Newspapers need to change, says official

By Mark McGowan

Newspapers will have to become more customer-oriented and advertising-conscious if they want to survive the 1990s, said a leading industry official who spoke at NIU Tuesday night.

Gary Watson, president of the community newspaper division of Gannett, said the newspaper industry is at a “crossroads” and must become more reader-responsive and reconsider its circulation and advertising policies.

“The best times are still ahead if we make the changes our audience is after,” Watson said. “(If not), we’ll go the way of the buggy whip industry.”

Watson, a 1967 NIU graduate and a former Northern Star staff member, said readers today think newspapers are “arrogant, irrelevant and bored. People think we don’t care—we’re not a meaningful part of their lives.”

The first challenge newspapers need to meet is in the newsroom, Watson said. “No paper can be successful without a good news product,” he said. “Newspapers are painfully aware that they’re not the only game in town.”

Watson said advertising is in “chaos.” He said classified ads make up almost 50 percent of current advertising, and national advertising programs continue to slide because of corporate mergers and takeovers. Advertising budgets usually get cut first, Watson said.

Insert advertising is growing, Watson said, but said he feels it is a “mixed blessing. We need to keep an eye on the minnows becoming sharks as competition in the pond with us.”

Watson said newspapers are concentrating on improving a “people element,” but said he is convinced the efforts are “not good enough. We need to make sure (newspaper staffs) mirror the community.”

Leadership has slipped more than 30 percent in recent years, Watson said. He said people want more stories related to human interest issues, like single parenting. Watson said this is probably a result of the “baby-boomer-me-generation.”

He also said newspapers need to make themselves appear as a more attractive profession. Watson said the industry needs more internships, scholarships, and needs to institute recruiting and placement programs and also begin a pay-scale increase across the board.

Watson said the newspapers have no one but themselves to blame for recent problems like declining subscriptions and loss of readership. “Our actions in the last two decades have put us in a hole that will be hard to crawl out from,” he said.

Newspapers must add minorities and women in all levels, Watson said. He said about 20 percent of Gannett’s staff are minorities and women.

Watson got his start at the Rockford Register Star, his hometown newspaper. Starting as a city hall beat reporter, he advanced to political editor and eventually city editor. Watson left Rockford for Boise, Idaho, where he was editor of the Idaho Statesman.

After a stint as editor of the Springfield, Mo., newspapers, he returned to Rockford as president and publisher of the Star. In 1984, Watson moved on to the Cincinnati Enquirer, and, in 1985, earned his current positon with Gannett.