Four Years Later: Sciacca Talks Boston Herald’s Success
Newspapers are in peril: decreased advertising sales, print circulation, newsroom staffing, homepage traffic and revenue. For journalists, PR professionals or anyone in the industry, this is not news. With mentions perhaps as ubiquitous as that of Beyoncé, kale or twerking, all players are familiar with the state of the industry by now. Stories like the decline of The Orange County Register’s grand print experiment are quite familiar to those keeping tabs.
But maybe newspapers don’t have to go down that way.
Joe Sciacca, editor-in-chief of the Boston Herald and a near four-decade veteran of the newspaper industry, is one editor who will not go down without putting up a fight, perfectly apropos of the Herald’s rep as a paper crusading for social justice just as the ideal demands. With four years as top editor under his (figurative) press fedora, Sciacca reflected on the Herald’s accomplishments during that time. “As news organizations grapple with tighter resources and look for new revenue streams, the Herald is an example of a news organization that is not standing still,” he proclaimed.
During his 31-year tenure with Beantown’s local print crusader, Sciacca has held the roles of political reporter, city hall bureau chief, state house bureau chief, investigative team leader, political editor and columnist, deputy managing editor for news and managing editor for content, before advancing to editor in chief in April 2010.
Even with such an extensive legacy behind him, Sciacca has added to it substantially while in the top position at the Herald. Under his leadership, the paper pioneered the concept of an in-house internet radio station, Boston Herald Internet Radio, which earned a 2013 Webby Award for achievement in radio. The paper also secured two Emmys this year for video coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and earned the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, also in recognition of the Herald’s Marathon bombing coverage.
Perhaps most infectious in Sciacca’s summation of the Herald’s status quo is his optimistic view of the challenges at hand. While he admits that there is no industry more tested today than newspapers, he almost seems to relish the opportunities for change presented by that very challenge.
“I don’t consider myself a newspaper editor, I consider myself the leader of a news organization that creates high-quality original content for use across all platforms – print, web and broadcast. In the past four years, I think I’ve held true to that,” he explained.
What Sciacca understands is that a changing industry forces all the players to change along with it. Whether it’s a large scale initiative like the internet radio station or new ideas the Herald’s rotating cast of interns might introduce, necessity is the mother of reinvention. “We’ve had to create this environment where there’s new content being created all the time. We’re really a laboratory for the media in transition,” he said. “It’s as much about changing the culture of a newsroom as it is about changing the platforms in which we deliver the content.”
As Caroline Little, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America recently noted in a post for Poynter.org, “It is our responsibility to champion the positives and celebrate the successes.” Perhaps resolution isn’t as simple as a shift in perspective, but it’s inarguably a necessary first step. Sciacca is not party to the perspective of newspapers in decline, as some editors might be. “We know that while print circulation is declining, we probably have the most informed American public, the most engaged news consumer that we’ve ever had,” Sciacca said. “How do we reach that audience and provide content they can make part of their daily conversation?”
To enable that conversation, multimedia is Sciacca’s primary initiative. While he does not undervalue the power of print, noting its “enduring quality,” he doesn’t deny the ability of other media, particularly radio, to offer “a sense of urgency and immediacy you can’t get from print.”
While only a year old, the initiative has already garnered recognition and accolades from radio experts. Michael Harrison of Talkers recently toured the Herald newsroom and noted the Herald’s pioneering efforts in internet radio proving it to be a new frontier for journalism, especially once internet radio is accessible on car dashboards.
Another recent example Sciacca cites is Rand Paul’s visit to the Herald newsroom. The Herald conducted a radio interview, simultaneously breaking news online, later adding video and finally including a print interview the next morning. “We had a single newsmaker come through and break news across all of our platforms,” he said. “It was true multimedia and high-quality original content, holding true to our goals.”
In addition to content integration, exploring new platforms and forward thinking, Sciaccia explained the essential need to emphasize visuals, as audiences exceedingly want their stories told this way or at least to carry a strong visual component. The question Sciacca poses on capturing multimedia in the newsroom is simple, but perhaps a little worrisome to some newspaper vets.
“It’s almost blasphemy in journalism to say this, but the question I usually pose is ‘Do you think a six-second Vine video can have more global impact than a six-month print investigative piece that takes up six broadsheet pages of print?’ If journalism is all about impact, about positive change, about telling stories that have power and are compelling, then you can’t simply look at Vine as being some fad among teenagers,” Sciacca explained.
Beyond multimedia and viewpoint, Sciacca also said a need for content partnerships is important in today’s industry, whether it be a reader contributing social media content or a local expert covering their field of expertise. In lieu of a fashion writer, local fashion designer Gretta Monahan covers Fashion Week for the Herald. Rather than hiring a food writer, local chef Lydia Shire and restaurateur Roger Berkowitz of Legal Sea Foods contributes recipes and food-related content to the Herald.
Sciacca also recognizes the need to work with PR professionals. “I’m not one of those people who says ‘I get a million pitches a day and I’ll read the emails next month.’ I think it’s important for editors and reporters to listen to what’s out there. If there’s great content for my readers, I want that content. Whether it’s from a reader, a PR spokesperson, whoever it might be,” he offered.
However, he does find the evolution of the modern newsroom directly impacts the PR industry and how stories get covered. Rather than simply sending a press release, Sciacca recommends pitching a client specifically for certain media, whether a radio platform, internet chat, web video or even a print Q&A. “The challenge for everybody is to look at multiple platforms in terms of getting messages out now. It’s all converging into multimedia and you can tell your story across all those platforms,” he said.
Perhaps most importantly, Sciacca recommends all in the media industry simply recognize their strengths, rather than undoing a legacy by changing the goal. He mentioned the Herald’s identity as a watchdog paper, citing recent special reports on prescription medication, transparency of government at the Massachusetts Beacon Hill State House and examining Boston’s murder rate. He also pointed out the Herald’s sports coverage, which has retained readers for many years. “Understand what your brand is, enhance and expand upon it through multimedia efforts,” he said. “Do the things we’ve always done, but do them better.”
To put it simply, the affable editor asks, “How can we be bold?”
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