Tim Kennedy on The Campbell Conversations

Mar 30, 2014

Like other newspapers, The Syracuse Post Standard has struggled in recent years, and it has made significant changes in the way it delivers the news and how it tries to interact with the public.  In this edition of the Campbell Conversations, host Grant Reeher talks with Tim Kennedy, the person now in charge of navigating its course.  Find out why he sees a bright future of opportunities for the Syracuse Media Group, despite the hits the company has taken.

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations.  My guest today is Tim Kennedy – he’s been the President of the Syracuse Media Group, formerly known as the Post Standard, since 2012. His professional background is in the business side of digital media, and the news.  Tim, welcome to the program.

Tim Kennedy: Thank you Grant, great to be here.

GR: I wanted to start by getting a sense of the scale of some of the changes that the Post Standard has gone through in recent years, and I wanted to peg this to the first buy-out of the staff that happened in 2007.  What is the size of the full time reporting staff now compared with, say, right before that time?

TK: Well, I’ve only been on the ground here for a year, so the history going that far back is a little foreign to me.  Our staff currently is about around 100 when we look at sort of news gathering and digital operations.  Direct comparisons are also difficult because one of the things we did was, you mentioned the Post Standard, but Syracuse.com—which is a big part of the operation in Syracuse.com—is actually coming up on its 20th anniversary.  Hard to believe it’s been 20 years.  But we had to fold Syracuse.com, which was operating somewhat independently, into the operations at the Post Standard as we created this new business that we call the Syracuse Media Group. But, we’re around 100, sort of news gathering, reporting staff, digital operations type folks.

GR: You mentioned Syracuse.com being that old – this is something I wanted to ask you later but I’ll ask you now; somebody there at the paper who had the foresight to buy that domain name, Syracuse.com, and make that the paper’s [domain name], that was genius – who gets the credit for that, do you know??

TK: Well I believe the story goes that Stan Linhorst who is our director of Publications and long-time editor at the Post Standard was one of the folks who was charged with figuring out where we were going to go, I think they registered the domain name and operated it like many newspapers did 20 years ago as a little bit of an R& D project.

GR: Now maybe this is something that you can comment on more specifically because it does go into the more recent past, but it’s my impression as a reader of the paper, and I’ve been a reader of it for 20 years, but it’s my impression that the proportions of the content have changed a lot in recent years as well as the overall amount of the news that’s in it – and I’m referring primarily to the print version, or if I were to log on to Syracuse.com and look at the paper as a print version on those days, that you don’t deliver to subscribers.

TK: What we call the E-Replica, the E-Post Standard.

GR: So it’s my sense that that’s changed, so my question is what is the current proportion of the papers entire content that’s devoted to substantive local and state news stories that are written by your reporters? How has that changed in the last, say, five years of so?

TK: I don’t have hard data but my sense is especially in the past year the proportion of local news or regional news is higher as a proportion of total – especially if you look at the Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday home delivered newspapers.  That’s where we, from a print perspective, where we try to build and put together the best local package for those subscribers, for those print subscribers, as we can. But it’s all built upon really a different way of reporting, which has us looking at how do we create? How do we report the news with an eye toward the digital world, and digital platforms first?

GR: That’s interesting because that does run counter to my impression as a reader – it’s my sense that the other parts of the paper are larger relative to the substandard news content; the sports, the comics, the obituaries… It feels like it’s a shorter [news] read for me than it used to be.

TK: Well there is, again, comparing Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, when we made the change, and this is still true, the number of pages, and I think it follows the content on those days, there’s actually more content on the paper on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays than there was before we made the change.  And I think again, proportionally, when you look at local news, there’s more local news.

GR: And you’ve mentioned the online piece a couple of times.  That is an essential part of the change that the paper and company has been emphasizing and I wanted to explore some different aspects of that.  First, can you give me a brief description of the business model that informs the shift?

TK: Sure, well, it starts with the old business model, I think. And that’s the one that you, and many, are familiar with, where we had a lot of readers and they paid us, and we had advertising who wanted to reach those readers, and they paid, and that created a great position where we were able to hire and put a lot of reporters and journalists on staff, and it was a great business model for the better part of 160 or 170 years. 

