As Media General posts losses, Daily Progress gets creative

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Last month, the media conglomerate Media General—owner of numerous television stations and newspapers, including the Daily Progress and Richmond Times-Dispatch—reported a loss of $3.3 million on $168 million of total revenue in the fourth quarter of 2011, which is about 12 percent lower than the fourth quarter of 2010.

That decline resulted in major cuts at one of its papers, The Tampa Tribune, which suffered a loss of 165 positions in December.

For years now, so-called “old media” has spiraled downward as it has struggled to compete with the rise of “new,” or digital media and stay afloat in a weakened economy. In 2008 alone, there were almost 16,000 newspaper-related layoffs and buyouts nationally, and cuts were enacted locally as well, according to the website Paper Cuts.

The Daily Progress laid off 25 employees in July of that year when it closed down its printing facility. [Media General absorbed a total reduction in its labor force of 1,500 jobs, 21 percent, between 2007 and 2009].

In March 2009, the bleeding continued when the Progress let four reporters and two advertising employees go (out of a staff of less than 100). Questions of sustainability arose, and a July C-VILLE Weekly feature wondered whether the paper would even be able to continue as a daily. A month later, an unlikely solution presented itself.

Founded in 2005, the non-profit website Charlottesville Tomorrow (CT) provides “more in-depth information to help the community to make informed choices about our future,” according to its executive director Brian Wheeler, with a particular focus on land use, transportation, and community design issues. For the next few years, CT did just that, but labored in relative obscurity until Wheeler was approached in 2009 by the Progress, which was initially interested in airing CT’s podcasts of area meetings.

In August of that year, the two reached a novel agreement. The Progress would run CT’s content, greatly elevating the website’s profile, but as a non-profit CT would receive no direct financial contribution, thus saving the paper money while filling the void left by the departure of its reporters earlier that year.

“We went from maybe 2,500 people getting my weekly e-mail to having our most important stories published in the newspaper of record and going out to tens of thousands of people,” said Wheeler. His claim is bolstered by statistics the site recently published showing a 217 percent increase in its web traffic over the last two years.

The deal was a boon for the Progress as well. “It gives us more local content and that’s our bread and butter,” Managing Editor McGregor McCance said. The March 2009 downsizing affected and potentially hampered the paper’s ability to cover community planning issues, but the union with CT allowed the Daily Progress “to use a smaller staff than we used to have a little more smartly.”

Since partnering two-and-a-half years ago, the Progress has run more than 500 stories generated by CT, both on the newspaper’s website and in print. In 2011, that averaged out to 24 stories a month. There has also been a 17 percent increase in the Progress’ content on growth and development.

“I think our partnership is a national model and a successful model,” said McCance. Since collaborating, the Progress has managed to avoid further layoffs even as other communities across America continue to see their local papers dwindle (there were another 4,000 layoffs and buyouts last year nationwide). While the paper has enjoyed relative stability—McCance maintains that the paper has remained profitable through the upheaval—this is little comfort in the current environment.

Another tactic could potentially help. Under the direction of its parent company, the paper instituted an online paywall in December. After viewing 10 articles, readers are barred unless they subscribe to the Progress’s website for $7 a month (the restriction does not apply to those who have a seven-day subscription to the print version of the newspaper). It is not an uncommon measure; many papers have made the same move in an effort to boost revenue, and last March, even the New York Times implemented a similar system.

It is also full of potential pitfalls. “Any move a media company makes these days is a calculated risk of some sort,” McCance said. “Of course if you start charging for something that’s been free, you run the risk of causing some people to quit visiting you because they don’t want to pay or they feel like they can get the content somewhere else.” This could be even dicier for the Progress since the content supplied by Charlottesville Tomorrow is also available on the non-profit’s website.

“You just hope that you can give them enough content that makes it worth their time and their money,” McCance continued. So in another proactive measure, the Progress recently launched the online only Work It, Cville (Workitcville.com) as a digital complement to the Charlottesville Business Journal published in Monday’s paper.

“A lot of the new stuff that media companies and newspapers are doing is focused on the digital opportunity,” McCance explained. “That’s where the perceived growth will be in the future.”

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