It’s not often that a local writer sets out to interview another local writer, particularly when the latter was the first boss of the former. Alright, let me back up a few paces. My first job as a professional writer was at The Dispatch working for Steve Green. I won’t wax poetic about the lifelong lessons I learned or the fact that I still look forward to reading The Dispatch each week, but I will say that I admire Steve greatly and was a little nervous when the idea to interview him was pitched to me a few weeks ago. Despite my amateurish anxieties I knew that the story behind our local newspaper and its valiant leader and publisher was one that our readers would enjoy. I would safely wager that most (if not all) of our readers follow The Dispatch for the local news, but what they may not know is how passionate the team at The Dispatch is about fair and accurate reporting of the local news, or that despite a nationwide decline in print journalism, our local print paper has managed to thrive, with no intentions of slowing down anytime soon. As the team at The Dispatch rolls out changes to their website and prepares for another busy summer season, we decided to take a moment to learn a little bit more about what fuels their fire. I don’t do the Q&A format often here at ShoreBread, but it would be doing a disservice if I didn’t let the words of a writer shine through on their own:
You’ve mentioned before that a web and social media presence has always been intended as a way to keep The Dispatch on the minds of readers on a daily basis, do you think it has achieved this goal? How do you think the recent changes to the website will further this aim?
Yes I do believe our web and social media presence partnered with our Daily Buzz emails, which feature timely news articles each day, keep us relevant on a daily basis. It has grown our brand in many ways. Our printed product may be a weekly newspaper, but the various online avenues we have at our disposal allows us to report breaking news and that always captures the most attention from the online community. People want news as it happens and the viral activity that surrounds breaking news confirms that.
It makes my day when people tell me they seek out our website and social media outlets to learn about something that’s happening or has just recently happened. That’s what we are here for and we take it seriously.
When and why did you originally decide to add a web component to The Dispatch? How has the need for a web and social media presence changed since then?
Back in 1999, we started our first website. It was done in-house. To say it was simplistic would be an understatement. It was also ugly. At that time, it was just a vehicle to disseminate the news of the week and was basically just a listing of the news stories with a green background. We uploaded the stories on Friday morning and it remained static until the following Thursday night. We wanted to broaden our audience and realized there was a demand for the news content from people who were at the time tech savvy.
Fast forward six years, as web volume surged and our tech capability became even more antiquated, I finally realized an investment was necessary in a website that we could be proud of and that could handle serious traffic. That’s when we began our partnership with D3Corp. Even after we had what was then a top-notch, state-of-the-art site, I was slow to accept that we needed to release articles on a daily basis. I credit D3’s John Gehrig for breaking through my traditionalist core and showing me the value in the E-first methodology, which is distribute the articles online as it happens ahead of the printed deadline and product distribution overnight Thursday.
Having an online presence now is just a cost of doing business for any company. Being in the news business, it’s even more essential and particularly valuable to keeping us relevant on a daily basis, not just on the weekend. Social media has been a key part of our daily strategy. Seven years ago, we started our Facebook page, which now has in excess of 52,300 followers, then we ventured into Twitter and Instagram and we now have a new YouTube Channel. All these social media outlets drive traffic to our website and further our brand through content management and strategic dissemination. We like to break news and we now have several vehicles to do it.
In a world where instant access seems to be taking a stronghold, how do you think The Dispatch fits into the 24-7 news coverage model? And taking that one step further, how important is it for you to remain a credible source for content nowadays, particularly with SO much false information that people encounter online on a daily basis (even from “news” sources)?
It’s critical for a media outlet to be engaged as well as accurate when it comes to reporting in a timely fashion. We do our best with our team to report online on developing stories as they happen and then print full stories and reviews in the paper. We report online with a unique mindset because we determine what to follow and what to post electronically by gauging what’s important to our community. If there’s an accident blocking traffic or a major fire with smoke seen everywhere, it’s important to post what we know and update it as we can.
For example, I will never forget the plane crash that killed two Ocean City police officers three years ago. It was a Sunday and I was with my oldest son at Dumsers in West Ocean City while my wife was home with our youngest who was napping. I heard about the crash immediately thanks to some great sources who were near the site and immediately posted what had been confirmed on our Facebook page. It was basically just the location and how police and lifeguards were handling the scene.
