This month, a former Kansas City Star executive, Mark Contreras, became chairman of the Newspaper Association of America, a trade association that represents the country’s largest daily newspapers. Since 2006, Contreras, 48, has been senior vice president for newspapers at Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps Co., where he oversees 28 daily and community newspapers.
Contreras worked at The Star for from 1989 to 1994, serving four years as metro circulation manager and one year as retail display advertising director.
In February, Contreras discussed various journalistic issues in a wide-ranging interview with Forbes magazine. Among other things, Contreras talked about the future of American newspapers and the deep staff cuts that many papers have made to keep from going out of business. Following are excerpts from that interview. (If you’d like to read the entire interview, here’s the link.)
Newspapers have suffered three straight years of falling ad revenue. Will that decline be halted in 2010?
The ad declines are becoming smaller on a year over year basis. Will we get back to flat numbers this year? I don’t know. We’re being cautious on our outlook. The visibility of what the next two quarters bring has never been murkier.
Why is that?
You have continued economic uncertainty in the stock market and the economies of Florida and California aren’t out of the woods yet. Until we see some true flatness we’re going to be cautious.
Colossal staff reductions, along with the fact that some newspapers are the last men standing in their respective markets, would seem to put some papers on a sound footing for a cyclical rebound. True?
When you consider the expense cuts we’ve made since 2009–from cuts in pension plans, salaries, 401(k) matches, plus reductions in the workforce–that’s a lot. It all helps, but only for a short time. Until you get stability in the top line, there’s no reason to pop any champagne bottles.
As newspapers have faltered, citizen journalism has rushed in. Does this brand of reporting play a role at Scripps?
There will always be a need for well-trained, relatively well-paid, professional journalists to populate the pages of our newspapers and Web sites. But that’s not to say they have to be the sole source of news gathering. In the past three years we’ve expanded the use of stringers and correspondents, mostly to grow the footprint of our local news coverage. We’ve gone from less than 5% of our news budgets devoted to stringers to close to 12% now. Readers understand when you have to make financial sacrifices. But if the only way you do it is by cutting heads in the newsroom and depriving readers of a healthy diet of news, that’s a path to nowhere. Even as advertising pressures have driven the number of pages down, we’ve tried to expand our local news.
What do you think the future holds for the wave of nonprofit, foundation-backed journalism experiments like the Bay Area News Project and Texas Tribune?
I’m on the board of Cincinnati Public Radio, which gives me some sense of what it takes to run a radio station just on public donations. It’s not easy. Maintaining this model takes years of generating local donations. I admire the ambitions of folks starting these ventures, but I think they’re going to find that the reality of financing them is much more difficult than they bargained for.
Michael Eisner (former chairman of the Walt Disney Co.) said recently that the old media is on a “death march” and that Web content is an “explosion ready to happen.” Hasn’t it already pretty well exploded? As a member of the old media, what’s your reaction?
Here are a couple of factoids: Audience is up. Our subscriber churn (turnover) has never been lower. Today we have the most stable circulation base we’ve ever had…Newspaper revenue in the 1940s used to be composed of 60% advertising, 40% circulation. In the decades after that, classified ad revenue ballooned. In 2006 it had gotten so out of whack that we drew 83% from advertising, 17% from circulation. We’re now returning to that 60/40 model. Circulation is a much more stable source of revenue. As of the third quarter of last year, all of our newspapers were profitable. That will probably hold for the fourth quarter, too.