… It is my utter conviction that newspapers are a business and, since their production is a team process, no department can be immune from the fact. They are expensive to equip and run, and the only way to ensure their future is to make a healthy profit. For us that means an overall 20 percent profit margin. Individual titles vary in performance and at The Globe and Mail in Canada, which is classified as a national paper with a more expensive editorial structure than our other papers, the margin is intentionally less than 15 percent. Shareholders have to get a good return on their investment, and we do not want them to feel they could do better putting their funds elsewhere.
The only alternative to a healthy profit margin is subsidies from the government or other agencies, and what would that do to our independence?
Newsrooms cannot hold themselves apart from these realities. Whether they like it or not they are not immune from the pressures of the business world. Our newspapers have to compete for their audience. That means our editorial approach has to be relevant, interesting and connective with readers.… Circulation trends are the only worthwhile yardstick of the collective effort of a newsroom in my view. The thoughts of journalist colleagues or some out-of-touch academic or self-styled pundit are of little relevance.
Thomson Newspapers has recognized the importance of growing circulation through a team approach by setting up the first corporate reader marketing department in the industry. In February, we held the first joint conference of editors and circulators (preceded by them swapping jobs for a while so each could understand the other’s problems).… More recent efforts include Reader Inc., a major company-wide readership development program in which editorial, circulation and reader marketing staff work together to create ways of increasing and retaining our newspapers’ audience. Team investigations examine specific issues such as how to attract women readers, how to make our readership more diverse, and how to engage communities interactively. And our Readership Leadership program involves everyone on our staffs, from trainee reporters to publishers, to figure out new and better ways to produce our newspapers and market them. We also have our own editorial training center where entry-level reporters learn about both the business and editorial aspects of this profession.
We face many issues in the market. People have less time these days. The choice of media is growing all the time. Readers’ definitions of news are broader than those of journalists.…
In the face of these issues, what do we have? Many journalists don’t see a need to connect to readers or don’t want to connect. Some appear to have a bigger desire to save the world than report issues which really touch local people. There is a traditional arrogance in some newsrooms that journalists always know best. Training often seems to me to be an academic exercise conducted in ivory towers. Our company journalism training school in the United Kingdom included a significant marketing module in its syllabus. Does this always happen in the United States?
The ultimate scenario if we do not connect with readers is that they will turn their backs on us and turn instead to higher-utility, more entertaining and connecting media. We already see this with TV which has news of less quantity and quality yet satisfies many people.
We just have to be businesslike in our approach, i.e., market sensitive. No one is immune from this. To do anything else is to be like ostriches and stick our heads in the sand.
Stuart Garner is President and Chief Executive Officer of Thomson Newspapers. These remarks are excerpted from a letter he wrote for delivery at a public forum sponsored by the Committee of Concerned Journalists and Harvard University on May 22, 1998, and were updated in June of 1999.