Philadelphia publisher: Failure is not an option; tell your story!

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Newspapers are all about storytelling and, yet, "with the crisis that we face as an industry, we don't do a great job of telling our very, very compelling story," Terry Egger, publisher and CEO of Philadelphia Media Network, told attendees at the Mega-Conference last week.

In his keynote address to 700 industry executives in Las Vegas, Egger called on newspapers across the country to establish conversations with local community and business leaders about the important role that newspapers play.

As an industry, he said we have suffered a lot of self-inflicted wounds.  "We wish we had do-overs," he said, "but we don't. What we do have, though, is a compelling story that needs to be told."

He said, "The only way, in my humble opinion, that we get through this collectively, is that we win back the value proposition with the consumers in our marketplace. We need to win back the importance of what it is we do for a living for the people in our community."

Philadelphia Media Network is a for-profit Public Benefit Corporation, owned by the non-profit Lenfest Institute for Journalism. A special section published Jan. 27 in The Philadelphia Inquirer notes that this means the paper has "no shareholders, hedge funds or out-of-town corporate parents. Any profit that we make goes back to sustaining our mission. All of us – our reporters, editors, salespeople, pressmen, drivers and digital technologists – answer to no one but you, the people."

Download a copy of the special section

Egger said he tells every colleague at the paper to remember that they don't work for The Inquirer, the Daily News or Philly.com – they work for the people of Greater Philadelphia. He encourages them to constantly ask themselves: How are you making their life better?

"If your fundamental focus is making their life better, guess what? They are going to value that. We're going to re-establish our value proposition and they will pay you for that."

Instead of celebrating when ad salespeople make a sale, he told publishers to celebrate when your customers make their sale. And, special sections like the one produced by The Philadelphia Inquirer can form the basis of a long, continuing conversation with readers.

Egger said The Inquirer has begun scheduling quarterly dinners with the CEOs of top organizations in Philadelphia, talking about the paper's structure, why the paper matters, what's at stake if it fails, and why the newspaper's staff needs the community's support.

He said these type of authentic conversations – B2C and B2B conversations – will help pave the way for community support.

"When you have dinner with CEOs in your community and you talk about that, the light goes on for them," he said. "Normally, they're not thinking about that. Most people are indifferent to what we do. That's why the storytelling is important. If we fail, the bad news that happens in our community will get a lot worse."

He said there's a direct correlation between individual freedoms in a democracy and a truly free, independent press. "If we fail to find a sustainable business model, if we fail to tell our story, if we fail to re-establish the value proposition to earn the money we need to pay for our journalism to support our communities, there's a lot at stake."'

No matter what type of business model an individual newspaper has, the window is open to tell the story of the importance of a free press, Egger said. Start internally with your own staff, he advised. "Why are we here?  What is it we do for a living and why do we matter? And, then cascade that out into the B2C and B2B because it has the benefit of being the truth."

Over his years in the industry – at times being confused, exhilarated and challenged – the one thing that Egger said always rang true was that newspapers have an important story to tell ... even to people who don't know it's important to them. He said, "We need to make them aware and now is a unique time to do that."

"Failure is not an option," he said. "The consequence is so great."

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