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Friday, Oct. 30, 2009 | Ed Moss, 55, has served as The San Diego Union-Tribune’s publisher since May, inheriting a newspaper that now has lost half its staff in the last three years. The paper’s new owner, Beverly Hills-based Platinum Equity, hired Moss days after laying off 192 employees. Another round of layoffs followed in August. The company now employs 700 people, Moss says, with 175 in its newsroom.
Since the Baltimore native took the helm, some newspaper employees have reported feeling more optimistic about the business’s future. But readers continue to cancel subscriptions and head online. The newspaper’s Sunday circulation has dropped 30 percent since 2004; its daily circulation dropped 10 percent in the last six months (compared to the same timeframe in 2008).
The paper recently launched a campaign emphasizing its readership (1.15 million weekly, it says) and that it’s not going anywhere (“Here to Stay,” it says). We sat down with Moss to talk about the paper’s future in print and online, what’s in store for its editorial page and how he plans to produce more local news with fewer reporters on staff.
It’s Oct. 29, 2014. What do you imagine this business looking like? What’s different?
We’re going to continue to be very much focused on our printed product. The strength of the printed product is much greater than what residents and people in the marketplace realize. We’ve got over 1 million readers every week. The death of the printed product is way, way overstated. We are growing and expanding our SignOnSanDiego.com website. We’re looking for ways that SignOn can be very much tied to every individual community throughout the county.
Will you still be publishing seven days a week?
Yes. We have no plans to change our cycle.
Is there a way to make and keep the newspaper profitable that doesn’t involve staff cuts going forward?
We are profitable today. We have built an organization as of today that can be profitable based on the revenue the company is generating today. We feel we’re in a very good position to grow our organization.
How do you grow the paper in the face of the declining print readership?
It’s all about being more local. It’s all about connecting with the community in ways that metropolitan newspapers traditionally haven’t. What I ask our people every day is how do we differentiate ourselves? That’s where the connection is. We’ve seen an increase in circulation since Aug. 1, as we’ve gotten more focused on our local news coverage and local advertising strategies. Despite the fact that newspapers overall have lost circulation, we’re amongst the best performers in the country in terms of our readership overall.
You say the newspaper is among the best in the country. But in the most recent audit figures from the ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulations), you posted a 10 percent drop. Others added circulation.
Others had much more significant losses than we did.
But some newspapers added circulation. It would seem those would be the best performing newspapers, not the ones losing subscribers.
Right. Since the time we’ve been here in May we’ve been growing our number. The audit period is over a longer period of time. There were investments we’ve made in our circulation sales that are driving our number today that quite frankly were not being made a year ago.
Those figures were from the end of March until the end of September. You would’ve been here for 5/6ths of that time.
I got here in May and we developed our strategies, which kicked in in July.
In one interview, you attributed the majority of the newspaper’s economic troubles to the economic downturn. Staff cuts here started a year before the recession did. How do you reconcile that?
This has been the longest recession of our time. Certainly the downturn started before then. I wasn’t here then, but I would assume adjustments were begun to be made at that time to get costs more in line with revenue. When we got here, we saw clearly that we needed to get the size of the company to where we could sustain profitability.
Do you anticipate more staff cuts in the next year?
It’s all going to depend on revenue trends. We don’t have plans to have further across-the-board reductions. But I can’t promise that. No business could promise that. It comes down to whether we see a stabilization in the economy and in our revenue.
Are you at that point of stabilization?
I don’t think anyone knows. We hope so. We’ve seen stabilization over the last few months. I’m optimistic. We’re all cautiously optimistic as we enter 2010 and hope we see an uptick in the economy.
As more and more readers shift online, do you see a way to monetize them in the same way newspapers traditionally have with that same person reading the printed product?
It’s much tougher. The model online has been free. Advertisers want to be online, but they have not seen the same value in spending ad dollars online. That’s why the balance between the two (internet and print) is so key. The other piece is at what point can we charge for our content online? We’re going to be testing that over the months and years ahead to see what consumers are willing to pay for. As we learn, we’ll adjust.
What lessons do you take from the pay wall experiments other newspapers have done to date?
You need to do those kinds of experiments. In Minneapolis, people have to pay for Vikings coverage. As we go forward, we’ll need to experiment as well to determine what the model can be in terms of free and paid content. There will be an expectation that a certain amount of information will be free. We’ll experiment to see where it makes sense to make those pay walls. No one has a clear answer yet.
How does more local coverage translate to the paper?
I want more coverage of all our local communities and, more than anything, news that affects peoples’ lives.
Does that local focus include Tijuana, Sacramento, Washington, D.C.?Certainly Tijuana. The community is joined. And key coverage out of Sacramento that affects Southern California is absolutely key.
The paper cut its D.C. bureau. Is there any plan or potential for having D.C.-based coverage again?
Because we subscribe to so many news services — The Associated Press, Washington Post, New York Times — we have adequate coverage from Washington.
The newspaper’s news gathering staff has been about cut in half. There are some reporters that instead of covering one city are covering two, three, four or five. I’m curious how you get more local with fewer people making the connections.
That’s a good question. Any company in business today has had to learn to do more with less. We’re all learning how to do that. The ability for our news gatherers to cover multiple beats is very common in the small and mid-sized newspaper business. Before I got here, that’s all I was used to. I don’t look at what we had. I look at what we have today. We have a lot of really talented people and an adequate (sized) reporting staff to have more local news coverage.
Doing more with less. Is that something that actually translates?
Absolutely. It’s the number of stories our news gatherers write each day, each week. It’s how we present it in the newspapers through briefs, shorter stories, lists of information. All those things are local news. It’s through story counts, investigative stories, briefs, all these different ways to get local news in the paper.
The tagline on your current advertising campaign is: “Here to Stay.” Does that refer to the business or its new owners?
It’s the newspaper. It was really important that the community understood that the Union-Tribune is a very viable newspaper, a very viable company. With our print readership, we felt we needed to be very clear to the marketplace how strong it was, both to readers and advertisers.
I asked readers for questions. Several were very interested in what the new ownership means for the paper’s editorial views. There’s been a segment of the population that’s felt disenfranchised from the paper because they view it as being conservative and anti-union. I’m curious if you can speak to that.
The new ownership leaves all decisions to us locally. Since I’ve been here, we’ve been accused of being too liberal and too conservative. What I think is the most important thing is that we provide a balance of both views, whatever issue we’re referring to. If the editorial board has one view, we want to open the pages for an opposing view.
Has that balance existed historically?
I don’t know. I’ve heard different views on that. I don’t think it’s really fair for me to comment on what it looked like before.
One reader told me he was thinking of canceling because of your editorial page politics and because he could get news from other sources now. Can you make a pitch for him to renew?
Absolutely. I’m making pitches every day. It gets back to our focus on being local and differentiating ourselves from all others. We’re working harder and harder to provide news and information you can only get in the Union-Tribune. Because we have the largest news gathering staff in San Diego, we’re in the best position to do that.