That scarcity is especially problematic for the News, which contracts to print other publications, too, including the regional edition of the New York Times. Those contracts are profitable, while the decline of print advertising revenue makes the News’s principle product appear less and less so. Connelly concluded his email with this: “We are in a race. Can we change fast enough to create the new News before the old News fades? Together, let’s win the race.” (To which Jackson responds, “What race? There isn’t any race. The job is to tell the truth, as best you can. Nothing in Connelly’s memo addresses anything close to that.”) As much as we criticize the News, its reportage and its priorities, we offer this with not a hint of schadenfreude: The diminishment of the local daily is a huge threat to the region’s vitality and discourse.
Here’s Connelly’s email:
When Brian and I wrote to you in January, it was clear that 2018 promised to be a difficult year. It has turned out even worse than expected.
For the first quarter, The News had a substantial loss – the company’s first quarterly loss in more than 40 years.
Publisher Warren Colville and our colleagues on the business side are doing everything they can to grow revenue. The new positions for Brian Connolly and Shawn Buffum are part of a broad effort to turbocharge new business. We are doing more events, exploring whether they can become a revenue driver. And the Kids Day paper, which was filled with ads, is a great example of finding fresh ways to sell our time-honored products.
None of those efforts, however, are generating enough money fast enough to offset the loss of print advertising.
Like the horse and buggy and the typewriter, the newspaper is in an inevitable decline. But as long as we see ourselves in the news business and not the newspaper business, we have a clear path to a great future – albeit a future that is very different from our past. Getting there requires much more aggressively reducing legacy costs and much more aggressively reinventing our products, our coverage, our definition of news, the way we tell stories, the way we interact with readers and the very nature of our business.
These changes will be painful and difficult. We love the newspaper – and hundreds of thousands of people continue to read the newspaper – but we will alter the newspaper in ways that we wouldn’t have imagined even a year ago. As has happened so often in the news business during the past decade, we will say goodbye to valued colleagues. Most of us who remain will do different jobs or do our jobs differently.
It is important that you know that these changes are not limited to the newsroom. Across the company, we are working hard to reduce legacy costs. That ranges from eliminating high-level positions – The News no longer has a vice president for production or a managing editor, for example – to combining warehouses to retiring most newspaper sales boxes (they have become money-losers). More is in the works.
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The changes we will make in the newsroom and the newspaper:
Western New York edition. In April we eliminated the Western New York edition. We still deliver newspapers throughout the seven counties of Western New York, but we save money by eliminating a press stop and start.
TV Topics. Sometime in the next few weeks, TV Topics will stop being a part of the Sunday newspaper. For the shrinking number of readers who still want print television listings, we will partner with Tops to provide an expanded TV tab that will be distributed for free at Tops stores.
Niagara Weekend. The News once had seven daily zoned local news sections. Niagara Weekend is the last remaining vestige of zoning at The News. As far as I know, it is also one of the few remaining zoned sections in the country. Yesterday’s Niagara Weekend section was the last.
Three-section newspaper. By the end of May, we will eliminate the weekday features sections. The advice columns, comics and picture page will move inside the Region section. Taste and MoneySmart will survive as part of the Sunday newspaper (MoneySmart inside Sunday Business and Taste as part of Sunday Home & Style). But the other features fronts – Next, Life & Arts, Home & Style Friday – will go away.
The Gusto and Refresh tabs will continue on Thursday and Saturday, and we hope to create a daily Gusto Extra space inside the Region section. But the base daily newspaper will be three sections: A, Region and Sports/classified.
Print desk. The dramatic decline in print revenue – our print advertising this year is on track to be less than a third of what it was in 2006 – means we must spend less to produce print. For more than a decade, different companies have pursued very different ways to accomplish that. Most U.S. newspaper chains created copy editing and design centers, leaving only reporters, photographers and their editors in local newsrooms. In Scandinavia, companies deeply cut costs a decade ago through radical page templating.
I first heard about a print desk four years ago from a German editor, who was producing one of Germany’s national dailies with just 10 newsroom production people. We have already taken big steps toward a print desk. We have centralized copy editing, replaced most routine layout with templates and focused our editing time on the stories that deserve the most attention. That let us reduce the number of print production positions – through attrition and by moving people to assignments outside print production – from 34 to 20. But given the financial pressures, it isn’t enough. After careful, painful evaluation over many months, we have decided to:
Eliminate the print copy desk. Most local stories are already being edited by an assigning editor and the digital desk. We cannot afford another read.
