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Summary of Meeting with Craig Westover

Civic Caucus, 8301 Creekside Circle, Bloomington, MN 55437

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Guest speaker: Craig Westover, writer, contract columnist, St. Paul Pioneer Press

Present: Verne Johnson, chair (by phone), Lee Canning, Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland, and

John Rollwagen

A. Context of the meeting-- The Civic Caucus is reviewing a possible connection

between availability of quality public affairs information and a strong representative

democracy. Today the Civic Caucus is meeting a veteran writer on the Twin Cities area

scene.

B. Introduction-- Paul introduced Craig Westover, a free-lance writer who writes a

weekly column for the opinion page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Westover also has

worked in corporate communications for NCR and in strategic marketing and quality

assurance for NCR/AT&T. His frequent letter-writing to the Pioneer Press led to

different opportunities with the newspaper, and most recently he was offered a weekly

column on the opinion pages. He characterizes himself as a libertarian/conservative.

He was a psychology major in college

C. Comments and discussion-- In Westover's comments and in discussion with the

Civic Caucus the following points were raised:

1. Fruitful area of writing for specialized publications-- As Westover was

highlighting his past success in using newspaper articles as ideas for articles in

magazines, Lee Canning suggested that maybe the Civic Caucus would have some

success in getting more coverage of its work by submitting articles to selected local

publications.

2. Newspapers' business model no longer fits their core competencies--

The core competency of newspapers was and still is their ability to gather news.

However, advertising, not subscription fees, is what pays for the paper and accounts for

profits. The business model is putting consumers in touch with advertisers.

The business model of newspapers has been a broadcast model–distribute

paper and advertisers’ messages to as many people as possible. The Internet, cable

television, specialty publications and data mining for direct mail have made possible

more targeted marketing opportunities for advertisers--fewer people seeing ads, but

identified as people with interest in the advertisers’ products.

Newspapers need to figure out how to take their core competency of

newsgathering and exploit other outlets to narrowcast to specific audiences to attract

advertisers.

In the 1980s the news was "broadcast" through the newspapers. Today

newspapers still are following that model, although it is obsolete, and many more outlets

for distributing the news exist. For example, the Pioneer Press could have a 6 p.m.

newscast on the Internet. (It was noted that the New York Times already has such a

newscast.)

Too many newspapers, faced with the need to provide major returns for

investors, economize by cutting back on their core competency, news. They have

failed to learn more about their subscribers for targeting purposes. Someone could

subscribe for the newspaper for 30 years and all the owners would know is the

individual's name, address, and length time that someone has been a subscriber.

Owners won't even know which parts of the paper are favored by different readers. On

an individual basis, newspapers collect data on readers by geographic area, but not

down to the individual level–which is what targeted advertising requires.

Lee Canning noted that the Star Tribune made major changes in its format

based on research. The Star Tribune decided it had to reach out to people under 40 to

meet their business model. The result is a heavy load of entertainment news. The

Pioneer Press has a strategy of emphasizing local news–news that can’t be found at

other sources. A problem is determining if a given piece of local news is important, or as

Lee noted, more entertainment value.

3. Focusing on the business model, not the core competency--

Continuing the discussion, John Rollwagen summarized that the newspaper owners

have decided to focus their survival on the business model, not trying to find a way to

maintain their core competency. Westover agreed, saying that publishers of

newspapers invariably come from the sales and marketing side of the business, not the

news side. Newspapers lay off employees, trapped as they are by a business model

from the 1980s--that a company can cut its way to profitability. That may work over the

short term, but it ultimately makes a business less competitive in its core competency.

4. J-school student's comments on being disillusioned-- Westover cited

an article by a student at Northwestern University in the March 2007 issue of The

Newspaper Guild Reporter (http://newsguild.org/gr/index.php?ID=3769), who was

complaining about a shift in philosophy of the Medill school at Northwestern. "I believed

the school represented journalism as the voice of the people, the voice of justice and an

arena for ideas. Instead, Medill is teaching about the market, the consumer and

advertising," wrote the student, Loka Ashwood. This is the disconnect between the

student’s perspective and the real world business perspective, Westover said. It is also

a disconnect between the newspaper's giving in-depth political information, and the

business model.

5. Core competency can survive if newspapers take new views of their

audiences-- Targeting audiences is key, and newspapers haven't yet figured out how to

do that, Westover said. Look at the TV ads during the Sunday afternoon golf

tournaments, he said. With Lexus and Cadillac ads, those folks know that older,

wealthier, males are watching the golf tournaments. This is the "narrowcast", not

"broadcast" view that is needed.

6. Too many "silos" in the newspaper-- Westover said the news, the editorialopinion,

and the advertising departments at the Pioneer Press are strictly separated.

For example, if the advertising department is seeking help in preparing an "advertorial"

(an advertisement written in the form of an objective opinion editorial), the advertising

department will get no help from the editorial-opinion department.

Later in the meeting discussion returned to the potential of advertorials--provided

a financing approach could be found--as a possible way to gain coverage and circulation

of information that otherwise would not be covered

7. News no longer a revenue producer-- Lee Canning said that in heyday of

newspapers, the split in income between advertising and newspaper sales was about

60-40. Westover said that split now is about 90-10 or even 95-5. Canning said the

Audit Bureau of Circulation no longer counts circulation of newspapers on Mondays and

Tuesdays because those are very poor advertising days.

