Not dead yet: CI's Garrett explains how print can still make an Impact

Hard not to see the lessons of John Garrett's print publishing success as a clarion call to bigger groups in markets nearer home.

Not only as an encouragement to those seeking to exploit gaps in abandoned regional markets, but as a counter to what has become the accepted logic of industry 'experts'.

In an address to this week's virtual World Printers Summit, the founder and chief executive of Texas, USA hyperlocal publisher Community Impact challenged some of the thinking conference attendees have become accustomed to hearing.

He urged publishers to stop selling digital services - especially those of companies such as Facebook and Google - and building an 'ad agency' within their company.

"It's the dumbest strategy I've ever heard," he says.

"Would you sell them toilet paper, or meat and chicken, maybe paper towels to a restaurant, just because you have the relationship? It's not what you're in your lane for."

Garrett says the 'whole ad agency thing' is a joke, a disaster. "I've never seen an inhouse ad agency really prosper," he says. "There's the distraction it causes, and if your sales reps are selling Facebook and Google, you're telling people those products are valuable. That's really bad."

A former advertising sales and circulation manager for papers in Texas, Garrett had his 'aha moment' in 2005 while driving past major road works in Round Rock on his daily commute to Houston. "It was before Google Maps even, and I wanted to know where the new roads were going. All the papers told you was about Johnny kicking the winning ball, and not what was going on in your own backyard," he says.

Garrett launched the first, Pflugerville edition of Community Impact that year with four staff and a US$40,000 card credit. From the 60,000 mail distribution of that first issue, he now produces more than 30 newspaper editions in 50 communities including five metros, with 190 full-time employees and a total circulation of 2.3 million copies.

"We say we were hyperlocal before hyperlocal was cool," he says.

Content is unashamedly focussed on local issues, with "true editorial" covering development, transportation, real estate, local events, business profiles, education, healthcare and nonprofits.

And unlike his previous employer's publication, pitched for insiders, "everyone gets it", a double entendre he loves for its reference to 100 per cent distribution and the role CI plays in helping people understand what's going on in their own backyard. "It's local, useful, and helps people understand their community without bias," he says.

He's critical of the subscription model which is increasingly accompanying digital news sites, and replacing paid and free distribution print newspapers. "I've always had a problem with (local information) only being available to people who can afford it," he says. "If you owned a piece of property and the city planned to sell it, but only the insiders knew that, that didn't sit right with me. Everyone deserves to know."

Though he doesn't mention it in his address, the ethical christian values are something that underpin Community Impact. John and Jennifer Garrett are well known at their local church, and have the five 'value stones' of their belief - faith, passion, quality, innovation and integrity - erected at the entrance to their offices.

They were looking for something special when he called suppliers including Müller Martini and Goss International together to agree a tight build schedule for CI's print centre, which includes one of the first quick-changeover Magnum Compact presses in the world: "You don't know you're in the middle of a miracle until it's over," he told them, in a nod to Nelson Mandela. The innovative plant was completed on time and is now a substantial profit centre.

Multiple changes - the Goss is capable of a total edition change in a couple of minutes - are part and parcel of the Community Impact offering, which includes postcard-size glossy inserts and front-page sticky-notes targeted down to postcode or neighbourhood.

"Local businesses are where the money is - that's why Google and Facebook want newspapers to drive subscription - and most of our business comes from 'moms-and-pops', most of it done the hard way," Garrett says.

"Here's the thing: Facebook and Google know if you like Metallica or drive a red car, but what most local businesses care about is geography... and geotargetting, which is really expensive digitally, is our natural sweet spot. That's where newspapers can really shine, and it's a huge selling point."

He says people in Houston "don't know we have papers in Austin or Dallas", but they know Community Impact even though, out of the city areas, they might not have heard of the metro Texas Tribune, despite its world-class journalism.

He urges publishers to rethink circulation distribution, because "content is the jewel but circulation is the crown".

"If nobody sees it, it doesn't have the impact," he says. While CI has its own responsive website and app, with daily content and two million monthly uniques, "it's the cherry on top".

Publishers who focus on digital are going about it the wrong way, he says: "If you wait for Apple or some other app or device to do your distribution, well good luck with that - it's a terrible strategy".

Garrett is also proud of a sales culture which has a 97 per cent approval rating from customers and systematically rewards and encourages sales staff.

He says sales fell 30-40 per cent with the April-May impact of COVID-19, but are back to within 15 per cent of last year's figures now. "As soon as they were allowed, our people wanted to get out again - they're committed to winning," he says.

An inhouse-developed sales management system - "existing software didn't match our business model" - measures every aspect, from cold calls where 52 per cent of businesses "let us talk", discoveries and decision dates, through to dummying and billing. "We're measuring all of this, doing it in a fun way, and celebrating success. They love seeing their names at the top."

Sales performers are "multiplied" through a scheme under which "everyone is mentoring" after six months in the job. "What this does for your culture is beyond just better sales, and better training - it increases teamwork," he says.

Research from a World Printers Summit speaker from South Africa's Daily Maverick - which launched this year - that although fewer people are buying printed newspapers, 82 per cent still regularly read them, resonates with Garrett.

And while attracting young readers is hard, he says students from the young, progressive Austin college love Community Impact "We're writing about things college kids don't care about, but we'll catch them when they're older," says Garrett, agreeing with Styli Charlambous to "let Snapchat have them... until they become grumpy".

"That's why we're free," he says, "and they read it when they get to 25 and have different interests; whether they would pay I don't know."

Garrett says his views are laughed at a lot on social media, "it's definitely not what mainstream experts are saying, but this is coming from experience."

With modest understatement, he adds, "People say I'm crazy, but it seems to have worked good. They just love us.

"Print ain't dead."

Peter Coleman

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