Like most people, Gannett President Maribel Perez Wadsworth did not initially comprehend how much of an impact COVID-19 would have on the world and Gannett’s business — or just how long-lasting it would be.
Speaking to INMA members in a live Webinar interview on Wednesday, Wadsworth recalled a note she sent to team members in March advising that they would all be working from home temporarily, and that they would revisit the situation on April 9.
“It seems enormously naive now in retrospect, but that just gives you a sense of what we were in for — and didn’t even understand it,” she said.
However, although the pandemic certainly made a seismic impact on all news media organisations, including Gannett, Wadsworth said it only illuminated the importance of journalism.
“Never has what we do been more in demand. Never have we been more needed and turned to. From the news side of our business, it has very much been all hands, all the time, running around the clock.”
On the other hand, she and her team have certainly experienced the day-to-day monotony of lockdown and remote working.
“Thankfully we’re starting to see the light at the end of that tunnel,” Wadsworth said.
INMA’s executive producer Mark Challinor asked Wadsworth about Gannett’s challenges during the pandemic and how the company has positioned itself for the year ahead.
INMA: Has the pandemic changed your mindset in terms of your approach to future plans?
Before COVID hit, Gannett was already in the works for the merger with GateHouse.
“We knew we were in for a complicated year of many projects,” Wadsworth replied. “When you merge two companies of that size together, the level of integration required … we knew that was going to be an enormous challenge. And then COVID hit.”
COVID wasn’t the only massive event of 2020. In the United States, there was also what she called the long-overdue racial reckoning (after the murder of George Floyd) and a contentious presidential election.
“It was just massive storyline after massive storyline, with the backdrop of this complex merger,” she said.
The first item of importance for Gannett was the health and safety of its team members, who not only were dealing with all of these things hitting at once, but their own feelings, concerns, and personal impact to themselves and their families.
“That’s something you can’t be blind to. And you have to make space for them to process their own emotions about it and in some cases step back and give themselves a little bit of time,” Wadsworth said. “Flexibility around that and being emotionally attuned to the needs of the organisation was really important.”
INMA: How did that impact you in terms of communication, safety, and working from home — is that going to be the new normal now?
Wadsworth hopes remote work won’t be the new normal permanently at Gannett but took a moment to acknowledge her team and news media in general.
“I’m so proud of the work of journalists at this time and the way they rose to this incredibly challenging time to serve the needs of their readers and viewers,” she said.
Now that the world is emerging from lockdown and distancing measures, she added that life behind the screen is just not the same.
“I think we lose a lot of the personal connection. We lose some of the serendipity of idea sharing and collaboration.”
Her hope is that with vaccinations and loosening of constraints, the Gannett team will be able to work from the office together more and more. But what she hopes will stay with them as they move forward is a new understanding of the flexibility they can afford to have within the organisation.
“There doesn’t need to be a choice every single day between your personal needs, your family’s needs — and your work needs.”
INMA: We saw Gannett make some very firm commitments around things like diversity, equity, and inclusion. Can you talk us through that?
Wadsworth, who has has been at Gannett for 25 years, said one of the things that has kept her there has been its commitment to diversity and inclusion.
“That has always been part of the DNA for this company. It’s always been important internally, but I don’t know if we were as vocal about it externally,” she said.
As the Black Lives Matter movement and fallout of racial reckoning happened over the past year in the United States, Wadsworth said it required a real affirmation of those values and a public commitment to continue to improve in that area. She outlined several actions Gannett took in response:
Transparently, published Gannett’s own demographics for its employees — both as a company overall and for each independent newsroom within Gannett — and how those stack up against the demographics of the communities they serve.
Made a public pledge to achieve parity with those communities by 2025.
Put more reporting firepower around issues of social justice.
“That’s an ambitious goal, but it’s an important one and one that we continue to make progress on,” Wadsworth said.
This includes focusing DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) efforts on leadership ranks, as well as having newsroom staff be out in the communities they serve more and building newsrooms that are more reflective of those communities along with covering issues of importance to the communities.
INMA: Gannett has made some big goals for the future of its subscription business. What do those goals mean for USA Today and the network, and how is it shaping your approach?
“We have stated very publicly that our intention is to get to 10 million digital subscribers by 2025,” Wadsworth replied. “We absolutely believe that’s possible, but it requires clear focus and prioritisation within the business. We have to move much more swiftly and much more firmly to a place where our dominant business model and focus is being subscription-led.”
This really means being customer-led, in fact customer-obsessed. What’s good for the subscriber is always going to win out, she added. This required a very clear understanding of what Gannett’s North Star is — as that all strategies and decisions flow from that.
The goal will also require more product development, and she sees opportunities to expand by focusing on key niche areas where the organisation already has strength, such as sports.
“We are laser-focused on that. We absolutely believe the future for the industry is to be very focused on the subscriber and building quality products and quality content that will earn that share of wallet.”
INMA: Do you believe subscriptions are indeed the panacea for engaging a loyal readership long-term and ultimately drive revenue?
“I think subscriptions are absolutely our path forward,” Wadsworth stated. “That doesn’t necessarily mean I think all content must at all times be locked away. There is a whole funnel — you have to engage audiences, you have to attract them, you have to get them to know you. The ultimate expression of value, of support and loyalty from your audience, is a willingness to pay you for what you offer.”
INMA: What about your strategy for diversification in things like podcasts, virtual events, e-commerce, partnerships, etc?
All of these things work really well together, Wadsworth said, and are nicely connected with the focus on subscribers.
“The experience side of things, in addition to content, all of these things working together add value. This is all connected in support of the consumer-focused business.
“As long as you’re creating content that is unique and adds value, people will come to you and people will be willing to pay,” she added. “We absolutely believe in the strength of USA Today in that regard and believe that the path forward will entail some version of subscription.”
INMA: What could the current regulatory environment and digital platforms mean for Gannett and to publishers in general?
“It’s a really important moment in time,” Wadsworth replied. “There’s no question that lawmakers and regulators all over the globe are recognising the imbalance in the market as it relates to the advertising technology side and as it relates to access to the consumer. That is really brought on by the incredible dominance of two companies in particular: Google and Facebook.”
While these companies are important, she believes news publishers have a role to play in leveling the playing field.
“The imbalance is so great they have no negotiating power against the dominance of those platforms. Something has to happen in order to create more balance and the ability to have a shot at succeeding in business and continuing to sustain journalism.”
INMA: What skills do you think are required for news media leadership today?
Leading with empathy is vital, Wadsworth responded. In some ways, conducting meetings via Zoom from home has brought team members’ personal lives into the workspace more — as they work, life is literally happening all around them.
“You have to lead with care and nurture in ways that I think have maybe not been fully realised in the past but are critical to how employees feel about the companies the work for, the managers they work for, how well you retain your best talent. Having that awareness, making space for people to really be fully themselves in a work environment is crucial.”
This aspect is also crucial to how Gannett approaches its coverage, she added: “Our business customers have had enormous challenges in the past year, so being empathetic with them and offering them solutions that help them to navigate these treacherous times — all of these things I think are really about leading with EQ versus strictly IQ.”