The Relevance Project continues the new monthly series spotlighting executive directors who lead newspaper trade associations.
Our inaugural Q&A in March was with the president of Newspaper Association Managers, Steve Nixon of the Saskatchewan Weekly Newspapers Association. In April, we spoke with Michelle Rea, the longtime executive director of the New York Press Association.
Michelle is a past president of NAM and an enthusiastic champion for the newspaper industry. Look no further than the license plate on her BMW convertible: 4thEST8. She also is a major reason The Relevance Project exists.
Her experience and enthusiasm provide valuable insight into the challenges of leading in a turbulent world. For starters: Never give up, but make sure you stay focused on member needs during rapid change.
Readers, be aware that tucked in one answer is a description of an innovation in development that could help other associations be more efficient.
We thank Michelle for participating in The Director Q&A No. 2 from her office in Albany.
Can you introduce us to your association?
The New York Press Association was established in 1853, when a group of community newspaper publishers in Western New York decided that fellowship and sharing best practices might engender camaraderie and communication that would help them strengthen their individual organizations, and, in turn, the communities they serve.
NYPA’s current membership includes 709 newspapers with a combined distribution of 13 million: 68 dailies, 514 weeklies and 127 non-English newspapers. The association has a staff of 18.
The New York Press Service provides media planning and placement services for display and classified network advertising and operates a web portal for automated placement and archiving of public notice advertising.
The NYPA Foundation provides 25 paid summer internships for college students.
Now you: What’s been your career path?
Fifteen years with daily newspapers and 30 years with NYPA — 28 as executive director.
How would you describe your position and role to someone outside the newspaper industry?
NYPA’s mission is to do everything for the newspapers that they can’t do for themselves. NYPA works hard to help newspapers get to the next level and to ensure their sustainability by providing training, sharing best practices, introducing them to vendors and solutions that increase efficiencies and improve their products, generating revenue, and marketing their audiences. My role is to identify unmet needs and to expand NYPA’s capacity and revenue to meet those needs.
What do you like best about your job?
I like the mission — I believe in the power of newspapers.
I love the relationships — I’ve been in the industry for a long time and enjoy close friendships with NYPA publishers. Most of our publishers are owners — many second and third generation, and they are committed to their craft and the communities they serve. NYPA has a terrific, long-tenured staff, which delivers tremendous value to our members and to me.
It isn’t a job where you ever get “there.” The business is constantly changing, and the pace of change makes it feel like we work harder each year. I like the challenge of leading the evolution and growing the business, but it isn’t for the faint of heart.
What is your proudest career moment?
There have been several.
On Sept. 11, 2001 when New York City was under siege, NYPA found alternate printers, production facilities, and worksites for newspapers in NYC.
We did the same thing during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and were even able to get computer equipment donated, so our newspapers could publish. After Hurricane Katrina, the NYPA Board of Directors flew to New Orleans to help the staff at The Times-Picayune de-muck and clean out their homes following disastrous flooding.
We celebrated when several years running, we exceeded record-setting year-end revenue numbers at NYPS, and when, several years in a row we hosted more than 600 newspaper employees at our annual conferences. It is powerful and humbling to see how impactful NYPA can be.
What are some of the 2021 priorities for you and your association?
In November 2019, the NYPA Board of Directors asked NYPA to think about things we could do to reduce overhead and personnel costs for newspapers, and, in the process, create new revenue streams for NYPS.
They identified the administrative costs associated with public notice advertising as a pain point, so we hired software developers to help us build a self-service web portal to process public notices. The portal creates the ad in real time, schedules it, creates a proof and a confirmation, generates an invoice, or processes a credit-card payment, delivers the ads to the newspapers’ pagination system, generates affidavits, generates advertising and reports, and processes payments. We spent most of 2020 developing and testing, and began onboarding newspapers in earnest in September. Since then, we have onboarded 30 newspapers and without a single exception, every newspaper using the portal is saving a minimum of 20 hours per week on administrative support and additional hours in production and accounting.
In addition, after NYPS’ fees, every newspaper is generating more revenue than prior year. About $400,000 in public notice revenue went through the portal in 2020, and through the first three months of 2021, we have exceeded that number. The goal in 2021 is to onboard two new newspaper companies a month, and to market the portal to other state newspaper associations. When we achieve the benchmarks we have established for the public notice portal, we will focus on the development of a self-service classified portal.
We also are focusing on email marketing, helping newspapers with audience development and best practices for selling subscriptions, paywalls, and automated marketing. We’re offering free, One Day Universities once a month while we are unable to gather for in-person training, and we are, of course, actively promoting The Relevance Project.
What adjustments have you made during COVID-19 and can you share any lessons?
Like many organizations, we were surprised by how quickly we switched to working remotely, and how well it works. We have a couple of people who perform much better in the office, but for most employees, remote works well. It seems likely that several employees will continue to work remotely indefinitely.
Because many of our newspapers and advertising clients also are remote, we have moved more of our operational functions online. We email invoices, encourage ACH or other electronic payments, conduct sales presentations, training sessions and board meetings via Zoom or Microsoft teams.
What keeps you up at night when wrestling with challenges?
Revenue, misinformation, revenue, and revenue.
If you had unlimited resources to advance our industry, where would you invest your time and money?
I would go back to the days before newspapers were publicly traded. Satisfying shareholders and keeping newsrooms adequately staffed are conflicting goals that have had far-reaching consequences for the newspaper industry, including newspaper companies that are not publicly traded.
I would make Big Tech pay to use our content.
I would build better newspaper websites –most of them deliver terrible user experiences.
I would develop a marketing and education campaign to teach people of all ages that the source of their news matters, that community journalism is directly related to the health and well-being of their community, and that community engagement is important for people of all ages.
I would promote the unmatched power and impact of print.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I am a huge sports fan and I love the sun and hot weather –golf, beach, pool…Red Sox, Bruins, Patriots, and recently, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
How would your advice differ when offered to someone trying to break into the business compared with an industry veteran with 10 to 15 years until retirement?
A long time ago, another association executive reminded conference attendees to never stop doing things that made us successful in the first place. His advice was all the stuff we “learned in kindergarten”: work hard, play fair, tell the truth, do the right thing, be brave, be kind, be generous, be grateful. I’ve had his advice taped to my computer monitor ever since.
Anything else to add?
State and provincial press associations are amazing organizations that do tremendous work, but in many states, they don’t get nearly the recognition or level of engagement that they deserve, especially from publicly traded newspaper companies.
Collectively, press associations throughout the United States and Canada represent almost 9,000 newspapers — the combined reach and impact of state press associations far exceeds that of any regional or consortium advertising placement entities, and the years of experience and level of expertise of state press associations is unparalleled, but we are often invisible to the publicly traded newspaper companies. I wish I know how to remedy that.
NYPA’s Value Statement:
“As experts in the print and digital advertising industry, our goal is to simplify the buying process for advertisers and agencies by providing targeted, cost-effective solutions for your advertising needs. We’re owned by the news organizations we represent, so nobody knows the newspapers and the markets they serve like we do.”