To my former colleagues at the Press Journal: Maybe it’s time to start worrying about our former employer, Scripps, and its #dropthepaper campaign.
Goodness knows, in recent years our flagship newspaper, Vero Beach 32963, has called out the Press Journal for lying about being the largest news gathering operation in Indian River County.
With the two new veteran reporters and the former Boston Herald Page 1 editor that we have added in the past month, our news team of 17 fulltime professional journalists based here in Vero Beach is more than twice the size of the shrinking Press Journal staff based in Indian River County.
But we’ve never urged anyone to drop the daily. It actually saddens us to pick up the Press Journal, as we did this past Monday, and find not a single Vero Beach news story.
So we were more than a bit surprised to see what’s happening in Cincinnati, where the Scripps-owned TV station earlier this month declared war on the Gannett-owned daily newspaper and launched its hash-tagged, #dropthepaper marketing campaign.
For that, you can blame Mike Canan.
You remember him, don’t you?
The former managing editor of the Treasure Coast Newspapers, the fast-rising boy wonder handpicked to guide the Press Journal and its sister papers through the tricky transition from the ebbing era of print to an uncertain future driven by online content?
The young, wise-beyond-his-years newspaperman who jumped ship in late 2014, just as Scripps was cutting its newspapers loose, seeing a brighter future in television?
For those newcomers who don’t know: Canan is now the editor-in-chief of WCPO.com, the website for the ABC affiliate in Cincinnati, where he is spearheading the Scripps station’s all-out assault on Gannett’s Cincinnati Enquirer on southern Ohio’s digital-news battlefield.
Not only has WCPO.com beefed up its digital news team, but it also has outflanked the enemy by offering an annual “Insider” subscription to its online site for the ridiculously low price of $10. (It doesn’t, of course, beat our price for VeroNews.com – free!)
The Scripps campaign, being conducted in the riverfront city where the company is headquartered, isn’t merely an aggressive play for the Enquirer’s digital audience. It’s an attempt at a hostile takeover of the Cincinnati market, where WCPO.com has taken to social media to herald its battle cry.
As you might expect, the #dropthepaper campaign has upset folks at the Enquirer, where staffers see the marketing scheme as an attack on their work and jobs. It also has ruffled feathers throughout a daily newspaper industry struggling for survival.
In addition to the expected harsh, social-media reaction from Enquirer staffers, WCPO’s efforts have produced a Twitter stream of outrage and ridicule from empathetic journalists from elsewhere in Ohio and beyond.
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz, who wrote for the Cleveland Plain Dealer before accepting a job teaching journalism at Kent State University, was among those who took to Twitter to respond to WCPO’s campaign.
“This is no way 4 OH journalists to support our profession,” she tweeted, using today’s social media lexicon. “Forget #Dropthepaper. #Dropthecampaign, @WCPO.”
Canan, though, continued to defend #dropthepaper on Twitter last weekend, writing: “To be a disruptor in any business (especially news) means upsetting the status quo. That’s going to make people uncomfortable.”
On Saturday, he went off on a nine-tweet series of posts that explained why he is “proud” of his ambitious staff, his supportive bosses and the work being produced by his team.
“Most of all, I’m proud we have elevated the quality of journalism in Cincinnati,” he tweeted. “We are now a legitimate competitor for Cincy news.”
Having spent the past two-plus years at Vero Beach 32963, where we’ve elevated the quality of journalism in our county and provided local newspaper readers with a bolder and better option than the daily that prefers to serve the region over our community, I do understand Canan’s sentiment.
For decades, Cincinnati was a two-paper town. After a 30-year joint operating agreement with the Enquirer expired at the end of 2007, however, Scripps shuttered the withering Cincinnati Post, the market’s afternoon newspaper, and handed the city to Gannett.
Now, WCPO is attempting to reclaim Cincinnati and make it a competitive news town again, at least in the digital-news market, and it’s naive to think the station – or Scripps – will stop there.
If WCPO’s digital news experiment is successful in Cincinnati, there’s every reason to believe Scripps would apply the same #dropthepaper strategy and attempt to compete for newspaper readers in its other markets.
Such as ours.
Here, in fact, the players are the same. Scripps owns WPTV, the West Palm Beach-based NBC affiliate that also covers the Treasure Coast. Gannett, meanwhile, is expecting federal approval momentarily to complete its purchase of the Journal Media Group, which owns the Treasure Coast Newspapers, including the Press Journal.
Might Scripps go to war with Gannett again and fight for the digital news market on the Treasure Coast?
Certainly, it’s possible.
And how would a #dropthepaper campaign impact our market?
The hard truth is that many of my former Press Journal colleagues already are nervous about the newspaper being bought by Gannett, which has a history of consolidating positions and reducing staff to bolster its bottom line.
A serious challenge from Scripps for local subscribers and revenues would only create more angst over the newspaper’s future and staffers’ job security.
Maybe it’s mere coincidence that Eve Samples, editorial page editor for Treasure Coast Newspapers, responded to WCPO’s campaign by tweeting a cute video of her yellow lab retrieving a newspaper from the driveway. But there’s no mistaking the intent of the words that accompanied the video.
“Suggested campaign for @Enquirer and other newsrooms: #GetThePaper,” Samples wrote, clearly warning newspapers to pay attention to what’s happening in Cincinnati and, if WCPO is successful, prepare to fend off similar challenges.
In an interview with Harvard University’s Neiman Journalism Lab, Enquirer president and publisher Rick Green said he has encouraged his staff to not “get into a mud-slinging match” with the TV station.
“It’s a transformational time in our industry, and everybody is scratching and clawing to figure out how to best serve our readers,” Green said, adding that, “We are not looking backwards.”
Nor are we.
Our print-first operation at Vero Beach 32963 and our sister publications share, in some ways, many of the qualities the WCPO.com digital team claims to possess – a talented, knowledgeable, fearless and growing staff of professional journalists; an unwavering commitment to aggressively pursue stories the daily newspaper chooses to ignore or cover only superficially; and a fierce determination to provide to our readers the news and information they need to function successfully in our community and enjoy all that makes this a special place to live.
And we take great pride in our work.
Unlike the Cincinnati TV station, however, we see no need to embark on some silly #dropthepaper social-media campaign.
We’ll leave that to Scripps.