America East: Keeping the iron pumping and your facts right

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Another city, another newsmedia conference and trade show. But this one is America East in the Pennsylvania chocolate town of Hershey, 28°F instead of the 28°C I've just left, a 37-hour flight away.

And yes, things are different.

And yet the same: As chairman of the US News Media Alliance, Mike Klingensmith has been intimately involved in efforts to allow publishers to negotiate collectively with social giants Google and Facebook, and "take some revenue back from the duopoly".

As publisher and chief executive of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, he's also intensely proud of print innovations including a glossy magazine which turns $2 million in what he says is "the fifth largest Sunday paper in America's 12th largest city". An inspirational Saturday section with a title to match, draws $500k from two sponsors, while a predominantly digital art weekly bought "at a print multiple", and a vacation and tourism exhibition have been recent new ventures.

Proud too, that at 151, the paper is "as old as the city, and Canada".

Continue to adapt and persist, "but don't lose sight of who we are and what we do," he urges over the conference's opening keynote lunch.

Brand - and what it stands for - becomes a recurring theme as the conference proceeds, events (see story: Events gurus know when to hold them, when to walk away) being a good way of emphasising it, showing people that newspapers are still around... and making money in the process.

There are others, of course. Most of the panelists at the opening session have full-service agency operations, and sponsored coffee table books are popular, as is native content, and there's a speaker from spin-off 535Media, Jeff Simmons on the exhibition stage to offer it to you - including a cute baby sloth - free if that's what it takes.

But I'm hopping around, dipping into a varied programme which includes working with 'frenemies' and challenges the 'pivot to video' assumption.

And as Klingensmith asks his panelists about projects for millennials, you look around and realise there's not a lot of them in the room. There's a danger of thinking that the America East Business and Technology Conference - of which we are a media partner and I'm attending for the second time in three or four years - and the market it serves, might be a bit like that: A goody but an oldie. The other elephant in the room is that attendance is down, both among delegates and exhibitors, very likely as a result of the expansion of the west-coast Mega Conference to become a replacement for NMA's mediaXchange event.

A worry is that young people, and most of the major systems vendors are absent from the floor, exceptions being ppiMedia and ad management specialist Lineup, and locals such as SCS and Icanon. Somewhat curiously, StoryEditor Solutions are here from Croatia, although project manager Jure Sulentic admits that going into Azerbaijan would be a substantial expansion east for them.

Much more lively is the contingent of 'heavy metal' vendors, most of them not here to sell new presses but to support and maintain the old ones (presses we mean) of which there seem to be a few still in use.

In a session on 'value-added printing', Mike Donnelly of Indiana Printing & Publishing talks of the "herding cats" mentality needed for commercial newspaper production on old Goss Urbanite and Harris V15D equipment, for which there are "not a lot of pressmen around". It's a reality which has brought him to "play for a better day" rather than rushing to put people off when work turns down.

The 1980s V15D alone - on which they print process colour - would require a level of skill and craft which is increasingly hard to source in this pushbutton world, and I salute him.

Meanwhile upstairs in the exhibition hall is all the hands-on experience needed to keep America's huge installed base of "old iron" turning smoothly and up to speed.

Locally-based The Siebold Company has recently bought the former DGM from its Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and is signed to bring more used equipment across from new agency GWS in the Netherlands. They are now equipped, and have the IP, to build whole presses, but are likely to spend more of their time on refurbishments and reconfigurations. While I'm talking to TSC sales and marketing vice president Bruce Barna, a passer-by asks about support for what, by definition, will be an old Goss Metro - "no trouble," says Barna - while across the hall, Jim Gore has been building his Pressline business on the strength of creating new and patent-pending Flexpress lines from elderly Goss Urbanite units, most notably at the Boston Globe.

Koenig & Bauer and manroland are here - also focused on the aftermarket - but not manroland's brand-new partner, Goss International, although the merger brings much to talk about. manroland's PrintValue consultant and Johnny Cash-lookalike is a former Goss man and reminds me of the two US presses on which they have already installed German-developed PECOM controls.

