Neil Budde has gotten comfortable in his fourth-floor office at The Courier-Journal. After nearly three months, Budde says he’s gotten re-acquainted with his old colleagues (he worked at the C-J from 1978-1984), met with current staffers, and begun putting in place his own plan as executive editor.
His office is roomy but not fancy. The key feature is a stand-up desk where he scans the Internet (he says it helps his back to stand). When I was there (Dec. 12), the news that Gannett’s plan to insert more USA Today content into local editions had just been announced, a plan he’s been working on for some time.
Here’s our interview.
Rick Redding: There’s some very interesting things going on in the newspaper business. Obviously, you have a big job. When I heard the announcement about you being here, I said if anybody can do it, that’s the kind of background they need. How’s it going so far? You’ ve been here how long?
Neil Budde: About two-and-a-half months. I think it’s going great. I’ve spent a lot of time getting up to speed, sitting down one on one with everyone in the newsroom. I think I’ve made it through everyone in the newsroom now and am learning where we are on a lot of things. But I’m excited. I’ve told a lot of people it’s the most fun I’ve had in a job in long time.
RR: Talk around town in media circles is how everything is going downhill here at The Courier-Journal. I’m going to give you a chance to refute that. What kind of moves are you making or how can we look positively at the future of The Courier-Journal.
NB: I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t know there were challenges, but I also know there’s a great opportunity. This is a great institution that’s still well regarded in the community. Obviously what we’re trying to do is to continue to evolve across all platforms. We’re making a lot of moves on the print side and also on the digital side.
Even before I got here there was a redesign of the newspaper to put an even greater emphasis on local. That will take another step early next year to expand the local news section even more and to add in a section from USA Today that will bring in additional national and world news.
RR: That story just broke that Gannett is going to put USA Today in all its local newspapers. When is that going to happen here?
NB: It will be late January in Louisville. Each week beginning in mid-January and well into March there will be several more newspapers added. It’s not all the Gannett newspapers, it will be the 35 largest. Four have already gone. There was a test done in Indianapolis, Rochester and a couple other cities, and the reaction the company got both anecdotally and through research from readers is that this is a great addition to the paper and you’re improving the quality of what we get.
I’m very excited both qualitatively and quantitatively in terms of sales on newsstands as well as subscriptions. The company is very excited. I’m excited. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last month getting ready for this. We’ve been doing a lot of planning. What are we gonna do with the additional local news hole that we have? How are we gonna beef up what we’re covering and how are we gonna take advantage of this locally?
RR: … Let’s address digital subscription sales. You have a paywall. I don’t subscribe, sorry, but I keep going to the Courier and it says, “This is your last article.” I just don’t see that being a good thing for the paper. Defend it…
NB: I was involved with the start of the Wall Street Journal (online) almost 20 years ago. From the very beginning we recognized that subscribers should be part of the mix… A lot of people thought that we were just taking the Wall Street Journal, putting it online and charging for it. The reality was we built a whole product around the Wall Street Journal. We added a lot of value beyond each day’s newspaper. We had archival content. We had real-time updating. So part of it is about building a product that people recognize that has value to them.
I think part of our challenge right now is to continue to evolve and improve the digital products we offer so that people will recognize there is a value to them to have access to that completely without hitting paywalls and other kinds of things.
RR: I’ve seen the stories about national digital subscription sales. The numbers they’ve promised to their corporate people are a lot higher than the actual numbers. Is there a strategy beyond doing what you’re doing to address that?
NB: There are a couple things. One is we will undergo a fairly significant redesign of the desktop product early next year. It’s very similar to the design you see at USA Today.com. I just saw a story today that it was named one of the top five web site redesigns last year. I think it’s a really solid design and gives a much greater value to readers of the desktop.
Just this past weekend we launched a new tablet app. So that if you prefer the iPad or Android tablet we have new apps there and updated phone apps will be coming out next week.
So part of the digital strategy is to get to a new platform that is much easier to use, much greater utility, and through that we can also offer other things.
We’ve also just reduced the price of a digital-only subscription. It had been $13 a month, now it’s $9.99. What people told us is that they judge everything online, or everything digital, not against another newspapers, but they tend to judge it against something else they pay for. ‘Oh, I pay $9.99 for Netflix.’ So online in their mind — that’s the price point that’s kind of acceptable to pay for something.
So there’s a lot of things going on to improve the marketability of our digital subscriptions, but I think there’s still some continued evolution that once we get on these platforms we need to add and increase the value that we give them.
RR: Let’s switch gears and talk about local coverage. Over the last several years, a lot of people are moaning about budget cuts and furloughs and the coverage isn’t what is used to be. I was shocked when the recent big story at Greater Louisville Inc was covered by WFPL, Insider Louisville, all the TV stations, but the Courier was very slow to cover that story. What are you doing to try to deliver the full coverage of news that people are accustomed to with a reduced staff?
NB: I think it’s twofold. One is what we want to do is identify the areas that we can do well and give people great coverage on. Yes, there are going to be some things that we choose not to cover to the extent that we used to. That’s a tradeoff that is important to make. We want to focus on quality, not quantity. I think in the past we’ve been more focused on quantity and spread ourselves too thin, and what we end up with in some cases is less quality coverage of a lot of things when I think we can do a better job of covering a smaller numbers of things really well.
We did some market research last week and talking to subscribers what they told us was they really wanted us to do in-depth, they want us to do things to put the news in context, to help them understand the news. They don’t want us to do a lot of crime. They want us to continue to do watchdog journalism, hold government officials accountable. We’re putting more of our resources in those kind of directions. That may mean we do give up some of the routine coverage of some certain kinds of things.
RR: One thing about Louisville, here in town there’s the KYCIR and WDRB. A lot of the things they’ve done, a lot of it was giving a lot of grief to the Courier. You’re competing, and taking a lot of potshots from other media.
NB: That’s kind of natural. Everyone aims for the leader. That’s the thing you shoot at. In trying to build yourself up, you take some shots at that. I think there have been some circumstances over the last year that have made it easier to do that. But I think we’re on a new path. We have made a number of hires. A couple of people have been hired and we’re beefing back up our reporting ranks. I think you’re going to see some really great stuff coming out of this organization in the next year.
RR: The trend has been less people and Gannett wants you to cut, cut, cut. It seems like in other organizations in town the bottoming out has happened. You say you’re hiring people. What do you see in the future for staffing?
NB: It’s always hard to predict. This industry is continuing to go through some upheaval. Between some improvements in the economy and some efforts here to bolster the approach, I think we’re in pretty good shape. If that holds, we may be at a bottom, if you will, but I think there’s always going to be continued transition in how we approach news and how we go after news, particularly in trying to be really strong across multiple platforms not only in the newspaper, but everything we do digitally as well.
RR: Some other markets have gone to less than seven days a week. Do you see a day when the Courier doesn’t publish seven days a week?
NB: I don’t have any sense that that’s in the offing. In fact I think that this project with USA Today is really about reinvesting in our local print newspaper. If anything, we’re putting more resources in, we’re putting more investment into a richer package of news both locally and with USA Today. It’s all about trying to rebuild that business and hold on to it.