The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released case studies of newspapers beating industry norms in revenue, either in digital or print. The following is a Q&A with the report’s author, Mark Jurkowitz, who spent months doing the research.

1. You say successful papers share some essential characteristics. What are they?

Each paper offered different lessons. But they shared three broad characteristics. One was strength of leadership, what (market researcher) Gordon Borrell calls a “clarity of vision.” Another was the desire and ability to substantially change the internal culture of the institution. We tend to

Mark Jurkowitz, Pew Research Center

Mark Jurkowitz, Pew Research Center

think of that as reconciling tensions between the digital and legacy cultures in the operation, and it often is. But in Naples, for example, culture change meant getting sales account executives comfortable with far more autonomy than they previously had. The last shared characteristic was a commitment to the editorial product, even in a time of reduced resources. At the Deseret News, where nearly 50% of the editorial staff lost their jobs a few years back, one might wonder about the commitment to content. But CEO Clark Gilbert believes that by refocusing his editorial mission around areas of family and faith, and by doing more in-depth and enterprise reporting around those topics, he has substantially improved the quality of the paper.

2. Do you also see some shared qualities in the top leaders at these papers, whatever their different personal styles?

It’s worth noting that the four men running the papers in our study are very different personalities—a Harvard trained business theorist like Clark Gilbert and a hard-nosed newspaper veteran like Mark Palmer at the Columbia Daily Herald could not be less alike. But I think they all share several key qualities. One is that they are willing to take risks that potentially had serious costs. They have not tinkered at the edges of their operation, they have made big bets. Perhaps more importantly, they have clearly communicated their vision and goals throughout the organization. The message has gotten across, sometimes despite initial resistance. In none of my visits, did I run into anyone who didn’t know what the program was.

3. What gets in the way of other papers and companies emulating these successes?

I’d say many factors play a role in whether a business innovation works, or is even tried. You start with corporate headquarters and the culture there and the support system for local properties. Then you look at the markets these papers serve. I think it’s clear that the Media Lab’s North Bay Area market is an asset, that resort community Naples is a favorable market for stronger print revenue and that a paper owned by the LDS Church might find a national or international like-minded audience. The toughest challenge, I believe, has been for the Columbia Daily Herald to dive into digital revenue streams in a community with relatively modest digital aptitude. Then, after the market, we get down to the quality of the leadership at these newspapers and the resources available to try to develop and implement new ideas.

And finally, there is the culture of the individual news organization itself. One of the interesting things that Gordon Borrell said, in discussing what happened at the Deseret News, is that even “really smart people running newspapers have difficulty wading through the politics and the change,” at their organizations. So you really do need to have a number of ducks lined up in a row to implement significant and successful innovation. If it were easier, the newspaper story would be happier one.

4. When you say these success stories all have “aggressive…risk taking leaders,” what does “risk taking” mean? That they are risking accelerating revenue declines if they fail? Or they’re sticking their necks out by creating a vision and being proven wrong? Something else? What’s the nature of the risk?

I think our publishers would say that sticking their necks out and being proved wrong was not a significant concern in an era of such fundamental economic challenge. In Naples, Dave Neill says flatly that the risk of not trying to innovate at that paper far outweighed any fear of failure. It is accurate to say that they all risked accelerating decline, but they also felt like there was no option but to take those risks. All four of these papers had suffered the kind of serious revenue hits in the last half of the last decade that serve to focus the mind. In Santa Rosa, for example, that not only meant asking the corporate parent, then the NY Times Co., for budget relief, it meant rewriting the business plan, which included the Media Lab. In Salt Lake City, it meant a fundamental overhaul of the legacy newspaper product. These were not half-steps or fiddling at the edges.

5. You also report that these papers shared “a commitment to improving the quality of the editorial product.” This might seem heretical, but why, if the revenue growth in digital is in new business ideas like digital consulting, does the quality of the journalism matter?

At each of these papers, the quality of the editorial product was viewed as central to the “brand.” In a world full of digital marketing competitors, the folks in Santa Rosa sell the Media Lab on the basis of their reputation and ability as a content provider. In Naples, the ambitious editorial Lighthouse Project was designed to put the paper in the center of a broader community conversation that will enhance its revenue prospects. In Salt Lake City, the fate of the legacy product, and the revenue it produces, hinges on a re-imagining of the editorial mission and the leaders there are now trying to enlarge the audience for that content with a new national edition and through a new syndication effort. In Columbia, where the 13-person newsroom just added an investigative type reporter from Detroit, the publisher says the quality of the paper is central to keeping the commercial “franchise.” All the publishers feel that way.