A moment before, another John, John Giustiniani seemed to be the only one in the house talking new press equipment when he extolled the one-minute-40 changeovers they are achieving on the Chinese-built Goss Magnum Compact at the Staten Island Advance, where he is operations and technology director. More on this to come, but meanwhile a statistic that speaks for itself on a six-tower single-width press: 14,000 plates a week... just for one job.

Tom Sewall told how Advance unit the Springfield Republican in Massachusetts was also doing a lot of work - eight dailies and 14 weeklies with "booming" production averaging 142 separate press runs a week last year on their manroland Regioman and a Magnum in Muskagon, Michigan. Keeping it simple helps push the work through - typically limiting work to all-colour 16-24 page products - and costs are kept down by sourcing "free or used" items and improvising.

Many of these are small sites - Donnelly started the paper five years ago - and the advantages and limitations of being small were a topic celebrated in a separate panel. I came away thinking there might be little going for it, apart from being nimble, flexible and able to make your own decisions quickly. Founder of Uniquely John Newby talked events - and the success of an Elvis impersonator - but earlier we heard how a tiny Gannett unit in Dewey, Oklahoma, (population 3502) had been able to bring on a blizzard, literally, for a Christmas promotion.

At the other end of the scale, I caught the benefits of scale in being able to leverage technologies such as AI - in comment moderation and automated report writing - VR, and more.

NMA president David Chavern took part in a session questioning the "pivot to video", in which digital media strategist and advisor Heidi Moore was critical of the speed with which the newsmedia industry had ramped up video at the behest of the social giants and the expense of other priorities, "without a look back". The only justification for video was for "something you want to see happening," she said. "Facebook's not fooled, but we are."

And audio products? "Nobody knows," says Chavern, musing "it could be an easier place for legacy newspapers to go. In reality, we don't know what people want."

Maybe they want obituaries? George Arwady told of the $160k the Springfield Republican had made from them, and there was some speculation in Angelo DeFilippis' address that we might be able to get bots to write them, at least in part.

And match (and value) realestate with homebuyers, which was DeFilippis' business before that of recruitment, "50 per cent" of which will be programmatic-driven by 2025. It was an opportunity to learn about the predictive analytics which challenged Warren Buffett's $1 million March Madness brackets, and the optimistic algorithms which "track each job as if it were a bird".

Associated Press sports products director Barry Bedlan had mused 22 years ago, that robots could write the high school sports reports he had been tasked with... and now they were doing so, faultlessly. In most cases, AP was able to extend its service to areas - such as Minor League, Single-A and Rookie baseball - which would not have been covered otherwise, adding value and detail in the process.

Bedlan says data personalization is another area being explored by others, and there might be a time when, as well as "one story for a million people", AP robots might be writing a million stories each for one person.

The discussion continued through selling cars and property - "two areas where people are looking for value" - to matching soulmates, but there was one thing that hadn't changed in two decades: garbage in, garbage out.

"It all comes down to the data," said DeFilippis.

Talking of which, there was the effort to reassure publishers that the world hadn't caved in because internet sales had reached 9.1 per cent... and that journalists had got it all wrong. Siteworks president Mike Egelanian also assured that Amazon's (qualified) take was only actually 0.74-1.25 per cent although being "at both ends" of the retail spectrum in terms of price and convenience.

Despite store closures and bankruptcies - 500 of them in the first two months of this year, newsletter editor Laura Heller said - "the reality is different to the perception".

Tell that to a guest at the keynote lunch, who wanted to know whether Amazon was a threat: "Not necessarily", according to Raleigh, North Carolina, News & Observer publisher Sara Glines, "although they are sucking a lot of money out of the market, making problems for key advertisers".

George Arwady even admitted (Amazon founder and $100-billionaire) Jeff Bezos was his hero for "reviving the Washington Post opportunity". It's easy to understand the fascination (which I share), but "hero"? Might the industry's fascination be more like that which exists between a rabbit in a car's headlights or a small animal confronted by a snake.

Hopefully these and many, many more America East discussions will have helped publishers crystallise the decisions that will save their businesses, but I'm not certain.

Peter Coleman

Pictured: Angelo DeFilippis of RealMatch

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