smartphone-revolution-ricky-mathews

The smartphone revolution continues to disrupt the media business, forcing constant innovation: Ricky Mathews

This column is excerpted from a presentation given to students and the public at the Loyola Department of Mass Communications on March 5.

The smartphone revolution continues to disrupt industries around the globe

Only eight years ago, Steve Jobs introduced Apple’s iPhone, instantly dooming one of his own company’s most successful products ever in the iPod, and throwing the telecommunications industry into turmoil. It’s amazing the impact one company can have on the world. Apple’s innovations have disrupted the publishing, computer, music, movie and media industries, to name a few. But it is the smartphone, and the iPhone in particular, that significantly changed consumer habits forever.

Recent research shows we check our smartphones more than 100 times a day. In part because of this mobile revolution, news audiences have never been larger than they are today. This is especially true of the combined audiences of NOLA.com and The Times-Picayune.

The September 2014 Nielsen/Scarborough study ranked The Times-Picayune as third in the nation for daily readership and sixth in Sunday readership; and NOLA.com was No. 1 in markets with a population the size of New Orleans or larger.

When compared to the rate of decline in other metro markets across the United States, our newspaper is holding its own. And our audience at NOLA.com continues to grow. NOLA.com hit a record in January 2015 with an 87 percent increase over January 2014, according to comScore. We reached 6 million unique visitors.

Underlying the mobile revolution is a more stark economic landscape for newspaper companies nationwide. With American newspaper print circulation and ad revenue declining slowly but steadily over the past 15 years, as audiences and advertisers move more and more to the digital realm, the time is long past when newspapers could ignore the extreme disruptions to their legacy business model. This reality drove our company’s decision to launch along a different path in 2012, a journey of transformation and experimentation that is both more difficult and more promising, and continues today.

We haven’t found the magic bullet yet. But we’re getting closer. Our readers are finding new ways to get to our content. In addition to coming through our homepage at NOLA.com and the front page of The Times-Picayune, they are increasingly using search engines and social media. So far this year, 45 percent of our unique visitors have come to NOLA.com via Google, Yahoo, Bing or other search engines. And 18 percent of our visitors are coming to NOLA.com via Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. Most future growth will come from tablet and mobile use, which now accounts for more than half of NOLA.com’s total audience.

And that audience is loyal. We now have more than 465,000 Facebook followers across our NOLA.com fan pages — this does not count those of you following individual reporters. We have more than 140,000 Twitter followers, again not including reporter followers.

This new and evolving venture is built upon the bedrock of 178 years of journalistic excellence by The Times-Picayune. What has enabled us to be so entrepreneurial is that we are part of one of the most progressive global media companies in the world, an innovative enterprise with deep resources and tools. The scale that we can achieve as part of this larger organization helps us provide best-in-class products to our readers and advertisers. The Newhouse family, owners of Advance, has owned The Times-Picayune since 1962. During our nearly two centuries in existence, no one has owned The Times-Picayune longer. They have a deep connection to New Orleans, and we all understand the cherished relationship between the city and its newspaper.

Our determination to be the journalistic leader in our community is unwavering. We have always been at the forefront of holding government accountable. Our First Amendment duty to hold those in power accountable remains at the center of our mission. To the three Pulitzer Prizes won by our organization, this year The Times-Picayune and NOLA.com added a Peabody Award, an Edward R. Murrow Award, a National Headliner Award and an Emmy award. Some of these awards we shared with our partners, WVUE-TV, another signpost of our commitment to be creative, and combine forces where it enhances our ability to hold governments to account and bring wrongdoing into the light.

But our world has changed. You demand more of us than ever before. Those of us who grew up in the print world became accustomed to giving readers the news we thought you needed. Don’t call us; we’ll call you. Well, maybe you can write a letter to the editor, and we’ll think about whether we want to print it.

That doesn’t fly anymore. You want to engage with us. We invite you to do so, and we’re better for it. You want to ask us questions. We’re there to answer, in real-time. You want to tell us what’s missing from our story, what we got wrong, whom we should call, what aspect we’re overlooking, what other stories flow from this one. It’s part of our job to be in the middle of that conversation and to let it improve our journalism.

Despite our ongoing evolution, we still have the largest news-gathering team in the state of Louisiana. The amount of news and information available to our readers has exploded. We are in the 24-hour news business. We tell you what happens, when it happens, and then we step back and explain what it means. Your expectations have changed the way we cover news. We now post on average more than 250 stories, photo galleries and videos each day. That number is exponentially higher than before we started this journey.

It’s not enough anymore to be a good reporter and a good writer. Those skills are still critical, but they are the minimum. You must also be fast. And shoot photos. And shoot video. And operate in multiple platforms in real time. And innovate. And invent new and compelling ways to tell stories. And make readers want to come back to you again and again. This requires a workforce that simply did not exist three years ago.

I’ve been in the media industry for most of my career. I often tell folks I have learned more in the past six months than I had learned in my career. The speed of change is breathtaking.

At NOLA Media Group, we have built a best-in-class digital ad solutions company. The growth we are experiencing on the digital ad side of our business is significantly outpacing the industry. Hundreds of local businesses now turn to us to help them navigate through the digital advertising maze. We have a new promise for our advertisers: We are your audience experts. As audiences move fluidly across platforms, customers become a moving target for advertisers. We have invested in training our sales team and providing the best digital solutions and support teams to build custom campaigns and deliver measurable results. We are helping our advertisers identify customers and reach them across multiple platforms – including digital display and video, mobile marketing, behavioral targeting, search engine marketing, search engine optimization, social media, email marketing, content marketing and print. And despite the challenges for newspapers, the reach of The Times-Picayune is still critical to advertiser ad plans. When NOLA.com and The Times-Picayune work together, we can reach 71percent of the market. Add to that our sophisticated audience targeting capabilities, and we reach nearly 100 percent of the market.

We are committed to this journey. We are building an innovative, digitally-focused company while continuing to publish great newspapers. And while we know that constant change is the new normal, the printed Times-Picayune will continue to be part of our mission and our business plan for many years.

Looking back at the introduction of the iPhone and the massive digital upheaval that has occurred since 2007 reminds us that the pace of change continues to accelerate. The one thing that’s clear is that only those companies that can keep up with that pace – that can change as fast as the world is changing – have a future.

Some people look at us and think we’re changing too fast. But we look at the world we’re living in, a world of smartphones and speed, and we know we have to push down harder on the accelerator.

Alberto Ibarguen, the former publisher of the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald and current president and CEO of the Knight Foundation, talked about the forces of change in a recent speech. The Knight Foundation has invested millions of dollar in hundreds of efforts designed to innovate the collection and delivery of news in a digital age. Its leadership of journalism innovation is groundbreaking, and Alberto is uniquely positioned to speak about the massive change media companies are going through. In his speech, he alluded to the innovation happening at NOLA.com and The Times-Picayune. He closed by saying, “As so often is the case, you have two choices: You can curse the darkness or light the candle.”

We chose to light the candle.

We have traveled into uncharted territory, and like most entrepreneurial companies, we’re building the blueprint as we go. We know that the path ahead is still full of challenges. Our promise to New Orleans is that we’ll take that journey of reinvention together with you — and continue to inform, engage, entertain, listen and shine a light on injustice wherever we see it for another 178 years.

Ricky Mathews is president and publisher of NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.
UPDATE: Ricky Mathews is currently the President of Advance Media Southeast.