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Tribune-Review adapts to changing newspaper industry

| Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Steven Adams | Tribune-Review
Trib Total Media is headquartered in the historic Clark Building on Pittsburgh's North Side.

Low subscription numbers and advertising rates in the Pittsburgh area eventually forced Trib Total Media to stop printing the Pittsburgh edition of the Tribune-Review and shift its focus to digital publishing, company President and CEO Jennifer Bertetto said.

Nov. 30 is the last print edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. On Dec. 1, the Pittsburgh Trib will continue to publish news about the city and Allegheny County as well as the latest sports and investigative news and stories about health, politics and technology on its website, www.triblive.com, and through a new e-edition delivered via email.

The Greensburg Tribune-Review and Valley News Dispatch will continue to print seven days a week.

“This is part of a trend that is slowly developing around the country,” said Chris Daly, a journalism professor at Boston University and a veteran newspaper reporter. “It is inevitable, and the day will come for every news organization.”

But some news organizations making the transition have struggled to maintain revenues, readership and relevance.

In some markets where newspapers have cut print altogether, readers have found their news elsewhere, said John K. Hartman, a journalism faculty member at Kent State University and a former professor at Central Michigan University who watched newspapers in Cleveland and across Michigan shift focus from print to digital. Lackluster digital ad revenue — $20 in print advertising is worth about $1 in digital, several analysts said — hasn't helped.

Bertetto said Trib Total Media and the Pittsburgh Trib will be different. Newspapers that completely became digital had to rely solely on the digital format to generate the revenue needed to produce it. The Pittsburgh Trib won't be in that position, Bertetto said.

Ninety percent of the company's revenue comes from printed products, including its daily and weekly papers and commercial printing operations, Bertetto said. The company isn't relying on the all-digital Pittsburgh Trib to support itself through digital ad sales.

“We are very fortunate that we have that much remaining in our legacy products because it does allow us to move into this brave new world unlike any other paper that only has one product,” Bertetto said. “They have to make it work on all digital revenue because they don't have the safety net of that other revenue coming in.”

For years, the company lost twice as much money as it made on subscription sales. The average annual cost of a newspaper subscription didn't cover half the annual cost to produce, print and deliver the newspaper. Advertising revenue didn't make up the difference, Bertetto said. The company lowered ad rates to attract new clients and widened its circulation footprint to reach more customers, but those moves didn't make the bottom line work, Bertetto said.

Recent buyouts, layoffs and selling off newspaper properties have improved the company's financial situation, Bertetto said. One year into the Trib's strategic plan, revenues are outpacing projections, she said. The newspapers in Greensburg and Tarentum are profitable.

“I feel very confident in our future,” Bertetto said. “In fact, in the 18 years that I've been here, this is best financially we have been in as a company.”

Bertetto said the Pittsburgh Trib will be an incubator for the rest of the company as it navigates the digital world.

Alan Mutter, a professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at University of California, said others will be watching.

“Innovation requires leaving certain things behind,” he said. “It requires breaking some things. It requires teaching old people new tricks, and it requires a serious rethinking of a the business model.

“I do think the experiment you all are embarking on will be closely watched by the industry, and a lot of people will be rooting for you to succeed.”

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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