How does a daily newspaper with a storied history and stellar reporting chops cope with a tough advertising and circulation environment? Become The Economist of local newspapers, says Jim Moroney, publisher and chief executive of the Dallas Morning News. Well, maybe not exactly like the weekly business magazine with delightful obituaries, gobs of highbrow politics and arts coverage and letters to the editor from apoplectic ministers of authoritarian nations. What Dallas wants is the audience of enlightened, educated and engaged readers The Economist attracts (and perhaps the sky-high cover price the magazine commands, too).
“Go local” has long been a mantra among many critics of the news media. Stop competing on the content that the web has commoditized and focus on what local newspapers, and only local newspapers, do well: City Hall, cops, courts, schools, the shoe-leather reporting that requires an actual newsroom of hard-working reporters and grizzled veteran editors. That means ditching foreign news, Washington politics, book reviews, and the rest.
So why hasn’t every newspaper in America embraced that view? Because it has two big flaws: it ignores what readers and advertisers want and it doesn’t work online, where visitors are way more likely to be fly-bys who came in via Google or Yahoo than concerned citizens and members of the League of Women Voters. Editors (the ones closest to the readers) know that foreign news still sells, especially if there’s a local connection to a story everyone’s talking about, like this article in The Oklahoman about the Kony 2012 phenomenon.
Moroney, speaking at a symposium on online journalism this week seems to agree with that view in a talk titled “Becoming The Economist of Metro Newspapers and the Pursuit of the Tablet Audience.” He says DMN is bailing on mass appeal in favor of an “intelligent” audience that’s thirsty for top-notch reporting and analysis about their community. That’s worth noting since many newspapers have focused more on the masses with little league coverage and less on the “intelligent” stuff. A shift in emphasis from the web to tablets and mobile is simply an acknowledgment that the former isn’t a great fit for some audiences.
Could it work? Moroney says he can no longer sell undifferentiated content that readers can find across the Internet. Newspapers need reporters, columnists and subject matter experts, and context is more important than who/what/where/when today. And he notes that the DMN has the third-highest subscription price among dailies in the U.S. (behind The New York Times and the Boston Globe) so there’s stickiness with local readers. He says he wants to hire journalists who challenge the newspaper to be better. It’s not the first time a newspaper exec has said that to journalists, but it may be the first time someone has really meant it.
For the record, here’s how DMN stacks up against The Economist:
Dallas Morning News
Circulation 409,642 (weekdays)
Cover price $1.00
Circulation 1,487,010 (weekly)
“Texas’ Leading Newspaper”—Dallas Morning News To “take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”—The Economist
Out-of-context line from recent letter to the editor:
As a taxpayer, I do not choose to support your political agenda.—Dallas Morning News Today, the Somali shilling is a commodity money.—The Economist