With increasing numbers of readers choosing to get their information on the Internet and through other electronic devices, The Enquirer finds itself struggling to remain a profitable business. That’s because advertising dollars — the primary revenue source for all newspapers — are abandoning mainstream print publications.
At the same time, Internet users have become accustomed to getting free content on the Web, and newspapers haven’t yet devised a business model for making enough money there to offset the loss from print editions.
Reflecting the trend, the stock price for The Gannett Co., The Enquirer’s parent firm, has tumbled badly. Once trading as high as $90 per share in 2004, it traded this week at $2.21 per share — a fall of 97 percent in value.
The Enquirer two weeks ago unveiled its response to the problems: Rely on unpaid labor to fill gaps in its news and entertainment coverage, make better use of the Facebook social networking site, require staffers to use Twitter to provide frequent updates about what they’re doing and create a Web site for news without The Enquirer’s name to lure readers who don’t like the newspaper.
The new “social media strategy” is the centerpiece in The Enquirer’s plan to reinvent itself for the Digital Age and was outlined in a recent 25-page memo by Social Media Editor Mandy Jenkins distributed to editors at The Enquirer and its sister publication, CiN Weekly.
“Some of you and your reporters have been buzzing about higher management’s expectations for social media in the newsroom of late and I wanted to keep you in the loop,” Jenkins wrote. “The attached social media strategy was approved just this week and we will begin rolling it out as soon as possible.”
Most of the changes are supposed to be implemented by late April.
Enquirer staffers already are breaking news regularly using Twitter, and the newspaper plans to promote special sections using the micro-blogging service. Recent Twitter updates included such gems as “That man who died after driving his car the wrong way on I-71 was from Elsmere,” “Glutton for all things parks!” and “Happy spring everyone.”
But “tweeting” on Twitter is the wave of the future, according to at least one media executive.
“Twitter is very quickly becoming an important platform for journalism in this country,” said Rich Boehne, The E.W. Scripps Co.’s chief executive officer. Based in Cincinnati, Scripps owns newspapers, Web sites and TV stations, including WCPO-TV (Channel 9).
“(Twitter) has a dramatic diversity of voices, and there’s much more to come,” Boehne said, speaking at the Bold Fusion event March 26, a young professionals forum sponsored by The Enquirer.
Comparing the Internet’s current climate to the freewheeling Wild West of 19th Century America, he conceded that media companies haven’t fully figured out how to maximize use of Twitter and Facebook, but it will be a boon once that happens.
Twitter has an estimated 1.3 million users, while Facebook has about 175 million active members.
“This is without question the most exciting time for all of us who work in the media industry,” Boehne said.
Whether many media employees survive the transition — and whether the public is better served — is another matter.
The Enquirer laid off at least 30 people in December and shrunk the space allocated for news by 36 pages each week
Adding insult to injury, Gannett ordered most employees to take a five-day unpaid leave from their jobs this past winter, saving about $20 million, and recently made the same demand again for spring.
The Enquirer isn’t alone in its woes. Numerous daily papers have had layoffs, the Scripps-owned Rocky Mountain News recently went out of business and The San Francisco Chronicle seems poised to follow.
Other newspapers — like The Christian Science Monitor and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer — have converted to Web-only editions. Some, like Gannett’s Detroit Free Press, have curtailed home delivery and are giving away copies free at newsstands.
As part of The Enquirer’s new strategy, Facebook will be used as a portal to lure more people to The Enquirer’s main Web site and newspaper managers will ask some longtime independent local bloggers if they’d like to link their blogs to The Enquirer’s network in exchange for advertising help.
During the process, The Enquirer will winnow down its voluminous list of in-house blogs and jettison ones that are unpopular or rarely updated. (One such blog, Footnotes, was last updated in September 2007.)
Among its goals, the plan includes gathering all of the newspaper’s existing social media properties onto a single page. Editors hope to create an “eye-catching and easily understood page” on Cincinnati.com that will include all Twitter accounts, its Facebook page and more. The page also will solicit public submissions to some extent.
Another goal involves getting reporters, bloggers and other editorial staff aligned to promote themselves and their work in social media networks and to raise their public profiles.
“You are responsible for promoting your own brand,” the strategy states. “You are more than just a reporter for The Enquirer, you are a hub of information and a local expert in your field — now act like it.
“Engage with readers not only as a blogger/reporter, but as a fellow commenter. Do this on our site and other sites where your content can be found. Engage readers where they are.”
More interestingly, The Enquirer wants to create another news site that doesn’t use the paper’s name, attempting to lure users who don’t like the newspaper, and link to other content. It would be modeled after ChicagoBreakingNews.com.
“Create a local blog/site without our branding for breaking Cincinnati news,” the strategy states. “Post news items as we hear about them from reporters, what we see on other news sites, blogs and more. We still get news traffic, but we can get it from those who find our site difficult to maneuver or those not inclined to reading The Enquirer at all.”
Also, one staffer — Marianne Cafaro — will have the sole duty of luring more young professionals to use The Enquirer and its Web sites. CiN Weekly already promises some local YP groups prominent coverage in return for exclusively releasing news to it first.
How the policy complies with Gannett’s code of ethical conduct is unclear. The code states, “We will avoid potential conflicts of interest and eliminate inappropriate influence on content; we will be free of improper obligations to news sources, newsmakers and advertisers; (and) we will differentiate advertising from news.”
Further, the newspaper wants to align itself with independent bloggers as part of its “blogger pull plan.”
“Feed in local blogs not only to supplement our content, but also to fill content holes (particularly in entertainment),” the strategy states. “Offer them links and prominent placement (in story spots, section fronts) in exchange for a partnership.”
The Enquirer lists several blogs it would contact: Who Dey Revolution, Red Reporter, VisuaLingual, ReverbNation, Each Note Secure and the Cincinnati Blog.
“We don’t have the greatest relationship with the blogosphere, but we want it to change…,” the strategy states. “Float the content sharing plan: Let’s work together because, as they know, we don’t have the people we used to and they have something to offer. We need bloggers in certain areas in particular to start our trial. This may include an option for ad-sharing if they are interested.
“See if they have interest in displaying a public badge on their site (if so, we’ll have to create one). It shouldn’t be unexpected if they do not want to publicly align with us.”
Brian Griffin, who operates the Cincinnati Blog, wouldn’t elaborate on the plan for CityBeat.
“I have had an informal conversation with some folks from Cincinnati.com,” Griffin wrote in an e-mail. “At this point I can’t add anything to the conversation, so I’ll have to decline the interview.”
If the blogging plan is successful, The Enquirer would expand the effort.
“Build a Cincinnati blog clearinghouse that can list all local blogs,” the strategy states. “Open this up for user submission by the bloggers to get into this clearinghouse. Take a look at Cincy Beacon’s blogroll for ideas on presentation.
Although the Cincinnati Beacon blog is cited, that site is hyper-critical of some Enquirer coverage and its operator, Jason Haap, wasn’t solicited.
“It’s funny they want to model after something I did but not include me for content,” Haap says.