And, if you look back, we were just talking about 20 years ago and Syracuse.com but if you look at the last 10 years, especially you know, since the advertising revenue for the US newspaper industry peaked somewhere around 2000, let’s say.  And, since then, advertising revenue for the US newspaper industry has declined about 60 percent, so the new business model really starts with the decline and the demise of the old business model.  I think where we are and the decisions that we made, started with that conclusion that the old business model wasn’t going to sustain us into the future. We could not bury our heads in the sand and wait for that world to return, it was not going to return. So we had to figure out how do we survive and thrive in the new world, in the new world that is digital.  Were on campus here at Syracuse and you just have to look at how the students behave, how they are getting news and information to understand that it is, today and tomorrow even more so, is going to be a digital world. So our new business model is based up on the idea that we need to deliver, in some ways, the same news and information that we’ve always provided, but we have to do that in to a world and a consumer that’s digital first. And so, how do we that? How do we attract that audience? And then build the same sorts of business model with advertising customers around that in the future.

And I think that in some ways, if you look at the technology as having sowed the seeds of decline for the print business, which it did in terms of just fragmenting customers and advertiser behavior, you could also kind of planted the seeds for the new future, which is if you look at the explosion of platforms and how news and content gets out there. One, it keeps expanding, it keeps getting more complex. And so, from an advertiser perspective especially, it creates an opportunity for us to go out and understand and explain to advertisers how both our platform and other platforms can solve problems for them. 

So, a big part of our business model is we sell services and we sell advertising, what you might think of as advertising, on platforms that aren’t Syracuse.com and that’s a big part and a growing part of our business. So we’ll go out and we’ll sell search, we’ll help customers figure out where they need to be with ads and things they could buy on their own, but it’s a complicated ecosystem and we have specialists and we have technology that can help them figure that out. So increasingly the new business model is a little bit of the old business model, and a lot of new things and new technologies and new expertise that we’re bringing to an increasingly complicated digital world.

GR: I’m Grant Reeher and I’m speaking with Tim Kennedy, President of the Syracuse Media Group, which publishes the Post Standard.  To follow up on that then, is it working? I mean, did the paper turn a profit last year?

TK: We are profitable and I think it is working.  It’s far too early, I mean on the one hand, you may say we’ve been at this for 20 years, but on the other hand, we’ve just started our transition of our business.  And, I think the early returns are quite good.  Our digital revenue is growing at a 30-plus percent rate.  Our audience continues to explode in terms of growth—February of this year was our best traffic month of all time.  We continue to find new ways to reach customers; whether it be through Twitter, Facebook and now pushing to go out and pulling them into our site. Our mobile traffic is exploding, and we’ve gotten some news in the past month – Scarborough which is a service which measures sort of like Nielsen ratings for TV, which measures readership for newspapers and newspaper websites, published their results, and Syracuse.com is the best-read newspaper website in the country, so the greatest percentage of adults in the Syracuse DMA [Designated Marketing Area], more adults in the Syracuse DMA read Syracuse.com on a weekly basis than any other metropolitan area in the country, and the Post Standard, the Sunday Post Standard, is the 4th best read Sunday newspaper in the county.

So, what I tell our folks is I think the Post Standard has been a tremendous newspaper for generations.  And, I think the latest results tell us that we’re on the right track, that the wheels have not fallen off and we should take pride on that.  But, as we know around here, you can be Number 1 one day, and you can fall out of the Number 1 ranks the next day, so I think we take it as a source of, “we’re on the right track, and we’re doing things the right way.”

GR: Well, you’re lucky that you don’t have the paper equivalent of Duke University in the same city, I think.  So you’ve got a little bit of an advantage there.

