Newspapers adjust to digital age
(IDG) -- 1993 was bad news for newspapers. Readership was down, interest in the Internet was up, and industry analysts bemoaned the inevitable extinction of the printed page. Newspapers were dinosaurs; digital was destiny.
Steve Hannah disagreed. Hired that year as vice president of IT at The Gazette Co. in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Hannah disbelieved analysts' doom-and-gloom predictions about the future of newspapers.
Today, six years later, Hannah's leadership and use of technology have defied those who would send newspapers like The Gazette to a premature burial. While other papers nationwide lament a continued loss in circulation, The Gazette has held firm at 85,000 subscribers throughout the '90s.
Furthermore, while CIOs at larger papers consider reactive measures such as systems integration and retooling, Hannah is proactively developing e-commerce initiatives, creating techno-savvy employees and tailoring every morning paper's advertising sections to meet individual readers' needs. "We have to continually look to increase the dependency that the community has on us and improve the relationship we have with each other," Hannah says.
He's not alone. Nationwide, at newspapers large and small, CIOs such as Hannah face an increasing number of technological challenges to keep their products viable.
And they've got to get the newspaper out every day too. The bottom line? "You have to view yourself not as a paper, but as an information provider," Hannah says. "If a newspaper views itself as ink on paper, I don't think it will survive."
All the news that fits
Hannah, 40, has used technology to shape newspapers for more than 20 years. He started in 1977 as a weekend computer operator at The Detroit News and worked his way up to running the paper's publishing systems. In 1986 he moved on to manage computer services at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where he was responsible for business development, operations and hardware purchasing. After seven years in Milwaukee, Hannah drove down past Chicago, hung a right on I-80, and settled in Cedar Rapids at The Gazette.
Since 1993, Hannah's toughest challenges have revolved around making the paper a cross-media information provider. While many other newspapers have also identified this need, few have expanded as far as The Gazette.
Because the paper is the flagship medium of a media conglomerate by the same name (the Gazette family of companies includes a local TV station, several agricultural and advertising publications, and the Gazette Technologies division), Hannah can draw upon content from any of the company's subsidiaries. This has helped The Gazette offer news in audio and video formats as well as online, in the form of Gazette Online.
The Web site boasts a more in-depth treatment of much of the content readers can find in the print newspaper, in addition to some special, Web-only features.
In the future, Hannah plans to restructure the site so that registered users can enter their preferences and choose which kinds of stories they'll see every time they log on.
Hannah is also in the design phase of a project that will link the Web site to a database of all of the audio, video and text clips The Gazette Co. has to offer. Through a simple credit or debit card transaction, he says, site visitors will be able to purchase coverage of a story in any format, and researchers will be able to purchase blocks of time in which to search the newspaper's archives.
Hannah also foresees digital technology that will enable the paper to incorporate breaking news into an electronic pager service. If inclement weather forces area schools to close, for instance, an automated system will notify parents. Furthermore, if traffic slows the evening commute, readers will be able to use their cellular phones to access a database of alternate routes.
While such diversification is important, Hannah says it is equally important to ensure the survival of the newspaper itself. In order to keep readers interested in what arrives on their doorsteps every morning, Hannah plans to use technology to customize each paper to the needs of its reader. To do this, he'll use a data warehousing application that his staff began developing in 1994 and which Gazette Technologies now supports and markets to the newspaper industry. Dubbed MarketInfo, the application makes it possible for customer service representatives to learn the interests and habits of the newspaper's subscribers and the community's businesses.
By late 1999, at the paper's new production facility down the road from its headquarters, page-inserting machines will call up information from the MarketInfo database and arrange the advertising inserts of each paper according to the characteristics of each subscriber. Those readers with young children might receive a Toys "R" Us advertisement, while senior or childless readers might not. Senior readers, on the other hand, might receive a special editorial section about pharmaceuticals, while Gen X readers would receive one about home electronics. "We're a mass-market publisher, but we also want to target down as finely as each customer desires," Hannah says.
News hounds learn new tricks
With all of these new technologies coming down the pike, many of The Gazette Co.'s 900 or so employees have a lot to learn. Hannah says the challenge of training all of them is daunting and one he takes very seriously. He lobbied hard for the new production facility to have a training center, just as the previous one did; this center was one of the first parts of the building to open earlier this year. Several times a day, employees are shuttled there to learn the ins and outs of some of the hardware and software they'll be using in the months and years to come.
Technological change is something that many employees have trouble adjusting to, and employees in the newspaper industry are no exception. However, in this case, Hannah says the training center has helped him and his IT managers communicate to Gazette employees that sometimes such overarching change is for the best.
Through seminars and word of mouth, Gazette employees have come to realize the value of this training center. He describes the center as a morale builder for employees and says that some of its classes are so popular that employees will wait days to take them.
"We have brought in almost every employee and said, 'It's OK not to know something,'" Hannah says. "We're keen on education as crucial and that will continue to be something we focus on in the months ahead. We have to pay people well, but we also have to create an environment where they feel they are growing. That's important no matter what business you're in."
Education, however, can go only so far. Before Hannah can teach Gazette staffers about the new technologies, he has to choose which technologies to implement. This, he says, is his biggest challenge.
As national readership figures slide and more and more electronic information competitors enter the marketplace, Gazette publishers will continue to pressure Hannah for technology that keeps the paper flexible and responsive. Because the future of the newspaper rests so heavily on technology, Hannah deems it essential that the IT department be viewed as a change agent and a department of vision.
Specifically, that means he and his staff must redouble their efforts toward modernization. Benchmarking is important, and Hannah says he constantly reminds Gazette IT professionals to explore what technologies other midsize papers are using to ensure their survival.
Hannah holds himself personally responsible for making sure that whichever technologies he adopts, they are the smartest and most efficient technologies available—for today and tomorrow.
"The decisions we make today will dictate how we can respond in the next couple of years," he says. "When you're talking about how your own newspaper will survive, it doesn't get much more important than that."
Matt Villano is a freelance writer based in New York.
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