Molen talks about digital revenue, “franchise verticals” and how he aims to beat the University of Oregon Ducks coverage.
[Interview excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.]
OB: The Register-Guard is a family-owned company and was family-led for nearly nine decades. How does your outsider status shape your leadership style? [The year 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the Register-Guard/RG Media Company.]
Molen: Entrenched cultures can be difficult for outsiders to penetrate. But there’s a benefit to having someone come in fresh; you can take a look at some of the things that have been in motion for a while. I am my own person, but I still represent those important family values, that sense of mission in serving the community and a commitment to doing things the right way, not the easy way. [Molen, who was appointed publisher in 2016, is the second Register-Guard publisher hired from outside the Baker family after N. Christian Anderson III, previously publisher of The Oregonian, served from June to December 2015.]
OB: What aspects of the company are getting a fresh look?
Molen: There are pockets of great work that were muted in presentation or frequency. We have worked to focus on specialty publications to redesign, refocus and start to leverage what we’re doing in those particular areas.
OB: For example?
Molen: We have a quarterly publication called Tastings focused on fine dining and drink. We expanded the frequency, gave the publication a redesign, and we’re working toward maximizing exposure to that content. Another publication, Blue Chip, has been a monthly. When I came it was only distributed in the Register-Guard four times a year; the other eight times, it was direct mailed to 7,000 people. I read a couple of issues and thought: This stuff is fantastic. So we revamped our distribution, and more people are now seeing the content, and we’re able to increase advertising.
OB: Your print circulation is falling, but digital circulation is growing. How are you moving forward in the digital realm?
Molen: A couple of years ago we launched what used to be called RG Media Lab. That was a digital agency; we help businesses with marketing, we build their websites, manage social media presence and search engine optimization. That business is growing. We rebranded [the Register-Guard] as RG Media Company 18 months ago in large part due to expansion into digital services products outside of digital content. [The Register-Guard has about 600,000 visitors to its website every month. Its print circulation is 41,189. Nine thousand people per month read the digital edition.]
OB: How does digital-services revenue compare to other revenue streams?
Molen: The revenue is smaller, but growth on a percentage basis is much higher. We also sell digital display advertising on our websites and our products. That’s picked up steam.
OB: What is your approach to funded content?
Molen: I had a meeting about it yesterday. My view is if we are going to do it, let’s do it in a holistic manner so we’re producing high-quality content. If we can’t, let’s focus on something else we can dominate. Right now we do it, but it hasn’t been a priority from a sales standpoint. We need to re-evaluate.
OB: So what are your sales priorities?
Molen: One of the key things I firmly believe in is identifying franchise verticals: What are the four things that are important to our market and customers, and what do we need to do to dominate those four things? How would you describe the competitive landscape? Our competitiors are TV, newspapers, radio — and the University of Oregon. They have a huge sports information department that produces a lot of content about Duck sports. We need to consider them a competitor.
OB: What does that mean for your sports coverage?
Molen: If 20 competitors are posting updates on every play or video of every touchdown, do we want to be 21st? Or do we want to cover sports in a different way? Do we want to provide perspective, analysis, features? Those are the questions we’re asking on a number of beats and areas. Are we dominating? If we’re not, how can we improve a franchise vertical versus something that is just a secondary beat?
OB: Where are you in that process?
Molen: We are just beginning the analysis of what those verticals are that need greater focus. We are judging reader and market interest, judging content from advertising and revenue and then triangulating what those verticals might be. I’ve been in another market where the process took about six months.
OB: Your footprint covers a left-leaning university town and conservative rural communities. How do you close the gap?
Molen: If you look at a voting map of the presidential election and look at our distribution area, most of Eugene and small precincts voted for Clinton. But rural areas in most cases went for Trump, and in some cases by a very large margin. We have to be cognizant of that, and provide content and recognize we have two different audiences when it comes to political coverage and Washington coverage. We hear regularly from our readers about how they think we are biased or out of touch. It’s an ongoing process of trying to be more aware of what our market is like and what our readership wants.
OB: So you focus on reader engagement.
Molen: Reader engagement is a squishy term. For some people it can mean allowing readers to comment, write stories or contribute or edit video. What we hope is to provide content and platforms that are inclusive. We try to have an online commenting community that is not a cesspool of hate. We work hard to encourage our readers to submit letters to the editor. During a typical week, we publish 45 to 50 letters, and we get 150 or more depending how volatile the week has been. We bend over backward to make sure we get a lot of diversity in our letters.
OB: Many outlets have adjusted their coverage since the election to be more inclusive.
We know The New York Times has serious issues with the president. While I think they provide a lot of good coverage, whenever we run Times stories, we take a look at those things. We spend a lot more time with our editorial pages making sure the mix in our columnists and our own editorial approaches recognize we have two different sides of the spectrum we need to acknowledge.
OB: What is your approach to new technology platforms?
Molen: I stay attune to technological trends, but also wait for time to pass before something starts to gain traction. We have the flagship brand presence on Facebook, Twitter; Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn. We don’t have a dedicated social media person — that is something that is on the road map.
OB: You made another round of newsroom layoffs this winter.
Molen: Like most newspapers, we’re smaller than we were, and we’re trying to do more with less. But people are hungry for news and information they can trust and that helps them navigate busy lives. We’re bombarded by media from the second we wake up: radio, TV, billboards, mobile phones, websites. It can be emotionally draining. If we can help them navigate the craziness and reflect on what’s happened, there is going to be a market for that.
OB: So you’re optimistic.
Molen: I’m realistic. We’ve found that our subscribers are willing to pay for a product that can deliver news they can trust. But how this is going to be monetized is an ongoing question. The Times is finding great success on subscription revenue rather than advertising. We‘ve increased subscription prices and boosted subscriptions.
OB: That brings us back to family ownership. What are the pros and cons from a revenue standpoint?
Molen: The benefits of corporate ownership are you can scale things like information technology and back office. The benefits of community ownership are you’re invested in the community, and you’re prioritizing civic engagement, versus too many chain newspapers where the focus is purely on quarterly numbers and squeezing every last dime you can out of a company. Owners living in the community makes for a different mission.