I do want to go back in the past and ask this , because this is something that I think taps into a lot of different issues that are important to the city, and I know it’s something that the people I’ve talked to have mentioned.  I believe it was 2002, that the Post Standard opened the large, expanded new printing press and added that to the downtown office at 1 Clinton Square.  Since then, and part of this new change, is that the reporters have been moved to a smaller space that features open work space.  I understand that reporters share desks and work more at home, and you try to get them to work more in the field.  So one question I wanted to ask you is, outside of the press now, what is going on with all of those offices at 1 Clinton Square?  Are they largely vacant?

TK: The space is, well we moved, we opened up the new facility on the corner of Warren and Fayette and that’s 27,000 square feet, significant investment by the company and we moved all the reporting staff, news gathering staff, all our marketing people and our sales people over there, and that is really the crux of the Syracuse Media Group people.  And, what we did, of course that’s not everybody who works for the enterprise—we have our what we call our central services operation, which is still at Clinton square, and that’s about 150 – 170 people, and we have of course the printing press as you mentioned. Our circulation and distribution people, our IT folks, finance, accounting, and so they’re there, and we are right now in the middle of a re-design and rebuild of their work space on the second floor there at Clinton Square.  We will open up, I think we’ll have about 40,000 square feet in the building and we’re going to go out and market that space.  There’s been terrific interest in the community in what we’re going to do there, and we’re pretty close to getting into that path where we can begin to talk to people about renting or other things. So, Clinton Square is one, a great location. It’s a prominent place in the city of Syracuse, quite important for the city, for us. We’ve got a big printing facility there that’s not going anywhere, and we’re going to do the right thing.

GR: And so, does the management, does the company look back at that moment in 2002 and think, well, you know, maybe we didn’t quite see the future, that was a mistake we made? In that moment of time, given where things were going?

TK: I don’t think so, I think you know, in 2002, again I wasn’t here but we were in need of an upgrade.  We bought and invested in an incredible press that gives us and for years is recognized as one of the best reproduced newspapers in the country.  And we’re going to print papers for a long, long time, Grant.  So we’ll continue to see the return on that investment.  And the other thing that we can do now, and we do do, is we can now print other products and other people’s newspapers, if you will.  And we’re doing more of that, we are out talking to folks all the time.  Having, in the newspaper business, a press that’s new in 2002, is pretty new.  And so, from a capability standpoint we bring a lot to that table, that you’ve got to go pretty far to find a press that modern.

GR: My guest is Tim Kennedy.  He’s the President of Syracuse Media Group, which publishes the Post Standard.  And he’s held this position since 2012. 

I want to continue with one last question looking back, and it’s something that always perplexed me.  I would have thought that when the paper starting having this round of deep financial problems—that you’ve reacted to by creating this new model—I would have thought that the Newhouse family would have come in and shored up the paper, given that the Newhouse School is here, the paper’s award winning history, and [given] I believe the really distinctive piece of history for that family’s investment in papers, that Syracuse means to them. 

Why didn’t that happen?

TK: Well, I’d argue that it did happen.  I think if by investing in print and doubling down on the old business model, we clearly didn’t do that.  But I think the family and the leadership looked at the future and didn’t look at the future with an eye toward, what did we used to be, but what do we need to be in order to not only be successful, but survive and thrive in 10 years? 

And I like to say it’s hard to see where the business goes in the next six months, because there’s so much transition and so much change, and the digital world moves so quickly.  But if you think about what we do at its core in 10 years, the print world or the print product that you were referring to will be a smaller part in 10 years of that future, and if we don’t begin to build a digital future, we won’t have a future. And so, I would argue that the family and again the leadership looked at this the right way and said we need to invest in people, in technology, and in what we do for a largely if not entirely digital future.  Looking at our business from a “where do we need to be in 10 years?”

GR: I do want to push you on this because it’s one thing to say this from a business perspective, but the paper does have a unique and central role for the public and civic life of the city and—correct me if I’m wrong—but in the rounds of the buy-outs you did lose a lot of reporters whose beats were things concerned with community and politics and public affairs in the city.  You lost a lot of folks, and so it’s hard for me to see in that regard, that this is an improvement.

