Part of a Monthly Series*
The coach in Brian Allfrey wants the newspaper industry to be bold. The manager in him advocates trying new things, for even in failure important lessons exist.
The longtime basketball coach and veteran manager knows a thing or two about risk. This year, he is running two newspaper trade association based in rather large states.
Allfrey was the executive director of the Utah Press Association, when he convinced the Montana Newspaper Association to hire him to operate that group as well. Utah received new revenue at a critical time and Montana secured an experienced director with connections.
Adapting as well as playing smart offense and defense work both on the basketball court as well as on the paths that newspapers must travel to succeed. Allfrey, who last year orchestrated the National Newspaper Week campaign with the Community Forum theme, shares his perspectives and advice in the latest installment of The Relevance Project’s monthly Question & Answer series spotlighting executive directors who form Newspaper Association Managers.
You might imagine hearing the squeaking of basketball shoes, the roar of a press, or even a loud smack of a high-five while learning more about Allfrey. You even might be compelled to send him a check after reading what he would do with unlimited resources.
All about being bold.
You are the first executive director of multiple associations to participate in this feature. Can you introduce us to your groups — members and staff?
I have been the executive director of the Utah Press Association since February 2011. Before that, I was the Majors/Nationals Advertising director at the Newspaper Agency Corp. (Joint Operating Agreement between The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News).
The Utah Press Association has 42 members. They are a diverse group, spread out over a 6-hour drive. While we cover a fairly large geography, we have less than 3.5 million people in the entire state. In fact, 60 percent of the entire state is owned by some agency of the federal government. Our membership numbers have held pretty steady. About 10 years ago, we had 47 members. The staff in Utah consists of one other employee: Senior Marketing Strategist Denice Page has been with Utah Press for nearly 14 years.
The Montana Newspaper Association has more than 80 members over an even larger geography. I am participating in the Director Q&A from Glendive, Montana, while celebrating MNA’s 137th Annual Convention.
The association has two staff members, Ryan Stavnes (Member Services) and Sandy McIntyre (Communications). MNA is headquartered in beautiful Helena.
What’s the back story on adding Montana to your executive director responsibilities?
In March 2021, I heard that MNA was looking for a new executive director. Looking at what was happening in Utah (we just lost a major print customer), I needed a new revenue stream for the association. I made a few calls and did research to find out more about what MNA was looking for. I reached out to their board president, and eventually had a phone interview.
The concept was pretty outrageous for the Montana board at first. They hired a retired newspaper professional to work as an interim director and to help them get a feel for need while they continued their search.
I kept telling them that I did not believe that executive directors for press associations grew on trees. There is a widely arrayed skill set needed, especially in a small association.
I continued to pursue the opportunity. Negotiation picked up again in December 2021. In January 2022, the Montana board voted to execute the contract with Utah Press for me to manage their association.
Now you: What has been your career path?
I have always been in sales and management, but I actually started in the grocery business. I was an assistant manager of a grocery store while still in high school and after college started my sales career with a food broker. After a few months I was promoted to sales manager and I have been in management ever since.
In 2004, I moved to the Newspaper Agency Corp. (The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News) and was a territory sale representative. From there, I quickly was made retail sales manager, then director of Retail Sales, and Major/National Advertising director. I was at NAC for about 8 years before moving to Utah Press.
How would you describe your position and role to someone outside the newspaper industry?
The executive director’s role is a little bit different in every state, depending on the size of the association, staff, etc. I think the larger associations have more of a CEO role. In a small association, you end up doing whatever needs to be done. One day I might be helping to deliver a print job that I sold. The next day is a meeting with the governor. The next day I’m fixing a computer. I liken it a little bit to the movie “Michael Clayton.” My role is kind of that of a “fixer.” Ultimately, the success of the organization rides with you and you have to handle whatever comes up that day or week.
What do you like best about your job?
No day is ever the same. There is always a different challenge or opportunity, so it keeps you on your toes. I find joy in the challenge. I like being told that something cannot be done.
I also really enjoy the people who I work with. I have a great Board of Directors in Utah that has a lot of trust in me. They are willing to try new things and think outside of the box. I have a great staff in Utah as well.
The more I get to know the Montana Board of Directors, the more enjoyable that is becoming as well. At the end of the day, you want to feel like what you are doing matters. That you are contributing to the greater good, not just being a cog in the machine of life. This job gives me the ability to help fight for transparency and to help our members play their role in our democratic republic. I also get to help people and their business succeed.
I love competition and every day there is a chance to win and to measure the good that we are doing.