6. How important is mobile in these success stories? Even Google has lagged here—on mobile Google is an incumbent media tied to desktop search. How well positioned are newspapers to take advantage in the mobile space?

In conversations with newspaper executives over the past few years as we prepared this study and an earlier, March 2012 report on the search for new revenue models, it was clear that mobile traffic was growing rapidly. But once again, that seminal digital-era question of “how do we monetize those eyeballs?” reared its head. In that March 2012 report, which included data through the end of 2010, mobile revenue was accounting for only 1% of all the digital revenue at the papers we surveyed, so there is a long, long way to go. Newspaper officials acknowledge that, particularly when it comes to the phone, they are in a race with a number of competitors to be the vehicle for mobile advertising. And there’s certainly a growing consensus that the tablet and phone will be very different platforms that present different kinds of revenue opportunities. Almost everyone in the industry believes it is important to be in the mobile space, but the gold rush has not yet yielded many rich veins.

7. One paper you profile is small, a 12,000-circulation operation in what you call an economically depressed market. Many people would guess those factors would make digital innovation harder. How did they defy expectations? Small doesn’t mean more print centric?

The Columbia Daily Herald did quite well in a print friendly community before the recession kicked in four years ago and about two dozen local businesses and a GM plant closed, significantly impacting advertising revenue. That was about the time the paper really started accelerating the development of new revenue streams and at first, these were print business ideas. As recently as the beginning of 2011, for example, the Herald had virtually no digital revenue—only 1% of all its advertising dollars came from digital. In the last few years, and particularly in 2012, there was a full dive into digital innovation—including a metered paywall and a fledgling digital agency. Digital revenues are growing pretty fast at the paper –the goal is for them account for 15% of all dollars at the end of this year. And we selected Columbia as a case study because of their aggressive culture of experimentation. But publisher Mark Palmer, who is always wary about the staying power of new revenue streams—particularly digital ones—would tell you the jury is out on many of these innovations at this point.

8. You also report that “in communities where conditions are favorable, a substantial bet on print can still pay off?” What are those favorable conditions?

In Naples, as one knowledgeable source noted, the moral of the story really is: “don’t give up on print.” Naples is a Florida Gulf Coast resort community with a population that varies widely depending on the season. But generally speaking, it is a wealthy community with an older population where tourism and the service industry represent a major pillar of the local economy. Those factors all help to sustain print revenue to a degree you don’t always see elsewhere. Columbia, which is a small and not particularly digitally savvy city, is also friendlier to print than many other communities. The area I came from, Northeastern Pennsylvania, has traditionally been a strong print market, largely because of an aging population.

More generally, as Rick Edmonds noted in a recent column for Poynter, several new reports on the industry suggest that “there may be an extended economic shelf life for print.” In other words, the transition to digital may include a longer and more substantial role for print revenue than perhaps anticipated. Certainly, the problems in generating digital advertising revenue play a significant role in that thinking. But in at least three of the four papers we examined, the new business initiatives had a significant print component.

9. The experiments are relatively new, but from the time you spent with papers, what do you sense are the risks and advantages of papers eliminating a print edition on certain less profitable days and relying on print home only a few days a week?

This study doesn’t directly address that subject and none of the papers involved indicated they were contemplating reducing their frequency of publication. My best sense of this subject came from interviews we conducted about a year ago with executives of 13 newspaper companies that combined, included about 25% of the nation’s daily papers. One commonly heard prediction from those executives was we would start seeing a lot more three-day-a-week papers in the near future and the decision and subsequent protests in New Orleans certainly brought that subject to the top of industry consciousness. In theory, the business benefits to reducing the frequency of publication would be a significant cut in legacy costs while speeding along the transition to a digital business model. The risks include breaking the daily reading habit for your subscribers, who might then decide they can live without the paper entirely. And of course, there are significant questions about whether the cuts that accompany these moves will significantly weaken the quality of the content and the paper’s editorial brand. It will be interesting when enough data comes in from these reduced frequency experiments and we are better able to evaluate the pros and cons.

10. Finally, if I forced you to pick the most important single lesson you took away from the case studies of successful papers, what would be?

It may seem obvious but it’s that talent and leadership matter. If there were some magic formula that every newspaper could adapt, we’d have known about it long ago. So the difference between success and failure on the business side often boils to execution. And that execution is the product of the quality of the ideas and leadership inside the building. The digital agency at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat is not exactly a new revenue wrinkle—lots of newspapers are trying it. But the way it functions in Santa Rosa is different, the idea that the Media Lab would have its own showroom is different. And that’s a tribute to the folks who conceived and operationalized it. I saw a lot of that at the papers I visited.

Author’s disclosure: Mark is a past colleagues at Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

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