Formula for Success: What do profitable newspapers have in common?

AuthorMateos, Evelyn

Success can be measured in many ways. On most occasions, it's measured by a number. In the newspaper industry, success perhaps means having the largest circulation or the most page views. Maybe those numbers mean little to readers who instead measure how successful a newspaper is by how it delivers important news to them.

However we might measure success, it seems that successful newspapers do have several things in common. Read on to find out the ingredients.

A Compelling Mission

Today, a mission statement might sound like a sentiment of the past--and in fact, it was in the late 19th and early 20th century that newspapers began adopting these kinds of slogans, according to 'The Rise of New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts," a report by Penelope Muse Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina.

However, Thomas Kent, the former standards editor of the Associated Press, shared with Poynter that a mission statement is important for any news operation.

"A published mission statement makes the editors' criteria more transparent to audiences," he said, "... a mission statement, especially for a local news outlet, can go much farther. It can identify very specific subjects of coverage, and define the publication's top values."

Many newsrooms are proud to share their mission statements, such as the Washington Post's "Democracy Dies in Darkness," which it adopted in 2017. The catchy slogan is concise enough to fit on a t-shirt--and perfect for building a brand and marketing purposes. Earlier this year, the Post released its first Super Bowl commercial that put emphasis on the motto.

Likewise, the New York Times, whose mission statement is "We seek the truth and help people understand the world," put out two commercials last fall focused on that message. One highlighted an investigative report into the separation of families at the border and the other was a report into the Trump family tax schemes. Both ads ended with the words, "The truth is worth the wait."

Abernathy makes it clear to E&P that before any organization sets out to accomplish (or market) anything, they must first have a mission--a compelling reason to exist.

According to her research, there has recently been an abundance of private equity funds, hedge funds and other types of investment partnerships that have bought and now manage newspapers. Unfortunately, their main mission tends to be making a profit.

"These new owners are very different from the newspaper publishers that preceded them. For the most part they lack journalism experience or the sense of civic mission traditionally embraced by publishers and editors," Abernathy wrote in her report.

Abernathy's research shows how important local news is in every community--and it begins with the mission. It also shows that when the mission is all about money, investors operate with a "short-term, earnings-first focus" and they are prepared to rid of any holdings (including newspapers and reporters) that fail to produce what they deem an adequate profit--ultimately leading to news deserts.

Strong Leadership

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