The photos and videos started immediately coming in from a variety of sources. Within an hour, I knew and had confirmed through trusted sources that two OCPD members were in the plane. I didn’t report that fact immediately because I knew it would send shockwaves through the community. When it was confirmed officially and that family had been notified, we disclosed it online. We were the first to report on the crash and all our coverage was factual, but I thought withholding the key fact that the plane was carrying two off-duty police officers was important because I knew how upset people would be without knowing the identities of those men.
I tell you that story because it’s very important to us to be the first to report on breaking news, but not at the expense of harming the general public we are essentially trying to inform with accurate news in the first place.
The Dispatch is still primarily a print publication and while some may say that print is a dying industry, it seems to still be a viable medium for news locally. Why do you think that print news still resonates in our community? Is it your hope that there will always be a place for print journalism?
I believe there will always be a place for a local, community-minded newspaper that adapts with the times and understands the marketplace as well as its readers. While only willing to speak for my company, I can tell you unequivocally that print is not dead. We are alive and well and doing better than ever. For example, our circulation has grown in each of the last seven years and we now encompasses three counties — Sussex, Worcester and Wicomico counties. No other weekly paper in this market does that. While others are quietly cutting circulation, we are printing more.
Additionally, with that circulation growth, we have been able to hold our recovery rate at under half of a percentage point. Recovery rate refers to the number of papers that are not picked up on the street. For example, and we track this sort of thing, during a peak summer week last summer when we printed 27,000 copies, our drivers picked up less than 90 papers the following Friday. Most of those were from retail stores that advertise with us. We are very proud of low recovery rate because it confirms there’s a demand there. Coupled with the demand, we also monitor our circulation closely by tracking where papers are not moving and relocating those on Monday or Tuesday to the high-volume places like Walmart, Wawa and grocery stores.
It’s also worth noting for every copy picked up on the street, the national reader average per copy for a free newspaper is 2.5. That means on peak summer weeks about 68,000 people are reading the printed copy. Add the website to that and our reach is well in excess of 300,000 people each week. We are proud of that, too.
It’s all about the content. That’s what drives me and what the entire operation is focused on. To be a part of an operation that is bucking the nationwide trend — the so-called demise of the print newspaper industry — is especially rewarding. To prosper and excel in my home community is equally special. We have a great team that shares in that success.
Your new website will go live on Friday, April 15. What are some of the features of that site that will help readers stay connected to what is happening?
When readers head to the new site, we don’t expect any “wow” factor. It’s basically a streamlined and improved version of the old site with a focus on our staff writer’s news articles as well as our weekly favorites, such as Vanishing Ocean City, the podcasts and E-dition, which is an electronic version of the paper. Immediately noticeable on the home page will be a place where readers can see the “Latest News,” where the breaking news and developing stories of the week will be posted, as well as “Most Popular,” which will feature the most clicked articles of the week. I will be paying particular attention to the most viewed story lists because it gives us valuable insight into what’s of interest to our readers. The new site will also feature a Social Lounge page that will pull in the updates from all of our social media feeds.
Any final thoughts?
I’m passionate about the news business. I was blessed at a young age to find my professional passion while growing up in this business. I am always trying to build on what we have here at The Dispatch. Change is to be embraced in my view and I’m focused on trying to instill that in our printed product and online offerings. I am not one to accept or take for granted the status quo, which is one of success I believe. I just know we can do better. If you’re not working to get better every day, you’re failing in my mind.
It’s been 18 years now since I started working at The Dispatch – the Monday after I graduated from college on Saturday — I still feel the same way today that I did back then. I remember thinking there has to be a way to operate this newspaper with an even hand — be tough, opinionated, aggressive and critical at times while also being soft, understanding, community minded and especially sensitive when it’s required. It’s that constant battle for balance and that’s the goal I foresee with each newspaper edition — I want there to be something for everyone. The government news, entertainment listings, photos of people at the bars as well as at community events and arts receptions, police beat listings, feature stories on businesses, opinion sections and some guy’s rambling about his kids and that same guy’s 11 things he likes each week. Diversified content that appeals to the most amount of people as possible.