Kill the Innovators: San Diego U-T Lays Off Online Leaders

These are tough, fast-changing times for newspapers, and many of them are taking severe measures to get back on track. Sometimes, it means putting the innovative online guy in charge of print too, as Bay Area News Group has done with online advertising head David Prizer. But sometimes, it means consolidating power under the old print hands that believe they need to “own” the online efforts because that is where the action is.

Last week, The San Diego Union Tribune, for instance, laid off its online leadership: GM Chris Jennewein, Content Head Ron James and Business Development head Jim Drummond. Mark Davis, the paper’s current head of strategy, will take over the Internet operations.

Some anonymous spin in The San Diego Weekly Reader, an alternative paper, suggested that Jennewein and his team probably had to go because of a “disastrous” experiment in the creation of an online radio station, and its decision to provide a bigger news footprint during the San Diego fires last year, removing advertising from the home pages. The implication, I guess, is that the paper should stay on the straight –and- narrow and maximize all revenue opportunities (or whatever the cliché.)

But will the print people clearly see the opportunities inherent in the online world of marketplaces and community? Can they leverage what they have into new businesses? It is a fair question.

I have consulted for SignOn on-and-off for eight years. From my limited interactions with the company, I could see that there had been tensions among the print and online staffs. But I don’t know the real reason for the online team’s removal.

From my observation of SignOn, I can tell you that the site has been a pioneer among newspapers in the creation of email targeting for local businesses; and the creation of sponsored verticals, especially for tourism, such as a SuperBowl guide when the SuperBowl came to town. SignOn also created a business directory that specifically focused on tourism. It has also extended the franchise to vertical directories in print, creating widely distributed eldercare and legal directories.

It also has been a pioneer in the use of multimedia, including photo libraries, podcasts and video. All this especially came to fruition during its exceptional coverage of the devastating San Diego fires, where the site was a community lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people who had been evacuated. I don’t remember any criticism about its decision not to run advertising on the home pages at that time.

What it was doing was building the loyalty of the local audience. Shouldn’t that be priceless in a town where the print circulation is in the low 20s?

The site has also conducted a number of inexpensive experiments, including the Wikis for local community and music scene information; and mobile news headlines, which might be seen as a necessity in QualComm’s hometown. More recently, it created the AmplifySD Radio local music station and the SignOn Radio station, which expanded the paper’s footprint to the work day with weekly shows on such topics as local gardening, dining and online politics.

I will need to talk to someone who can tell me why it was such as bad idea. While there had been some equipment to purchase, the day to day operating costs certainly weren’t very much.

What Jennewein and company didn’t do was jump after every opportunity, and reinvent the wheel with every new thing that came along. They prioritized, and worked within a budget.

The print people will now apparently take over the reins of the operation, determined to focus on both print and online. Maybe they will do better. But obviously, this will only happen if they understand what Jennewein and company have long understood: that their job in not only to sustain existing revenues, but to create new revenues that comes from the opportunities that are inherent in interactive media, and by reaching a broader swath of the dynamic San Diego community.