Value proposition: How three newspapers promote their brands

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During the Key Executives Mega-Conference in Fort Worth, Texas, attendees back in their hotel rooms could see a TV commercial from The Dallas Morning News with the tagline “Local journalism matters.”

The spot is just one part of an extensive branding campaign the Morning News launched late last year, a campaign aimed as much at reminding its North Texas audience of the newspaper’s value as at drumming up subscriptions.

At the Mega-Conference, executives from three newspapers recounted what they are doing to tell the story of their contributions to their communities. These initiatives are especially important at a time when news organizations are under constant attacks that attempt to smear them as politically biased propagators of “fake news.”

The goal of the Morning News campaign, which launched simultaneously with the redesign of its website, was to “remind North Texas why we matter,” said Jessica Baldwin, the newspaper’s director of brand marketing.

A nine-month study of readers concluded with a “new brand truth: What matters?” Baldwin said. “We wanted a two-way dialogue with the community to find out what matters to them.”

During the campaign, the newspaper has literally reached out to the community, bringing a giant chalkboard to events so people could write what matters to them, setting up a coffee cart with posters that said, “Free Caffeine Matters,” and renting billboards customized to say a specific community matters.

The What Matters campaign is almost endlessly flexible, so sports coverage can be paired with “Your Team Matters” messages, kiosks outside museums proclaim, “The Arts Matter,” and ads on mass transit vehicles say, “Clean Air Matters.”

Clean water is what motivated Gannett newspapers in Florida to convene a statewide water summit. Frequent blooms of red tide and blue algae were endangering one of Florida’s most important industries, tourism.

“The power to convene (that newspapers have) is not something to be taken lightly,” Bill Barker, regional president/Florida for Gannett, told the Mega-Conference. “Imagine a conference where you have a developer next to an environmentalist next to a politician.”

The summit was a success both in terms of engagement and attracting sponsorships, Barker said. “I see this as untapped potential. Responsible journalism and genuine care for our community equal positive returns for everybody. Our message is a free press equals a strong democracy equals a strong community equals strong businesses.”

The Seattle Times is using the occasion of the anniversary of its founding, 123 years ago, to speak directly to readers with a positive message about the Blethen family-owned newspaper. Last August, for instance, it confronted directly the misperception that the Times is not attracting a younger audience.

“We are trying to combat that image that all of our readers are in their 80s and dying,” Times President and CFO Alan Fisco said. “That message noted that we reach 62% of millennials” in the market.

An annual year-end message reminded readers that it was the Times that broke the story of problems with the Boeing 737 Max airplanes. It talked openly about the sale of its production plant, noting that “every penny of that sale is going back to local journalism and not to the owners,” Fisco said.

Every fall, the newspaper rolls out a marketing campaign emphasizing storytelling, connecting communities to journalists and the process of real news. The campaign includes video, print, digital, emails, billboards, radio and direct mail.

“We do some community events that are not revenue-producing but just to engage with the community,” Fisco said.

The Seattle Times has caught the industry’s attention with its innovative “labs,” areas of coverage that are funded by corporations or foundations. Fisco told the story of one funder who donated $1 million for environmental coverage.

“He didn’t understand the line we had against (funder) interference with reporting or editing,” Fisco said. “The hardest thing I ever had to do was give him his money back.”

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