8. A distinction between being overtly partisan and being political-- As

background for a direction that he thinks newspapers should go, Westover introduced

the topic by addressing the issues of objectivity and transparency versus fairness and

balance. Regardless of a newspaper's political leanings, it needs to be objective and

transparent in its presentation of the news. Westover said he hopes to see some day a

newspaper in the Twin Cities area with a libertarian political view. Such a newspaper

would attract a group of readers with that political bent. But such a newspaper would

not rant and rave against views, as some overtly partisan bloggers do, he said.

Readers in a libertarian newspaper would expect objective, but not necessarily,

balanced coverage.

Further, Westover argued, it isn't good to try to be so balanced as to distort the

real truth an event. He remembers the "balanced" coverage of a debate between Rod

Grams, Mark Dayton and a third party candidate, some six-seven years ago. The

reporters dutifully provided concise statements of the positions of the candidates on the

major issues discussed, even though, Westover said, it was obvious in the debate that

Grams did a far better job on the Social Security discussion and Dayton did a far better

job on social issues. When Westover writes, he said he works to write the truth, not

just be balanced. He said his own bias plays into that and needs to be considered by

the reader. Arguments ultimately stand on their own merit, regardless of bias, he said.

9. A new business model for newspapers-- Westover believes the future lies

with newspapers that are less concerned with fairness and balance and more with

objectivity and transparency. The old business model is a broadcast model that wanted

so many "eyes" reading the newspaper. Continuing his example of wanting a

newspaper with a libertarian bent, he said that such a paper would have a narrow

audience, an audience that, faced with many choices, would opt in to read that paper

over others.

Further, he said, with a new business model, the newspaper would be trying to

entice its readers to go to a website, where the paper would be able to learn much more

about its audience and gain information that would enable it to do more "narrowcasting".

There's no such thing as the "general public" any more.

10. Potential of reaching a narrow audience that craves good public

affairs information-- Noting the decline of public affairs information in the mainstream

media, Verne Johnson inquired about the potential of narrowcasting to serve the people

interested in public affairs. Westover mentioned the St. Paul Legal Ledger, a paper that

runs legal notices (http://www.legal-ledger.com/about_us/index.cfm), and calls itself "the

only independent newspaper dedicated to covering the Minnesota Legislature, politics

and public policy." Subscriptions to the twice-weekly publication are $104 a year. The

point here is that the Legal Ledger is targeting a very narrow audience for whom the

“news” is worth $104 a year. An alternative might be patronage-sponsored news

sources, much like the early days of journalism when political parties and specific

newspapers were closely aligned, he said.

11. Limitations of some web based publications-- Some information websites

are simply finding information that others have collected. There aren't a lot of ways to

make money on that model, because it is at the whim of what others are doing,

Westover said.

12. Parallel between a subscription to a publication and a contribution to a

non-profit organization-- In discussion about whether an outlet would be a non-profit or

a for-profit organization, it was noted that non-profit organizations like MPR receive taxdeductible

contributions and other organizations charge subscriptions. The question

came up whether subscriptions to media publications should also be tax-deductible.

In the continuing discussion about MPR as a model for news coverage in the

future, John Rollwagen clarified that MPR doesn't receive government subsidies any

more, other than government grants sometimes are given to small towns for antennas to

receive the MPR signal.

13. Electronic or print distribution in the future-- Westover contrasted older

people, who are digital immigrants, with younger people, who are digital natives. The

long-term future clearly is with the internet, not with ink and paper, he said. Today

newspapers still have the credibility. The internet has broken several good stories, but

those stories gained legitimacy only when they were picked up by the mainstream

media, he said. Later Westover added to his comments by stating that the key is who

are the people of influence, not what media do they use. That will be a key in who drives

the media agenda.

14. "Marketing Myopia"-- In discussing changes that need to occur, Westover

mentioned `Marketing Myopia' by Theodore Levitt, published in the Harvard Business

Review, of which he was an editor. Its theme was that the vision of most organizations

was constricted in terms of what they, too narrowly, saw as the business they were in. It

exhorted CEOs to re-examine their corporate vision; and redefine their markets in terms

of wider perspectives.

15. Example of radio station strategy-- Westover said he worked with some

radio stations on building better business models for the future. Rather than relying only

on broadcasting, the strategies called for the radio stations to stimulate listeners to go to

web sites, where with the skillful use of commercial offers, the stations were able to

narrow their audiences. The group again made reference to MPR, where some had

visited this past week. John Rollwagen discussed the development of public insight

journalism (PIJ), a new program at MPR, with some 25,000 individuals who are feeding

news-related ideas to MPR with its staff of 25 regular reporters, plus about six persons in

its PIJ arm.

16. Relying too much on publicists for information-- Westover, who writes

frequently on offering educational choice, said he believes that the education reporters

today receive 80-90 percent of story ideas from the press releases of the educational

establishment. Other perspectives are not getting adequate coverage, he said.

17. Thanks--The group thanked Westover for meeting with us today.

 

The Civic Caucus   is a non-partisan, tax-exempt educational organization.   Core participants include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting years of leadership in politics and business.

   A working group meets face-to-face to provide leadership. They are Verne C. Johnson, chair;  Lee Canning,  Charles Clay, Bill Frenzel,  Paul Gilje,  Jim Hetland,  John Mooty,  Jim Olson,  Wayne Popham  and  John Rollwagen.
Click Here to see a biographical statement of each.

© The Civic Caucus, 01-01-2008
8301 Creekside Circle #920,   Bloomington, MN 55437.  civiccaucus@comcast.net
Verne C. Johnson, chair, 952-835-4549,       Paul A. Gilje, coordinator, 952-890-5220.

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