TK: Well, we’ve hired 50 people, we’ve got a lot of people on staff.  We’ve done a lot of great journalism.  You can point to the people, and you can point to the journalism.  I think we have done a number of tremendous stories in the past year, and we’ve won 18 awards in the New York Associated Press competition in the past year.  Some of those were new folks, some of those were folks that have been with the paper a long time.

But, we have done, whether it is the Lockheed Martin story that we broke, where Lockheed was working on a plan to shut down, the largest private employer in Syracuse. We broke that story, it was an anonymous tip – came to us.  We had to do old fashioned journalism and find and make that story happen.  And as a result of the work that we did, Senator Schumer got involved and the company promised that they would keep the plant and not shut it down for a year. So that’s old fashioned journalism and that was a great story.  The story we’ve had recently about the [Carrier] Dome, or the Dome replacement:  Again, how we broke that story, how fast that story broke, was something that we did.  And we’ve had a series of stories like that. 

So there are folks that want to judge the journalism based up on the people who are either here or not here—I tend to look at what stories are we doing?  And, are those stories impactful?  And, are we doing them the right way to reach an audience in this sort of new age?

GR: I had some more questions about the online portions of the paper.  Does this new model affect how you choose stories?

TK: It does.  We have, in some sense, we have and we’ve improved the data that we get about stories that people are reading.  And we look at that, and we say “okay, well what does that tell us about working that story more?” Or what doesn’t it? So there’s always been news judgment and editors who have looked at the community, looked at the sourcing of stories, looked at the maturity of the story and decided whether we should work it hard or whether we should call it a day, or whether we need to get that to the front page.  We still do that.

GR: And so, from an online perspective then, does that give you metrics to decide whether a story’s been successful, how long you feature it, how much you feature it? Do you look at the feedback coming from the Syracuse.com traffic and do that?

TK:  We do a couple things.  One, when we’re looking at the website, we’ll look at what people are reading and if we see stories are popular, we’ll promote those stories and we’ll look to advance those kinds of stories.  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t cover, when Governor Cuomo has his State of the State, or he releases his budget, it doesn’t mean that we don’t cover those events, we don’t do them live, even though they don’t draw a lot of traffic.  And, it doesn’t mean that we don’t do stories and series.

We have a yearlong series we’re doing now, called “What Works,” where we’re looking into stories of sort of, regular people that are making a difference in the community – that are solving hard problems in our community and it’s stories that haven’t been told before.  And, you know, we’re doing that because at the end of the day, we think that when we’re at our best, we make the community a better place.  And we try to live up to that, and I think “What Works” is not generating a ton of traffic, it doesn’t ring up the digital metrics of a Syracuse University basketball game, but that doesn’t mean we don’t do it.

GR: In case you’ve just joined us you’re listening to the Campbell Conversations and I’m talking with Syracuse Media Group’s President, Tim Kennedy. The group publishes the Post Standard. Well, more about the online portion of the paper, and this is something that you know always gets discussed when the topic of Syracuse.com comes up, and that’s the comments.  The anonymous nature of the comments have always been an issue, I think, for folks in the community.  I just visited the site this morning and found a lot that were pretty bad.  Some other papers and sites have changed that anonymous feature and made people put their real names to things.  Why have you not done that?

TK: Well, I think a couple things.  One, it’s not as though we demand that the site be anonymous, right?  So if you want to disclose your own name like I do, and many folks do, you put your name in and you put your User Name in and it could be you. And you can sign up through Facebook and you can sign up through a number of other verified services, if you will.  So, it doesn’t have to be anonymous.

GR: No, but it can be and that’s the thing.

TK: And it largely is, agreed.  I think the other thing that you hear is, “well why don’t you verify?”  Well, many of the verification systems again, I think you’ll find other media companies that use, say Facebook, and so you can sign in on Facebook and I can pull a number of examples of dialogue where people disclose who they are through their Facebook identity, that are every bit as offensive as some of the comments that come through our anonymous comments.  So, you know I think it’s a new area. 

