The Cape Cod Times and its sister weekly, The Barnstable Patriot, are for sale. News Corp has put them on the block, after picking them up as part of the deal that saw the company acquire the Wall Street Journal from the Bancroft Family and Dow Jones.
I started my journalism career at the Cape Cod Times as a “special writer” the summer after graduating from college in 1980, a sad summer spent sorting out my father’s affairs after he died the March before in a car accident. The Times was a refuge for me, an incredibly rich world of facts and deadlines and mordant wit that proved to be just the antidote for a grieving 22-year old. I will always be indebted to Bill Briesky, Milton Moore, Peggy Eastman and Don Brichta for their patience and good humor in teaching me the rudiments of reporting.
A few weeks ago, while speaking to the Cape Cod Technology Council, someone asked me about the Times now that it was for sale. That was news to me. I hadn’t heard, but yes, it is true and ever since I heard the news I’ve occasionally thought what I would do if I owned a local paper in this parlous time of upheaval and transformation in the media world, one I suppose started the summer I worked at the Times when it was only a few months away from moving off of typewriters, scissors and rubber cement to one of the first computerized editorial systems. I take huge pride in having seen the very end of the analog era, of having literally performed “cut-and-paste”, and then hung on as the momentum began building towards the place where papers stand today, devoid of advertisers and readers, their staffs fleeing for shelter.
I believe a strong civil society needs a newspaper in some form: paper or digital or whatever. I am an idealist who clings to those Jeffersonian ideals of an independent fourth estate that informs the electorate, comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. I don’t believe in journalism schools and I don’t regard journalism as a profession but see it more as a craft. I applaud a world where anyone with the ambition can try to become a citizen journalist. I pay for good news. I can’t imagine living in a community without a definitive source of news. Without one the world will quickly become a darker, more ignorant place.
If I owned the Cape Cod Times I would do the following things:
- Stop printing it. I’d have the presses in Independence Park dismantled, placed on barges, and towed away and give them to a third-world country that needs a big honking press. Rip off the bandaid.
- Sell the trucks and fire the drivers. No press, no paper, no trucks, no drivers, no gas.
- Double down on local news. Put a reporter in every town on the Cape and Islands. Let them work from home, but get them as local as possible. It’s all about local and local is the only thing unique to the franchise. Not the AP wire. Not the Red Sox scores. But the local sports, the local planning board, the church socials and the bake sales. It’s local local local. The thing that has been weakest about the CCT in recent years is its local coverage at a time when it was the only defensible turf the paper stood on.
- Pay the staff a decent base salary with the usual performance modifiers based on traffic and comment engagement.
- Have reporters moderate their readers’ comments and engage with the mob directly.
- Provide a citizen’s blogging platform and use it as a farm system for full time talent to join the masthead. Extend the platform to any group, advertiser, or gadfly who wants it under a liberal acceptable use policy
- Launch a digital news radio station and go on the offensive
- Push harder on video. Eric Williams and CapeCast is the diamond in the rough I think.
And how would I pay for it all? Well, if wishes were fishes and all that ….
- Drop the paywall. I hate paywalls. The New York Times can get away with them, but the Cape Cod Times needs as many readers as it can get and charging the loyal readership is like penalizing an act of goodness.
- Local advertisers are already in bad shape thanks to eCommerce hammering local retailers. There are too many alternatives where they can spend their small ad budgets, so rates need to be slashed on display which are largely programmed buys via ad networks anyway. I’d kill display advertising to tell the truth. The banner is dead or dying.
- Bundle a SMB digital marketing service and re-sell it to the advertisers: Lexity for ad buys, Hubspot for digital marketing, etc.. Offer digital marketing services as a value-add to the advertisers and wean them from local radio (there’s is very little local TV on the Cape to worry about). SMBs are starving for help with digital.
- Restructure the rate card around sponsorships and give the advertisers ownership of a topic or section. Get away from run of site and give them some “adjacency” to the editorial
- Provide lead generation support to advertisers emphasizing one-time unique coupon redemption for attribution and ROI justification
That’s it. Who knows if it would succeed, but I am convinced an emphasis on local news/sports, digital radio and video, and a big commitment to SMB digital marketing services could carry the Times forward until the next big unforeseen disruption. What do I think will happen? Some private equity-backed community newspaper roll-up will probably buy the Times for a song and gut it on the altar of efficiency and centralized management.