Joyce Terhaar

Joyce Terhaar: Standing up for powerless as news business changes

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

Many of you have kept a careful eye on The Sacramento Bee the past few years as we’ve managed our way through serious upheaval in the news business, the result of two disparate challenges – the Great Recession that affected all of us and the digital evolution that is disrupting many industries, including the news business.

The Sacramento Bee is part of a publicly held company – The McClatchy Co. – so our parent company’s stock price and earnings reports are public information. At a recent meeting for all publishers, editors and advertising directors of McClatchy newspapers, we went beyond the numbers to talk about transformation, how we’re evolving to support the reporting that makes us a valued institution in each market we serve.

If you’re reading this today on your smartphone, iPad, laptop or yet another device, that simple act shows a key part of our transformation.

Following a link off Facebook to one of our stories? Or a Twitter feed from a Bee reporter covering a huge story? Our audience continues to grow well beyond the geographic limits that constrain us in print because of the routine digital habits of our readers, some of whom come from all over to read our coverage of California politics, the Sacramento Kings and the San Francisco 49ers.

Readership at in January, for instance, was just over 72 percent of our total news readership.

Across McClatchy’s digital operations, mobile readership alone grew by 70 percent last year. It’s so high as to be unbelievable – until you look around you while out in the community, whether in line at the coffee shop or waiting at the airport or at a high school basketball game.

Everywhere, faces are buried in smartphones – texting, reading, watching video, checking sports scores and, yes, reading The Bee.

That audience spans generations but it also brings new, younger readers to The Bee and other news sites. About half of the adults in this region who read newspapers on their mobile devices are under the age of 35, a very different profile from the traditional newspaper reader and one that is vital to our future.

We’ve changed our news products because of that addiction to mobile devices. In the past couple of months, for instance, we’ve upgraded apps for the iPhone, Android and iPad.

We are on track to introduce several additional upgrades to our mobile products in the next few months. On our tablet app we’ll be adding more choices of content and, soon, video options.

Even as we upgrade those products, we are getting new technology in our newsrooms to enable more creative design and more digital participation from all our journalists, a substantial commitment to the future given the size of our newsroom compared with others in this market. Because of the audience demand for video online, that commitment increasingly will include video reports featuring the expertise of our reporters.

We also are developing more niche products, starting with our Capitol Alert Insider app for the iPhone and iPad (the Android version is coming soon). The app, introduced in January, is aimed at anyone with a strong interest in the politics and policy decisions coming from Sacramento, especially the many affected business interests.

It builds on our well-read Capitol Alert coverage, adding early access to Field Poll stories and our editorials, automatic updates on the progress of key bills, a curated Twitter feed of the most influential people connected to the Capitol, and a legislative directory that includes contextual biographies written by political columnist Dan Walters and email access to top staff.

Because it is aimed at a niche audience, the app is a separate subscription from The Bee in print and online. That’s a strategic decision, in line with our work to evolve our business model.

I suspect most loyal newspaper readers have heard plenty in the last five years about the business model for the newspaper industry. For longtime readers, the cost of The Bee’s reporting historically was subsidized by advertising. That model worked well in an industry with little competition, but not as well in today’s fragmented media environment.

Instead, we’re successfully diversifying. Last year 60 percent of the revenue from McClatchy’s operations came from digital, direct marketing and circulation (subscriptions).

Subscriptions still don’t pay the entire cost of our reporting, but our decision and that of many others in the news industry to charge for digital access to our work gets us closer to that cost.

Much online reading is fleeting – you follow a link to a news story or check on a huge story in another market on a news site you don’t normally read. That fly-by reader still has free access to our site. We ask those who regularly rely on our reporting, however, to pay to read The Bee.

That’s how we intend to continue our work to watch the powerful, stand up for those without power, and forge reader connections to the community.