Close the Region section at 7 p.m. The bulge in the snake – staffing up to cover peak times – is one of the biggest drivers of newsroom production costs. Most of Sports and the A section must be produced at night. That means the Region section must move out of nighttime production.
Streamline print design. The three-section newspaper eliminates some design work, and we will be making other changes to further reduce work.
With these changes, the new print desk will have fewer positions. Joe Giglia and Margaret Kenny are working with Guild leaders to manage the transition.
Listings. The digital disruption has changed the value of routine features that once were a core part of the newspaper. In the past few years, we have eliminated government calendars, most stock listings, shrunk daily TV listings from a page to a quarter page, shrunk TV Topics by 16 pages, eliminated Garden Notes and cut horse racing results and other sports agate. It isn’t enough. We will be making further reductions in listings and with that will eliminate some clerk positions and reduce hours for others.
Reporting. I will do almost anything to protect reporting and photography. In print’s heyday, newspapers bundled a host of features – weather and comics and puzzles and advice and want ads – that attracted readers even if they didn’t care about news. In the digital world, people don’t go to BuffaloNews.com for any of those. What we have to sell – the only thing we have to sell, so it has to be terrific – is local reporting and photography.
All of the steps listed above – changes to the newspaper, to print production and eliminating more listings – preserve reporting and photography jobs. But our financial situation is serious enough that we must also eliminate some reporting positions. Joe and Margaret are working with Guild leaders on the details.
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Reengineering the newspaper and newspaper production won’t make us successful. In every corner of the newsroom, we must reinvent our coverage.
This is as urgent as expense reductions. Twenty years after newspapers first built websites, it is clear that much of what we report for print doesn’t work in digital. With all the information in the world just a click away, what jobs do local readers need done? We have much to learn, but we know where to start.
Metrics for News. The Metrics for News data shows what engages readers and what doesn’t. Don’t be a slave to numbers, but everyone should use Metrics for News every day to inform decisions about what to cover and how to tell stories. Use the data to reinvent your news judgment. As Patrick Lakamp’s screen saver says, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.”
Enterprise. The Metrics for News data shouts one big conclusion: Enterprise is the best way to engage readers. Watchdog stories. Investigations. Narratives. Nowhere But The Buffalo News.
Franchise topics. “A little bit of everything” doesn’t work in digital. In the coming months, we will make another round of difficult decisions about beats to give up and coverage to expand.
New kinds of storytelling. Sometimes the key to engaging readers isn’t doing a different story, it’s telling the story through something other than a collection of paragraphs.
New publishing schedule. Every reporter and editor must find a way to bust the rhythm of the morning newspaper. Our digital audience is largest from early morning through lunch. Publishing at 6 p.m. is asking to be ignored.
Social. Less than a quarter of digital readers come in through the home screen. If you want people to see your story, build a large social following.
Interaction. One of the keys to a strong social following? Interact with users. We can’t just be a megaphone.
Speed. When we focus our energies, we are a marvel. But for us and most newspapers, decades as a monopoly sometimes dulls our sense of urgency. The digital world moves fast.
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It is easy to look at news organizations these days and be discouraged. The digital disruption has, over just a few years, ripped apart a 150-year-old business model. The Newspaper Next report more than a decade ago said it best: “We find the evidence overwhelming: This is change on a grand scale, driven by a fundamental transformation in the connection between humans and information. The social impact is likely to rival the advent of movable type and mass literacy.”
For The News to thrive in the digital age, we must get past discouragement and look at the Newspaper Next passage differently: Everything about it screams opportunity.
This is what our future looks like: News organizations just like us are persuading readers to pay for digital news. At an average of $10 a month, it takes 83,000 subscribers to cover the cost of our newsroom. The Boston Globe has 100,000 digital subscribers, the Minneapolis paper nearly 50,000. In a market of 1.1 million people and a diaspora of hundreds of thousands more, 83,000 isn’t a crazy number – if we make our products compelling to digital readers.
The newspaper advertising business, which for more than a century was the best way to connect buyers and sellers in any local market, must reinvent itself but with the same goal: Be the experts connecting local buyers and sellers. Thanks to online shopping, local businesses face just as big a disruption as we do. One of the greatest things we can do for our communities is to help local businesses with the digital marketing that gets them through the disruption.
We are in a race. Can we change fast enough to create the new News before the old News fades?
Together, let’s win the race.