Hearst Newspapers kicks off the new year with plans for a shared development center, hiring 12 product and data specialists and eight other interactive designers. The company says this is the biggest digital expansion ever for the media group.
If Hearst feels expansive, senior vice president Jeff Johnson told me in a Zoom interview, there’s a reason: The company ended the year with more than 300,000 paid-only digital subscriptions, an increase of 100. 000 or 50% compared to the previous year. It is aiming for 100,000 more this year.
The San Francisco Chronicle alone has 140,000 digital subscribers, ranking it number one among regional newspapers with titles like The Boston Globe and Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Tim O’Rourke, who runs what the company calls its DevHub from San Francisco, says the team will be geographically dispersed and hiring won’t be ramped up until the middle of the year. The goal is to up the division’s data journalism game and provide all of Hearst’s 24 dailies and 52 weeklies with tools developed by a team led by O’Roarke in San Francisco.
There, O’Rourke said, pilot projects have included an interactive wildfire tracker and a new tool to guide readers through the city’s restaurant scene. Hearst has also developed an interactive digital guide to frequent flooding in Texas.
The New York Times, Washington Post, and Gannett’s USA Today network all have this capability, but it’s less common among regional groups.
I’ve been intrigued by Hearst for some time because his journals represent a sort of counterpoint to the perception that the industry is all about financial distress and contraction.
Yes, print circulation and print advertising are shrinking like elsewhere, Johnson said, but newspapers are about the same size as they were five years ago. The company is poised to cross the threshold of a 50-50 revenue split between viewership and advertising, he said (moving over time from over 80% reliance on advertising).
Hearst’s relative success comes with an asterisk. Its private parent company is wildly wealthy with a 46-story headquarters in midtown Manhattan and historically strong local magazine and broadcast divisions. The company has also undertaken a series of diversifications over the years, including investments in ESPN and Lifetime, an international software company, and in-house venture capital arms that now include divisions for women and minority-led businesses.
Still, “we don’t get a performance pass,” Johnson said. Newspapers are expected to make a profit and always have. Even individual projects like the DevHub need to target and then measure an ROI.
But the group operates without debt or unfunded pension liabilities and does not need to publish quarterly results like public companies do, all benefits that promote flexibility and internal investment.
I wrote last year about Hearst creating a consolidated statewide news operation in Connecticut with its own website, CTInsider.com, fed content by eight dailies and 14 weeklies that the chain has assembled over the years.
“It’s a newsroom of over 180,” Johnson said, considerably larger than the state’s main newspaper, The Hartford Courant, one of the titles of the Tribune Publishing group that was acquired by the fund. speculative Alden Global Capital last summer.
I asked Johnson if Hearst was in the market for acquisitions (maybe the Courant should go up for sale?). Maybe, he said, but the company is more into expanding the footprint of the properties it owns.
For example, The Times Union, which scored its own benchmark of 30,000 paid digital subscriptions earlier this month, is moving from Albany, New York, to neighboring Saratoga County and the Hudson Valley.
I have noticed over the years that Hearst uses a mix of internal promotions and external hires for the best jobs and aggressively seeks talent. In 2013, he tapped Nancy Barnes of the Star Tribune and Vernon Loeb of the Washington Post (both since gone) to boost the Houston Chronicle’s editorial ambitions.
After a short stint as editor-in-chief, Star Tribune rookie Maria Douglas Reeve became the Houston Chronicle’s first black editor last summer.
When San Francisco Chronicle editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper left in 2020 to lead editorial operations for New York Public Radio/WNYC, Hearst tapped Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, who ran digital at The Washington Post, as his successor.
Quarterly and annual 2021 financial results from public companies like Gannett and Lee Enterprises will arrive in the coming weeks. I’m also curious if Hearst, despite all its advantages, can be somewhat of an indicator.
The rapid growth of digital subscriptions, admittedly achieved with lots of deep discounts, seems to have become the norm. The deep cuts in newsrooms appear to have eased, except after hedge fund buyouts.
The qualifier is that print advertising and, more recently, print circulation continue to decline. Both command much higher rates than their digital counterparts. This is in danger of waning, the narrative the industry is still trying to break.