Just before I returned to Boise, Idaho after a year in the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford, something curious happened.
A newspaper war broke out.
An. Um... What now?
The ‘war,’ for now at least, benefits the consumers of local news in the Boise and Treasure Valley of Idaho.
For decades, the Press Tribune stuck to the second-largest county in the metro, while the Statesman primarily covered the largest county — which includes the capital city of Boise.
But then something happened.
Adams Publishing purchased the IPT and the rest of the newspapers in the Pioneer chain.
Shortly after, a 2008 agreement between McClatchy and Pioneer to print both papers at the Press-Tribune plant in Nampa ended. The Statesman is now printed more than 100 miles away in Twin Falls. Thirty-thousand daily copies of the Statesman are now printed at the facility of the Times-News and shipped up the road to Boise for home delivery.
The switchover happened in March, and went little-noticed among the general public.
But less than two months later, the Idaho Press turned heads by hiring perhaps the state’s most-prominent journalist — Betsy Russell. Russell heads up the top journalism advocacy organization in the state, and writes a must-follow blog for political junkies and leaders.
Russell was quickly joined by reporters covering Boise City Hall, Ada County Government, Ada County crime & courts — as well as a new sports editor, photo editor and community engagement editor.
With the added staff in place it opened up home delivery to the larger Ada County area with a $10/month deal.
Then another series of surprising moves: shortening the name to Idaho Press (no more Tribune), putting up billboards, running TV ads, putting paper boxes in Downtown Boise, dropping free teaser copies of the paper on Boise-area doorsteps and revamping its website.
(Disclosure: Idaho Press has licensed a few stories from my micro-news site BoiseDev.com. In addition, I have publicly criticized the Idaho Statesman for its practice of using BoiseDev stories as a lead generation source and occasionally borrowing my exact phrasing. I also had discussions with the Statesman in 2017 about working together that ultimately led to an offer to write a free monthly column which I declined. Judge what comes next with that in mind).
The Idaho Press is clearly determined to eat into the market share of the Idaho Statesman. Which may leave people going: “Umm… you’re doubling down on print?”
McClatchy has publicly said it is working to fast pivot to digital, and has worked to up the number of stories it generates that are high pageview drivers.
(Company CEO Craig) Forman takes it as a marker of progress that only 25 percent of the company’s revenues now come from print advertising. Of course, that has lots to do with how far print has fallen over time and how fast those declines have been for the last year.
The Statesman is part of McClatchy’s California/Idaho region — along with papers like the Sacramento Bee. That paper has gone public with its request from the public to sign up for the news organization’s digital edition.
We could fully fund our newsrooms — from salaries and benefits to notepads and pens — if we had 60,000 people supporting us through digital subscriptions. Roughly 15,000 do so today, so we’d need to earn the support of about 45,000 more…
The Bee says it would have to quadruple its number of digital subs to make ends meet without print or ad revenue. If they have a similar plan for Boise, quadrupling the number of subscribers would be a big goal.
In Sacramento, McClatchy plans to increase subscribers by doing quick hits of coverage on topics to see what sticks. If it doesn’t work, they move on.
Implicit in the McClatchy strategy: Print is dead. We’re on to the next.
But what happens if 25% of your revenue comes from print advertising (and, presumably, an additional amount from print subscriptions and single-copy sales)… and someone comes along looking to steal your market share?
McClatchy’s model is currently built on the premise their outlet is the only print-heritage newsroom in a market. In Boise, that suddenly isn’t true.
The Idaho Press is working a very aggressive plan, is spending money to win market share. If it depletes the revenue base for the Statesman, it’s fair to worry that another round of cuts could come — in a newspaper that has trimmed its staff so many times that it now has fewer journalists than my former employer KTVB (it once wasn’t even close).
It doesn’t take many folks who decide to switch from Idaho Statesman print to Idaho Press to quickly drive down the Statesman’s circulation and print advertising base.
And, as noted in my disclosure above, the Statesman seems to be focused on scraping a lot of content from other places to do quick “read, confirm, write” type stories. It layers these on with perhaps one major investigative or in-depth piece per day. The Idaho Press, on the other hand, appears to be taking a more traditional approach with the “soup to nuts” product of days past.
The Idaho Press will also have a significantly later print deadline since they print the paper in their own building here in the metro area, instead of shipping it in from down the road. During Boise State football season, it stands to reason the Idaho Press will be the only printed paper with game coverage from the night before.
The Statesman still has some talented local journalists doing great coverage. With the addition of Idaho Press resources, residents in the area are better served — but that only is true if both outlets can survive without cuts.
For it to be a war, two parties have to engage. Will the Idaho Statesman be able to fight off the threat? Or could Boise become a one newspaper town — with the upstart from Nampa winning the day?
Don Day is a 2018 Stanford John S. Knight Fellow. He has twenty years experience in media — leading teams, producing award-winning journalism and innovating in the digital journalism space. He currently is the publisher of BoiseDev.com.