An evangelist for newspapers

By Rem Rieder, USA Today

WASHINGTON — In her hilarious, not to say transcendent faux Super Bowl commercial for Newcastle Brown Ale, Anna Kendrick muses that she’s not sure that she’s really “beer commercial hot.”

But, she concludes, “I love a challenge.”

Clearly David Chavern loves a challenge as well.

Chavern is president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America. In that role he is the chief evangelist for an industry whose steep challenges in the digital age have been much chronicled and whose imminent demise has been predicted for years.

In an interview at a tea saloon in Washington, D.C., Chavern, who was named to the job in October, quickly makes clear that he is a half-full kind of guy. Unlike his predecessor, Caroline Little, who had held big jobs at and the Guardian, Chavern has no previous experience in journalism. But he believes that his stint as executive vice president and COO of the United States Chamber of Commerce gives him a valuable outsider’s perspective.

Sure, the digital explosion sounded a death knell for newspapers’ much-missed years of monopoly status and 35% profits, and the fulsome newsroom rosters that often went with them. But in retail, Chavern says, 2% margins are great.

“People get overly sad and morose, but that doesn’t mean the future is horrible,” he says. “We still have a viable business and create a product people want and need. It’s not the coal industry.

“We’ve got a good future. Let’s perk up a little bit.”

But the present presents a serious gauntlet to pick up. Advertising revenue continues to decline, often meaning more painful shrinkage. After a painfully slow start, many newspapers have accepted the digital future and revamped their operations accordingly. But digital ad revenue remains an elusive quarry. It’s growing, sure, but not quickly enough to offset the print shortfall.

The search for a new business model remains Task No. 1. Additional revenue streams — digital subscriptions, events, marketing services — are part of the puzzle. But we’re not there yet.

“Turning into a digital business is hard when digital advertising is so screwed up,” Chavern says, pointing out that both banner ads and video ads are not the answer.

“There needs to be a lot of work experimenting with digital advertising,” he adds. “What will people respond to? We haven’t developed a vocabulary that works on a computer.”

The growing complexity of the business means a different approach to recruiting, going after people proficient in different areas.

“To get good video, you can’t just give a journalist a camera. Some are not good at that,” Chavern says. “With events, same thing. I really like reporters, but I’m not sure they are great event designers.”

Chavern says it’s important to remember that the newspaper industry is not a monolith. At one end, he says, “the national papers are getting pretty good at the digital thing. They are innovating, and they are starting to get an economic return.”

At the other end, the smaller, local-local papers are still dominant in print. “They don’t have the resources to innovate, but they have a monopoly on content. They know what time the Fourth of July parade starts. Where else can you go?”

Stuck in the uncomfortable middle, Stealers Wheel style, are the large metro papers. “They’re being hit from all sides, and it’s hard for them to innovate as fast as the national papers,” Chavern says. “They face an innovation crunch.”

And innovation, in this fast-evolving media landscape, is the name of the game.

The top soothsayers will tell you that predicting the future is a job best left to the professionals. And many authoritative forecasts of End Times for actual print newspapers have long reached their expire by date. But I couldn’t resist asking Chavern how long the beloved dinosaurs would be with us.

“Longer than people think,” he shot back quickly, pointing out that the emergence of e books has hardly spelled the demise of the old-school version. “Just because something is pooh-poohed as old doesn’t mean it isn’t a good technology,” he adds.

That said, Chavern says it’s clear that at some point print will be a small part of the equation, if it’s around at all.

The chief of the newspaper group, which has about 2,000 members, takes heart from the fact that, at last, “the people who run the business have become aware that change is necessary.” He points to the turbulent airline industry, where the survivors include three legacy airlines and one, Southwest, that was a great industry disruptor — in the 1970s. Of course, lots of other big-name industry veterans have fallen by the wayside. Pan Am, anyone?

Nevertheless, Chavern says, the lesson is that “incumbents can win, no matter what the people in Silicon Valley say.”