By Willie Sawyers
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — The following is a speech I gave to the Kentucky Press Association after being named president last Friday at the KPA Winter Convention in Louisville.
The Kentucky Press Association has been a big part of my life since 1985 when I got a letter from David Thompson telling me to come on down to Paducah because he had an award to give me.
So, me and my lovely wife Mary left our three young kids at Grandma’s and headed west. We drove for what seemed like a whole day, seeing nothing but beautiful Kentucky countryside and a whole lot of wildlife, before finally arriving at the KPA convention.
I was impressed by the pomp and circumstance of the awards banquet. All the Kentucky newspaper stalwarts were in attendance. I was happy none of them noticed my clip-on tie. I saw David Thompson and was surprised he didn’t recognize me, considering he had sent me a personal letter about my award. Finally, my name was mentioned. I was the proud owner of a third place certificate for news writing.
The drive back home across Kentucky seemed even longer. My wife wasn’t very impressed with my showing at the awards ceremony, especially after we’d spent about half of my small newspaper salary getting to Paducah. But I was still proud of my award. Thus began my association with KPA that has lasted more than 30 years.
Since then I’ve won many KPA awards. Most of them are hanging on a wall in an office in London where Al Smith used to hold court during his long and storied journalism career. I’ve been a reporter, editor, publisher and weekly newspaper owner. And I must say my enthusiasm for our profession is just as great today as it was when I saw my first byline in print.
You see, I believe the worst is behind us and we have turned the corner. Now more than ever people are looking to newspapers to give them professionally produced and unbiased information that cuts through the froth generated by talking heads, spinmiesters, political operatives and the hordes of journalistic pretenders with an internet connection.
People are depending on newspapers to give them answers to their questions; to let them know what’s going on their communities; to protect them from governmental corruption, to make them laugh, and to make them cry. We continue to put speed bumps on scroll bars with compelling articles and information they can’t get anywhere else.
And you know what, people are willing to pay us for it if we only ask. I am so glad to see our industry finally moving toward a subscription based model for our web sites, instead of giving all our content away for free, something that Warren Buffet saw immediately was an “unsustainable model.”
My own company, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., has been testing metered subscriptions in several of our markets. What we’ve found has been very positive and edifying. We’ve seen a minimal loss in page views and a consistent growth in digital subscriptions. Many other newspaper companies are reporting the same growth. I believe this is the model we’ve been searching for to help ensure our future.
But again, content is the key. In every forecast put forth by people inside and outside the industry, producing top-notch journalism is essential to our survival. We’ve got to go back to the future and deliver the kind of journalism that brought Pulitzer Prizes to our state. This can happen if we refocus our energies and resources. I am happy to report that for 2013, the number one priority in our company of 130 newspapers is not how to do more with less, but it’s about reinvesting in our publications and improving the news content.
Because of the recession and the digital transformation, some of our newsrooms are not as well staffed as they used to be. But we still have writing and photography talent that is superior to our competition. Come to the awards banquet tonight and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
We’ve got to get our mojo back and prove the doomsayers and naysayers wrong about our industry. Doomsayers like “60 Minutes” correspondent Morley Safer. If you watched his recent segment on the New Orleans Times Picayune going to three days a week you would have gotten the impression that all newspapers are dying.
But it wasn’t long ago when “60 Minutes” did another piece showing the true importance of newspapers. The segment was about two young reporters at my newspaper, the Times Tribune in Corbin, who brought down a
corrupt local sheriff with courageous and thorough reporting. Neither the FBI nor the ATF could put and end to the kind of corruption that plagues many of our communities, but the local newspaper did.
My other newspaper, the London Sentinel-Echo, does weekly profiles on people in the community. In the past two years, we’ve run more than 100 profiles on regular, yet interesting, folks in London and Laurel County. That’s 100 people with family and friends who’ve bought a bunch of newspapers. This is a great way to connect with our communities.
Warren Buffet says this is the way to make newspapers indispensable to our readers. “No one has ever stopped reading halfway through a story that was about them or their neighbors,” Buffet said after his purchase of 60 newspapers from Media General. Yes, smart business people still view newspapers as a good investment.
Instead of doomsayers like Morley Safer, I prefer to echo the thoughts of MacKenzie McHale in “The Newsroom” on HBO. When Will McAvoy asks what winning looks like to her, she replies:
“Reclaiming the fourth estate. Reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession… Civility, respect and a return to what’s important; the death of bitchiness; the death of gossip and voyeurism; speaking truth to stupid. No demographic sweet spot; a place where we can all come together.”
Now, more than ever, newspapers need to be speaking a whole lot of truth, because there’s a whole lot of stupid going around, folks.
Ah, the newsroom at a newspaper. There’s nothing like it. I used to love the smell of hot wax in the morning and the low rumble of the building as the press came to life each day. The eclectic mix of journalists banging away on their typewriters while on deadline. The cans of Coke and Mt. Dew on their desks, with perhaps something a little stiffer in the drawer, along with half-eaten bags of chips. The smoldering cigarettes in ashtrays. The constant ringing of the telephones.
We were the information hub of the community, and you know what, we still are. Technology has changed our industry. We have changed with it, slowly and in some cases reluctantly, but we still have our destiny in our own hands if we reclaim the fourth estate and make our products indispensable to the people in our communities.
I am humbled and proud to serve as president of the best press association in the country, with the best executive director and best staff in the country. I am happy now that David Thompson knows my name. KPA has been a steadying, guiding influence to our newspapers for decades. KPA has been our constant companion, from hot type to digital delivery to whatever lies beyond. I will work hard to continue that mission.
One of my goals for next year is to expand our summer internship program. Each summer we place 20 college interns in newspapers and PR firms at a cost of $60,000 to KPA. This year 38 newspapers applied for interns, but only half will get them. So that’s something I’m going to work on.
It’s a great program that gives interns experience in the field and helps our companies deal with furloughs and vacations. Many of us have even hired our summer interns for full time jobs. I also want to reassure the young people in this room thinking about going into journalism that there will always be jobs for good writers and content creators. I have an opening right now at my daily newspaper if anyone is interested.
We have a great convention lined up for you with about a thousand people expected, a large number of vendors, industry-renowned speakers, and hundreds of award winners. A hopeful, enthusiastic spirit is in the air—kind of like in the old days when a young, eager journalist drove clear across the state to pick up a third-place KPA certificate.
Yes, I believe we are headed back to the future.