Thursday, February 5, 2009
Interview With Roanoke Times Publisher Debbie Meade
Roanoke Times Publisher Debbie Meade agreed to answer questions via e-mail from Valley Business FRONT provided we agreed to publish the answers without editing them. Company policy prevents us from doing that in our print version of the magazine, but in the online version, where there are no space limits, we have made an exception to our policy.
This interview covers a good bit of ground, but was conducted before The Times announced a year-long wage freeze, a five-day employee furlough during the first six months of the year and an internal memo laying out plans for a major re-design of the paper.
Though most of Meade’s answers shed no new light, we present them as given, for the record. Alison Weaver, a former Times employee who now writes for FRONT, posed the questions. Here they are:
Some members of the community have expressed concerns that The Roanoke Times might fold and the region would be left without a daily newspaper. How do you respond to such concerns?
I’d like to answer your last question first, as I want to reassure you and your readers. The Roanoke Times and roanoke.com remain a strong business. We continue to be the regional news and information leader in print and online market share. We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had to deal with some of the business issues that many of the larger metropolitan newspaper companies have had to manage over the past year. Roanoke is an excellent newspaper market, and our readership is among the highest in the country.
This is both a challenging and exciting time to be in the media business. 2011 will mark our 125th year of covering the region. Throughout our history in this community, we have always responded and changed with the times, and we will continue to do so.
We take our position in the community seriously and are committed to all of our customers—readers, advertisers, online users and community partners. Across the company and products, we strive to serve them better than anyone else can, to compete better and remain relevant and valuable, now and in the future.
Though many aspects of delivering the news and information are changing rapidly, we are changing as well, and we plan to be around for a long, long time.
How has the cancellation of plans to sell The Roanoke Times affected newspaper operations?
The sale process did not distract us from doing our jobs. Now that we’re no longer on the market, we continue to remain focused on our performance and our products, finding new and better ways to serve readers with a variety of products in print and online.
If a group of local investors wanted to make a bid to purchase the newspaper, what would Landmark Media Enterprises require before considering the offer? What would be a ballpark range of the asking price?
If a local group of investors were to be interested, they would need to contact Landmark Media Enterprises, our parent company.
The Roanoke Times’ sister paper in Norfolk has announced cut backs in staff. Are layoffs planned in Roanoke as well?
We do not anticipate a need at this time to make deeper, widespread staff reductions in 2009. We’re known for having a lean workforce compared to other newspapers our size, which is an operating strength. We continually examine our staffing structure, seek new technologies and new ways of working to do our jobs better and lower our costs. This has allowed us to reduce the size of our workforce even more in the past few years, mostly through attrition and other voluntary means.
We’ve actually expanded in some other areas, too; for example, we have grown our online business significantly over the past decade. And we’ve added niche products: We bought Smith Mountain Laker magazine in the summer of 2007 and formed what is now known as Laker Media, because we saw a growth opportunity in that part of our market.
How many people does The Roanoke Times employ? How many of these are newsroom employees (reporters, editors, designers, roanoke.com, graphic artists and photographers, including the New River Valley Bureau)?
Our employment levels fluctuate with seasons and business needs, but currently we have just under 400 full-time equivalent positions at The Roanoke Times (including the NRV Bureau), roanoke.com, BRBJ and Laker Media. There are about 106 employees in the newsroom, by far the region’s largest and most respected newsgathering team.
What are some of the primary community services that The Roanoke Times supports? What is the estimated value of these direct and in-kind contributions?
I’m proud to say that through the Landmark Foundation, the company has made gifts in our region totaling more than $300,000 a year in recent years. Our donations have primarily benefited organizations representing human services, higher education and cultural art institutions. This does not include our in-kind giving through our promotions department, which is significant. Our employees serve on boards and volunteer their service at many community organizations. We will continue to serve and help improve our community, because we love it and care deeply about its future.
From an advertising standpoint, what consequences has the economic downturn had on The Roanoke Times? For example, have national accounts lagged while local advertising remains steady? Which areas have been hardest hit?
Our success is dependent on the strength and growth of the community. As the community feels the effects of the economy slowing down, so do we, in some of our business lines. This is why it helps us to have a diverse line of products, including targeted or zoned products as well as products with a broader mass reach, to appeal to an array of customers. The interest to advertise with us is still strong, as our print and online products reach nearly 400,000 people a week. The main reason for our success is that our products work extremely well for our customers.
What sort of response from the public did The Roanoke Times receive to the recent rate increase? With the decline in fuel prices, might the rate increase be reversed?
Let’s face it, no matter what the product or service, consumers don’t like price increases. We had not increased our retail price at newsstands since the mid-1990s. Again, we’re working to remain a valuable resource to our readers and users. And price increases, as we all know, are a standard part of doing business.
Rising fuel prices did contribute to our increased expenses, but so have other factors. As you may know, the cost of newsprint has gone up nearly 40 percent this year alone.
Newspapers nationwide have been facing the same cost pressures that we face locally, and nominal price increases in both single copy and home delivery have been a necessary common practice in recent years.
Just think about how much value the newspaper has for just 75 cents a day.
The Chicago Tribune Co. recently filed for bankruptcy, citing huge debts related to sharp declines in advertising. How fiscally sound are The Roanoke Times and its parent company, Landmark Media Enterprises?
We’re a private company, and we do not share our financial information. But I can tell you that we are a well-managed, successful company.
The Detroit Free Press / Detroit News is considering ending home delivery four days a week. Is this a cost-cutting move that The Roanoke Times might consider?
No, ending home delivery for several days a week hasn’t been discussed.
Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth recently issued a memorandum to staff stating, in part, “We must focus better on what the consumer indicates they want, and be less quick to emphasize only what we think is important.” Do you agree or disagree with this philosophy?
We agree with the philosophy of seeking consumer input to guide our efforts. The Roanoke Times has invested and sought out consumer and advertiser input for many years through surveys, readership studies and direct interactive tools. In the past year, we’ve started a reader panel that has more than 600 members. Each week we invite them to comment on news content and advertising. We have numerous blogs and message boards and have been known for years for the many “letters to the editor” that appear on our opinion pages. So we make it a practice to seek out public comments—whether to provide us readers’ opinions on national news or to help us shape our products.
Some critics of The Roanoke Times say it has a liberal stance that is out of touch with the largely conservative readership in the area. How do you respond to those critics?
Our editorial pages stimulate thought and discussion and provide a public forum for ideas. We invite everybody to read our opinion pages and respond. We appreciate our readers, and we want to hear what you think.
(Alison Weaver is a former copy editor at The Times.)