Sometimes the best thing is also the worst thing. Sometimes it is easy to feel like you are fighting all alone. The pace of communication and the speed of business continue to increase and we are all seeing how hard it is to keep up good communication with members, customers, readers, whoever. We are all being inundated with messages and requests.
All of our newspaper members are being asked to do more with less resources than ever before. We all have to prioritize our time and resources and sometimes the state press association doesn’t make the top of the list until there is a five-alarm fire.
The irony is that the five-alarm fire probably could have been avoided if dealt with earlier. It can be frustrating when you are advocating for your membership and not get timely responses or support. However, these are the times when my relationships within Newspaper Association Managers are the most important. It is great to be able to reach out to colleagues for advice, idea, therapy, or even an adult beverage.
What is your proudest career moment?
When I started at Utah Press, the financial situation was extremely dire. They owed over $450,000 to the members and the Board had cut the association staff from 13 down to 2.5. I was tasked with finding new revenue opportunities and finding ways to streamline operations and reduce expenses. We were able to put together a coalition of newspapers that could compete with Valassis and we got a huge grocery client’s inserts. Then we got their print business. Over the next three to four years we were able to pay every newspaper back, plus interest. After that, we were able to build a sizable nest egg for the next financial emergency.
What are your associations’ priorities? (Feel free to add a personal priority.)
Like most associations, our priorities in both Utah and Montana are to provide more value to our members and our communities. That includes traditional ad revenue generation, but also demands that we look for new ways to fund the association and the members. Consider the need for our foundations, for example, to raise more money for scholarships and internship programs.
We also have to do a better job attracting the next generation of journalists. How do we become more efficient and how do we find new revenue streams for all the different aspects of our business?
You recently organized a successful NAM Advertising & Revenue Conference in Charleston, SC. What were your takeaways from the program?
The first takeaway was that people want to be back together meeting in person. We have missed the face-to-face communication over the last two years and we underestimated how important that is. That advertising group had not met since 2019, so there was a lot of excitement to be back working together.
The second takeaway is that there was even more willingness to work together and to share. The last two years have really pushed all of us to examine everything that we do to look for efficiencies, new revenue streams, etc.
Finally, I was reminded how much passion the associations have for their members and the newspaper industry. There are a lot of smart and talented people who are dedicated to the success of newspapers and journalism.
What keeps you up at night when wrestling challenges?
In Utah, our advertising really struggled when we lost the TMC products from the larger newspapers, and then again when our two biggest dailies, The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News, changed to weekly printed newspapers. That, in turn, led to the closure of the biggest print facility in Utah. This really hurt the association and but also hurt all of the members.
There are only a few places left to print in Utah. The lack of viable print options and rising costs are going to create more problems for newspapers of all sizes.
What’s your favorite point, philosophy or story about the newspaper business?
When the radio was invented, everyone said that newspapers were dead. That was 100 years ago. When TV was invented, they said newspapers were dead. When the Internet exploded, they said that newspapers were again dead.
Time after time, newspapers have been counted out, yet they are still here, and they are needed more than ever by our communities. I look forward to seeing how the newspaper industry continues to evolve.
If you had unlimited resources to advance our industry, where would you invest your time and money?
If money were no object, I would buy Facebook, Twitter, etc, and then shut it all down. I believe that these communication tools have become the biggest ills of our society. The spread of misinformation is unchecked. Every idiot now has a voice and the ability to join a small group of other idiots to create havoc. On all sides of every issue, these platforms spread hate and vitriol.
The world was a better place before we got to see what everyone was eating for dinner, saw every photo from their vacation, or got to hear their political opinions.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
There is probably a lot of things that people don’t know me. I tend to stick to myself. The people who know me would say that I am loyal, competitive and protective. What they don’t know is that someday I just want to live on a small farm and drive a tractor all day.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I am very involved in a couple of non-profits that work with youth basketball players and high school basketball players with college aspirations. I have coached high school and club basketball for 25 years. Both of my boys are college basketball players and I have been able to spend a lot of time with them over the years.
What would your best career advice be to a newcomer to newspapers? To a veteran with 10 to 15 years until retirement?
I would advise everyone that they should be bold. We need big ideas and big ideas require that we take risks. We have to be willing to try new things and learn from the successes and failures of those those risks. I really believe that applies to everyone in the newspaper industry no matter where they are in their career path. Newspapers are somewhat resistant to change, and we need to be able to adapt and move quickly like some of our competitors do.
–As told to Tom Silvestri, Executive Director, The Relevance Project
*Past Q&As with NAM directors are parked on the Relevant Points blog.