Charlotte-based American City Business Journals is the nation's largest publisher of local business news and information, deploying more than 600 journalists across 43 major U.S. cities. Add a few sports publications and Bizwomen, and you have a very strong media brand.
Given that scope, Whit Shaw, ACBJ’s president and CEO, quickly puts you at ease. His sports background leads to a discussion about his beloved Carolina Panthers and his heartbreak over their recent Super Bowl loss—yes, he was there. He’s a good storyteller, and you wish he could just keep telling them like when he wrote “the best bowling column” at Wake Forest and other fun recollections.
But the idea was to learn what makes this new Connectiv member company so successful, how print can still be valued yet digital-first made clear, and hearing about the pomp and circumstances of managing 43 business journals from Honolulu to Albany and Jacksonville to Portland. The best news is that Shaw will be speaking at the Connectiv Executive Summit, May 11-13 in Austin, Texas, in a session titled CEOs Off the Record.
Fortunately for us, he spoke on the record last week.
Connectiv: Looking at The Business Journals website, the quality of the content is clearly very high. It must be a priority.
Whit Shaw: [It’s] one of the things we’ve always been proudest of [since] my family got involved in ACBJ. My dad had been the COO at Dow Jones. He took early retirement at 55, and was literally on an airplane from New York to Charlotte to visit the founder of ACBJ [the next day]. His background was as a small-town journalist and then with Associated Press and Wall Street Journal. [Ray Shaw died in 2009.] I also came up on the reporting and editing side. Our culture and everything starts with content. The challenge is having so many properties in so many markets spread out across the country. It constantly requires communication between editors, publishers, and ad directors to keep everything on track.
Connectiv: But you knew what you were getting into.
Shaw: [I recall] our attorney looking at each of us across the table during the deal, and telling us that managing this company will be like holding a lapful of puppies. You’ll have all the puppies on your lap, then one will jump off, you’ll move to get it, and two more will move away. It really is like that; you try to herd everybody, recognize and celebrate individuality and get everyone moving in the same direction.
Connectiv: Having the right people in place must be a big factor.
Shaw: Yes, but you also have to give them the latitude and trust to make decisions and understand what we’re all working towards. There’s no way an executive team in Charlotte can make decisions on an instantaneous basis for a paper in Honolulu. You trust the publisher, editor and ad director to run it. If we need to change course, we change course. If things don’t pan out when a publisher makes a decision, we fix it and move on. It’s also not just the people who work for us [that matter]; it’s the success that comes because of the relationships we build with others in the community. Are they connected to the C-suite of major companies in the market? Do they see them on a relatively frequent basis? Do they see them attending charity events in the community? Relationships are a critical part of the formula.
Connectiv: I believe all of your business journals still print. How do you balance that in this age of digital?
Shaw: Print is still an important part of our business; it is also a challenging part of our business. Print still has its purpose; we use print now to try to provide depth to breaking news, to provide information in a longer form that will help people grow their business and their careers. It is still critical in that regard. We moved newsrooms and started talking to all the editors—that you have to think digitally first. You have to be willing to break news on social, online, twitter etc. But the analysis, after you break it—it’s what we still do in print.
Connectiv: How has your revenue mix changed the last few years?
Shaw: We’ve been very focused on diversifying our revenue makeup, embracing strategies that reduce our reliance on print revenue. The biggest driver has been our events business. We got serious about events in about 2007 or ‘08, and it has been a rapidly growing part of our business. It’s an area we expect to continue to grow quickly, as we commit more and more resources to it—both people and technology. Just for the business journals alone, we’re putting on somewhere north of 1100 events annually, and attendance on those will be more than 300,000. It’s a very good area for us. It becomes more important not just as print advertising continues to shift, but as the dynamics of digital advertising change as well. There’s much more programmatic now then there was; there’s pressure on CPMs. I get really excited when I see a market where half of their revenue is non-print related and growing rapidly. That can turn into revenue streams for us.
Connectiv: I’ve seen the number of events you do, say, here in Washington.
Shaw: Our advantage [with events] is the same that we have in print—that with a national footprint we’re really able to execute locally. When you can build an events business in Washington around local events, and not a two-day conference that somebody has to fly to—and you’re able to do that in 40-plus markets—it’s a powerful piece of business for you.
Connectiv: How do your business journals share with each other?
Shaw: It doesn’t take long for word to get around if something works. There are both formal and informal ways we do that. Informal would be a publisher calling up and asking, “What’s going on? I see that you added a few veterans in the workplace and had three or four sponsors. How did you do it?” [Formally,] there’s a communications group in the company whose responsibility is to spread the word, set up business journal reports to the executive VPs or group publishers that oversee day-to-day contact. “This worked in Orlando—you should do it in Tampa.”
Connectiv: How about for the content side?
Shaw: We have national editors in Charlotte who do Stuff to Steal every week; it’s basically a note to every editorial department that here’s something a market is doing; maybe you should consider doing it. Frankly it’s just a way to share success.
Connectiv: Another big trend today is the “unsiloing” in media companies. Have you found this to be true as well?
Shaw: I don’t think a media or marketing company can flourish anymore burdened by silos. Like many, we were comfortable for a long time having those silos, bunkers, so that communication was more controlled and channeled than it is now. We’ve put a lot of emphasis on making sure that when product development group talks about something new, people from marketing, content, ad sales, tech are all in the room. It has become a much more collaborative effort. One specific example—a reporter in Nashville put together Crane Watch, an interactive map that shows the development going on in the city. You can click on a part of the map and see a high-rise going up that connects with articles and information with events around there. The development of that included people from UX, sales, tech, marketing—I don’t know if that would have been feasible a few years ago. I grew up in newsrooms where there was a wall between editorial and advertising. It’s different now but we still make sure to totally respect and trust our journalistic integrity.
Connectiv: Where are you in the data world?
Shaw: For us data is on two tracks: 1) collecting more information about our current customers—having them tell us what they’re interested in so we can better meet their needs; and 2) using that profile of our customers to locate and identify others in the community who look like that and should be customers but aren’t. There’s such a great opportunity to create products and content, and tailor the experience in ways that just weren’t possible.
Connectiv: Never thought I would see the job titles I see now for media companies…
Shaw: Yes, say in San Antonio, if there’s a newsroom of eight people, one will most likely be a data editor, collecting information about people, and asking how do we better serve this audience.
Connectiv: Times have changed.
Shaw: Life was really simple when we published a weekly newspaper in 40 cities. Now it isn’t hard to juggle when you’re juggling one ball, but when it’s six or eight, that can mess you up, Maybe you can even juggle the eight balls, but then someone throws number nine at you.
Connectiv: Even more reason to be proud of your success. Anything else that’s changed?
Shaw: You have to spend significantly more time with your people, explaining to them what it all means. “Here’s our opportunity, here’s the direction we’re going, and here’s how we’re going to be successful.” There’s just more of everything today. People in the media business—whether for 40 years or 40 days—they read headlines. And often you have to get out in front of that and tell them, “Yes our world is changing and some things we can’t control, like the rise in social media and the impact the way news is disseminated.” But what you have to do is what we think is the best course of action.
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…