At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is engage the community in a new way that you frankly couldn’t before in a print, one-way conversation.  And we’re learning through that.  So what we’ve found, and I think the answer is, we’re improving the technology.  So we’re working on a new commenting platform now, and that’ll help us.  So I think the answer is going to be, the way we improve, and we want to improve the tone and the quality of that comment.  Because, when it’s good, I mean people can always go and point out the poor commenting and the offensive commenting, and there’s no doubt about that.  But when it’s good, and there’s plenty of time where that commenting is excellent, it’s good, and it adds value to stories, it adds value to the dialogue and the community, and we’d like to see more of that.

So somewhere between improving the technology to allow us to weed out more of the offensive comments, and the other thing that we’re doing is, where we see reporters dive into the comments and respond—and we’re quicker to move and delete comments that don’t abide by our commenting policy—we see that the tone of that conversation improved dramatically.  And I can tell you that from personal experience.  I mean, the stories where either I’m a part of or quoted or have to do with the business of the paper and Syracuse.com, I’ll dive in and talk to people, and where I don’t agree, I’ll let people know, and I think where we see that kind of engagement we see the quality improve in that discussion.  So, it is uncomfortable, it is uncomfortable for many people.  It’s uncomfortable for us. But we want to continue again, to try to improve how we engage the community there. How we can use technology to improve that dialogue, and we’d like to see that improve as opposed to abandoning that commentary altogether.

GR: How many comments do you typically receive, say in a week?

TK: Uh, you know, a lot. We’re beginning to comb and pull the data to look at it.

GR: Somebody must be counting that though.  You must know.

TK: We are beginning to pull that, the number, I just forget what it is off the top off my head. It’s both the number, but I think what we also want to look at is the depth of the comments.  So who’s commenting, and related to the quality issues, who’s being deleted? Are there ways that we can better, really enforce our own rules, when it comes to commenting?

GR: Let me try this a different way, then.  Approximately how many unique individuals in the community are producing the comments? It’s obviously going to be a smaller number, so what’s the size?

TK: Well there are thousands of users that are commenting, there are quite a bit. 

GR: One of the issues, and I know this is an issue for any entity that uses this online [format], is that you had a newspaper that had the Sunday circulations around 200,000 at one point, so what’s the number of unique individuals that are now driving this conversation? I’ve got to imagine it’s much smaller than that.

TK: If you’re talking about pages and how audiences are related, which would relate to circulation size, we’ve expanded our audience.  We did 39 million page views, 3 million unique visitors – somewhere around there.  And we reach, on a weekly basis—somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of adults in Syracuse will go to Syracuse.com in any given week. So, it’s a big number, and those folks are coming maybe once, maybe they’re coming for sports.  Maybe they’re engaging more frequently, you know we’re getting smarter about understanding how customers are coming to us both on a desktop, and in a mobile environment which is exploding.  How they’re reading us – we just rolled out a new mobile app and how they’re using that app, how engaged they are with us there.  And of course, all those platforms allow for different levels of commenting.

GR: Well let me get to the 3 questions.  First, what’s the title of the chapter of life you’re currently living?

TK: The chapter is, “It All Lines Up.”  And, I’ve been in the media business for about 20 years.  I’ve evolved my background from [that of] a financial business into being a leader of an organization, I’ve seen the decline of the newspaper industry and lived it, somewhat painfully.  And I think that we’re on the cusp of breaking through, where there is a new business model out there, and there is a bright digital future for local media organizations, local newspapers like ours.  And so, I’m here because I want to see it through.

GR: Second, what’s your worst trait?

TK: My worst trait is, and one I’ve worked hardest at is, being organized. I attributed it to my Irish descent where I’m somewhat disorganized and tend to be distracted easily and so as a result I sort of work hard to make sure that I can stay focused and focus all the folks that work for me and surround me in my life.

GR: And finally, what professional or creative achievement in your life so far has surprised you the most?

TK: I think my ability to adapt to change. I think I didn’t start out that way and somewhat was forced into that, but I’ve become a student of change, both personal change and organizational change, and I’m not sure when I set out on my career as an undergrad that I would have envisioned that.

GR: That was Tim Kennedy, Tim thanks so much for talking with me

TK: Thank you Grant, I enjoyed it.