Syracuse makes digital Advance-ment

We have seen the newspaper industry’s future and the future is…Harrisburg? New Orleans? Birmingham? Syracuse?

Really?

Well that’s what the executives at Advance Publications would lead us to believe as yet another daily newspaper, the Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y., has followed several of its fellow Advance newspapers and gone to a digital-first business model with a home-delivered print edition just three times a week.

The Post-Standard joins the Patriot News in Harrisburg, Pa., the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Birmingham (Ala.) News, the Huntsville (Ala.) Times, the Press-Register in Mobile, Ala., as well as a host of other Advance Publication dailies in Michigan, as part of this model. None provide a home-delivered print edition more than four times a week.

The leadership at Syracuse Media Group, which owns and runs both the Post-Standard and Syracuse.com, is confident in this new business model, but points out it is not giving up on print altogether. “We have no plans to end print, and I believe print will continue to be strong well into the future,” Tim Kennedy, Syracuse Media Group’s president, said in a live chat on Syracuse.com on Monday. “We plan to invest in our digital capabilities and maintain a strong print platform. But there is no question that we must be successful in an increasingly digital world in order to survive. So change was necessary. We believe deeply in our mission here but ultimately, consumers (and advertiser economics) will determine the success of each platform.”

So how does this model work?

On Monday, the Post-Standard, a daily newspaper for nearly two centuries, didn’t print an edition for home delivery. From here on out the Post-Standard will print a home-delivered edition on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. The other four days a smaller version of the paper, expected to be 16 pages, will be printed for newsstand sales, but only in Onondaga County. Seven days a week, subscribers will have access to the electronic version of the Post-Standard.

“The e-edition is what we call the e-Post Standard and it is the exact replica of the printed paper,” Kennedy said. “It is published in the AM, same as the paper. You can turn pages just like a printed paper. And you can do this from a desktop computer or iPad tablet. [Meanwhile] the content on Syracuse.com is dynamic and changes 24/7.”

Kennedy and the folks at Syracuse Media Group are excited about their new venture and believe it is the wave of the future. The rest of the newspaper industry, however, seems to be a little more cautious.

The devil is in the details

“I think at this stage it is just one company trying this model, as opposed to an industry-wide trend,” said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute. “There are a couple of other companies that have done something similar, the Journal Register Company comes to mind, and several others I know are thinking about it. Many believe this may happen more in the next few years, but we just have to wait and see.”

Edmonds pointed out advertising revenue is the one thing that could be holding back other media groups from going digital first. He said nearly 85 percent of advertising revenue comes from print. Meanwhile, digital advertising growth has been slow, but probably will “come along sooner or later.”

There are always financial repercussions when a business changes its model. Unfortunately, the Post-Standard has laid off  115 of its 415 employees due to its digital first initiative. Syracuse Media Group plans to hire at least 60 employees in order to build up its Syracuse.com staff. The company will also enjoy a change in venue. Syracuse Media Group will move from the Post-Standard offices at Clinton Square a few blocks south to Warren and Fayette streets, which are closer to the heart of downtown Syracuse.

According to a story on Syracuse.com, the moving of the offices is no coincidence:

“With tall windowed offices that meet the community at street level to invite closer engagement, with dozens of apartments on the floors above our offices, we join the urban revival where it’s happening and add our renewed energies to it. Open seating and state-of-the-art media tools will encourage and enable us to meet and serve readers and advertisers as they change information habits in a digital age.”

PR: adjusting to digital

As Syracuse Media Group continues to push the digital side of its news reporting, how will that affect PR professionals in Central New York? Crystal Smith, director of integrated media for public relations at Strategic Communications LLC in Syracuse, believes she and her PR brethren will need to make some adjustments.

“The changes to the business model at Syracuse Media Group mean that those in the public relations profession will need to meet a whole bunch of new people and understand some unconventional roles,” said Smith, who also serves as president of the Central New York chapter of PRSA. “[PR professionals need to] determine whether they want to prepare a story for the digital edition to get news out now in a shareable format, or prepare a story for print to possibly capture more attention and make a bigger impact. Our content, and our timing, will be different for digital stories vs. print stories.”

Smith pointed out her approach to pitching Syracuse Media Group will change. She plans to contact “content curators” to learn more about their roles at the Post-Standard and Syracuse.com. She added  the new digital-first publications are going to force PR professionals to keep digital media sources open and “have key messages prepared and pre-approved and be ready to share a news alert, announcement or statement quickly. Gone are the days of having days or weeks for an approval process.”

Looking ahead

The best way to predict the future in Syracuse is to look at the past and the newspapers in New Orleans, Alabama, Pennsylvania and Michigan, which are making big strides. In an open letter to readers on Nola.com, Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss claimed the paper is doing much better than it was before it went digital first:

“Average paid circulation is up both daily and Sunday for October and November 2012, the two most recent months since the change to the three-day print model, as compared to the average paid daily and Sunday circulation for September 2012, the most recent month before the change. This does not include any unpaid sample copies delivered during this period to allow former subscribers who cancelled before Oct. 1 to see what the redesigned newspaper would look like. Meanwhile, NOLA.com’s audience has continued to grow. In 2012, 41 million viewers came to NOLA.com, 7 million more viewers than in 2011.”

Obviously Syracuse Media Group hopes to see a similar movement in Central New York. Can we expect Advance Publications’ flagship newspapers the (Newark) Star-Ledger, The Oregonian or the Plain Dealer in Cleveland to follow suit? “I don’t know what the other markets are planning to do,” Kennedy said. “We believe here (in Syracuse) that the model is the right approach going forward. Given the need to focus on the digital growth, we (feel) we must focus there.”

Stay tuned.

–David Coates