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'Tennessean' publisher shares challenges facing news industry

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'Tennessean' publisher shares challenges facing news industry

Tennessean President and Publisher Laura Hollingsworth doesn't sugarcoat the demise of the newspaper industry she officially joined while still in high school.

Speaking to more than 100 business leaders and owners at Williamson Inc.'s Women in Business meeting in Brentwood,  Hollingsworth said she has had to make “tough decisions” to leave behind employees who resist change in an industry in which many have worked for “a long, long time.”

“I generally think and ask the question: if this person in front of me was to apply for their own job in today’s environment and the skill sets we need to do it, would they get it?” she asked.

But while insisting age isn’t a factor in determining which workers can “make the leap into the new era,” whether in the newsroom, in advertising, or otherwise, she also said that today's industry leaders have to resist expectations of the past.

“We’ve got to aggressively hire new skill sets and new talents, and take risks with people when they’re younger,” she said. “And they don’t need to spend 10 years in the business to get their first promotion.”

Hollingsworth appears to be practicing what she preaches. In February, she named 33-year-old Stefanie Murray  to fill the role of vice president for content and engagement. Murray came to The Tennessean from the Detroit Free-Press, another Gannett property.

Gannett brought Hollingsworth to Nashville last May “to bring The Tennessean along faster,” she said. She is also the president of Gannett’s U.S. Community Publishing Central Group, overseeing 25 markets in nine states. She was president and publisher of the Des Moines Register in Iowa for six years prior to her new role.

“Truly our biggest obstacle isn’t outside of the culture and organization, it’s inside,” she said. “That is what it is for us. Whether we can bring dramatic cultural change to our organization really fast and in a revolutionary fashion is the question for The Tennessean in 2014.”

Like newspapers nationwide, the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage industry and subsequent recession dealt a crippling blow to Middle Tennessee's largest daily paper.

As the economy recovers and newspaper companies try to find their place in the ever-changing media world, Hollingsworth said the “only choice” is to “change dramatically and urgently” to find a way to fill the “gaping hole” that used to be the traditional profit model.

“I happen to be in an industry that used to be called the newspaper industry,” she said. “I’m not sure we know what it’s called today." She added it certainly is one of the nation's "most challenged industries.”

The Internet, smartphones, tablets and whatever is next, have brought “extraordinary and unprecedented” changes to consumer expectations," she said.

“It means nobody’s going to wait for a 10 p.m. newscast any more,” she said. “Nobody’s going to wait to see the headlines in the newspaper the next morning … There’s a lot of small and nimble competitors in the news and information space.”

Hollingsworth, a Brentwood resident, did not discuss recent changes in the company's coverage of Williamson County. She did say the company is “re-looking at what local news even means” while the newsroom is “undergoing the reinvention of local journalism for the digital age.”

“We are having to transform how we cover the news and what we’re covering and how we devote very important and expensive reporting resources and how we deliver it,” she said. She added the newspaper’s role as government watchdog and defender of the First Amendment has “critical value” that it doesn’t plan to abandon.

In recent months The Tennessean has shifted its presence in the county by rebranding its long-established Williamson A.M. section to simply Williamson and reducing its print distribution to two days a week.  At the same time, its three weekly sections , including two legacy mastheads (The Brentwood Journal and The Review Appeal) disappeared.

The Tennessean has produced journalism in recent years that earned finalist nods for some of the most prestigious awards in the industry. The newspaper was an Investigative Reporters and Editors award finalist this year for its work examining conservatorships, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2011 for its breaking news coverage of the May 2010 flood that devastated many parts of Nashville.

Hollingsworth said she has lived by one Harvard professor’s definition of leadership as the “process of bringing an unwelcome reality to a group and helping them adapt to it,” which, she quipped, makes her a very good leader. She led her Des Moines Register staff through the recession, when the focus turned to “cost reductions, and consolidations, and survival.”

“I’ve been unwelcome many places,” she said. “And I have an editor who handles his team a little less eloquently: he says (if) you don’t like change, you’re going to really hate extinction.”

Hollingsworth acknowledged some of Gannett’s strategic failings, including a move during the recession to consolidate customer service operations that transferred local customers inquiring about subscriptions or advertising to call centers in other states.

“Quite frankly, the company would tell you – I’m not calling my sister ugly – but it was a disaster,” she said. “The customer service experience has not been a good one, we recognize it. We’re not quite Comcast, but we’re close.”

Sarah Kingsbury covers Franklin for BrentWord Communications. Contact her at sarah@franklinhomepage.com.

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