New ‘Valley News’ Publisher Takes Over at Pivotal Time
Dan McClory at the Valley News on December 13, 2012. Valley News - Sarah Priestap
West Lebanon — The handoff of the Valley News publisher’s baton tends to occur at pivotal moments.
The late Bin Lewis started work after a change of ownership and served until shortly before the 1993 launch of the Sunday Valley News, which was presided over by John Kuhns. Mark Travis replaced Kuhns in 2008, at the start of the Great Recession, and Travis handed the reins to Dan McClory this month, just after the newspaper set up a new, more comprehensive website.
At earlier transitions, the newspaper was following an established business model. There is no such model for the future.
“I think what you’re seeing is step one of the next generation,” said McClory, who became publisher at the turn of the year. The newspaper’s print edition is still its bread and butter, and protecting it has been central to the newspaper’s business strategy over the past decade. But now that the newspaper has rolled out a new web edition amid a shift to readers getting their news online, it’s in new and less-certain territory.
“I think the future is about continuing to produce local content, but delivering it however people want it,” said Travis, who left the Valley News to become publisher of its sister newspaper, the Concord Monitor. “The trick is making the dollars work. I don’t think that’s a mission impossible at all.”
That mission is now in the hands of McClory and the newspaper’s senior other managers.
McClory, 50, is a career newspaperman. He grew up in Cortland, N.Y., and earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting at the State University of New York-Oswego. After school, he went to work for Park Communications, an Ithaca, N.Y., company that owned newspapers and radio stations, first as a seasonal employee, proofreading the math in budget documents, then as business manager of a small daily newspaper, The Evening Sun in Norwich, N.Y. From there, the company moved him to the Register-Star in Hudson, N.Y., then to the corporate office, where he was assistant controller of the newspaper division, a job that had him traveling to newspapers around the country.
A recruiter contacted him about an opening at Newspapers of New England. “I had no intention of ever moving to New Hampshire,” he said.
But he met with then-President George Wilson and CFO Rick Wakefield. The company had a good reputation in the industry, and he liked that it is family owned, McClory said. When Travis introduced his replacement to employees in mid-December, he contrasted their leadership styles: Travis said he was the flash, while McClory was the substance.
“My strengths are about creativity and inventiveness,” Travis, 55, explained in a subsequent interview, “and his are about execution and steadiness.” They made a good team, he said.
Those differences aside, the publisher’s brief is fairly straightforward.
McClory, who like Travis lives in Grantham with his family, noted that many people think a publisher oversees the editorial aspects of the newspaper. That’s a misconception, he said.
“The publisher’s job is really to steer the ship,” he said. It’s a business job, said McClory, who will also remain the chief financial officer of the parent company.
Steering the Valley News traditionally has meant hiring the best possible managers and letting them do their jobs, Travis said. So what does the publisher do?
“The answer, basically, is as little as possible,” Travis said. A publisher sets the newspaper’s direction, communicates both in the building and the community about that direction and makes decisions as needed. Both men said that the newspaper’s senior managers in news, production, advertising and printing have many years of experience among them.
“If you get too caught up in doing things day to day, you don’t have the time to think, to look around at what other people are doing, to read broadly,” Travis said.
The publisher also takes a seat on the newspaper’s editorial board, which decides the newspaper’s editorial stances. McClory did so while filling in for Travis a few years ago.
“That was one of the most challenging things,” McClory said. “Finding the time to be caught up on all the issues” in the news while also managing the newspaper’s and its parent company’s finances.
In an industry beset with difficulties, the Valley News has been a success story, which explains why its leaders tend to sound cautiously optimistic. Over the past decade, when newspapers were losing circulation and advertising revenue in their print editions, the Valley News continued to experience stability and even growth. And while it has recently seen declines in circulation, the drop-off has been slow.
The most recent installment of a twice-yearly report of circulation at New England newspapers shows an average circulation decline of 7.5 percent across the region, with many newspapers losing more than 10 percent of their paid readership. But in that six-month period, which ended Sept. 30, 2012, the Valley News sold an average of 1 percent fewer newspapers — the best results among New England newspapers.
While the Valley News has held strong, it isn’t entirely clear what will arrest the decline in circulation and revenue elsewhere in the industry. Several news industry watchers suggested late last year that spending on online advertising was on track to outpace print ad sales in 2012 for the first time at American newspapers, but struggling print publications have been losing ad revenue dramatically faster than their digital versions have been adding it. Witness the demise last year of the print version of Newsweek.
“It’s like trying to do business 10 years after Gutenberg developed the printing press,” Travis said.
In addition to implementing the new website, the Valley News experimented with some new initiatives during Travis’ tenure. The newspaper strengthened news coverage and scooped up new subscribers in the Claremont area after the Claremont Eagle Times closed for several months in 2009. However, an effort to replace the classified advertising publication put out by the Eagle Times never took off, and Valley Buzz, an earlier attempt at Internet advertising, also fell by the wayside.
Travis said he was proud of those efforts. “In some ways, failures are as important as successes, as long as the price isn’t too high,” he said.
Publications are finding success in the Internet era, but those successes are idiosyncratic, said Thomas Kearney, former longtime executive editor of the Keene Sentinel and former managing editor of the Stowe Reporter and Waterbury Reporter in Vermont.
For example, The New York Times is making money through its website, but then again, it’s The New York Times, the nation’s newspaper of record. (The Times also has offered buyouts to 30 staff and is not replacing senior executives who recently left the company.)
The Stowe Reporter increased revenues by 50 percent over six years, mostly during the recent recession, Kearney said. The company developed niche products, such as a wedding magazine, a Stowe guide and a Stowe-area web portal, Stowe.com. Oh, and another newspaper, the Waterbury Reporter.
“For a long time, there wasn’t much experimentation” in the newspaper business, Kearney said. If there’s a single answer to the future of newspapers it’s that finding success will be specific to each place and that small companies have an advantage, because they provide something no larger competitor can.
On that basis, McClory said, the Valley News is well-positioned for the next decade. The print edition is still robust and the website offers an option for people who want to get their news online. The parent company also has a working group looking at further digital advances, McClory said.
“We’re probably one of the strongest daily newspapers in the Northeast, if not the country,” he said. His mission: to help it stay that way.
Alex Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3219.