A little background upfront: Conan Gallaty has been director of online strategy and operations for the New York Times Regional Media Group’s Herald-Tribune Media Group as well as online director at The Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle. At Little Rock, Ark.-based WEHCO Media, he began as online director for its flagship Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
This Q&A was conducted by The Inlander Editor Mark Fitzgerald.
So, what is it you do now, Conan Gallaty? I’m the president of digital media for WEHCO Media. I oversee all operations, including sales and editorial for all our digital endeavors at 14 daily newspapers in six states: Websites, digital agencies, apps.
The Democrat-Gazette for years famously had the hardest of hard paywalls when other metro dailies were giving everything up for free. Has that changed? Yes. We’ve had a meter on most of our content for about four to five years. We’ve adjusted it right now so it’s set to three articles a month.
And that’s working? I see a lot of opportunity there because our audience engagement has to be strong. I see a great appetite for consumers paying for our content. As the pressures grow around traditional (advertising) revenue, and as more publications charge for access for news, consumers realize that they have to pay in order to have quality content.
How does that translate into a real transition into digital subscriptions? I’m often reminded of how “full pagination” was predicted to arrive “five years from now” for about a decade. (Laughs) As far as a timeline, sure, it’s really hard to say. But I’ll say a few organizations have helped pushed this forward. It’s not just Netflix, but other (services) are making more consumers used to paying a fee. In the next five years, I’m pretty confident most publications will have either a large percentage if not the majority of their subscriptions (as digital).
Let’s talk about the apps WEHCO’s digital operations have launched. You began with (University of Arkansas) Razerback-themed apps. Now you’re into OTT (Over The Top internet delivery). We’ve just launched our first OTT app on Roku, Amazon Fire and smart TV. It’s Razorbacks-oriented as well. But it’s not just about Razorback (sports) but includes city information and tips for locals and visitors. The engagement is very high. The problem is the volume of people. And so far, search-ability is not great. We do a lot of promotions for the OTT app, and most of that is off-line. It’s hard to get exposure with the native app.
Let’s talk about Flypaper, the brand for WEHCO’s digital agencies. You’re doing something that not a lot of other newspaper companies are doing.
We decided to build something new when we launched in 2013. Our approach was different for sure. We set up a competitive agency in our own newspapers. It was controversial to start that way, but rewarding in the end. We competed essentially against ourselves in the market with the mindset that if we didn’t get (the digital business) someone else would.
And now you’ve taken Flypaper to markets where WEHCO doesn’t publish a paper. In beginning of 2017, we launched in Nashville, Tennessee. And we actually grew faster there than in markets with a newspaper. We were kind of surprised by the growth. (One reason for the growth:) Some 93% of Flypaper accounts have never advertised in the newspaper. Not just stopped advertising—never advertised. We get home services, plumbers and roofers, who historically have never been strong newspaper advertisers.
Speaking of newspapers, do Flypaper reps, um, speak about the newspaper? Sometimes the sales reps will lead with the newspaper name and sometimes they won’t. That mostly comes up when there’s a question about (Flypaper’s) stability. Because these businesses have seen a lot of digital operations run out of a garage or something. That’s when we reassure them that, hey, we’re with the newspaper.
Thoughts on the future of newspapers? I’ve always thought of it as going an obvious direction. It’s the scale and tipping point that is hard to distinguish. We realize that the majority of revenue and profit is still generated in the analog format, and so we’ve been very careful not to erode the newspaper. But the future obviously is going to be in digital distribution and digital advertising.
You’ve been quite involved with Inland, as a member of the Executive Program for Innovative Change, and now as a member of the board of directors. Inland has always had a great appreciation for newspapers like ours and done great work helping companies like ours. What EPIC did for me was exposed me to great people inside the industry and outside the industry. The exposure to Google and Facebook (in Silicon Valley) was wonderful for the insights I got. And I’ve stayed close to a number of those (EPIC classmates).
OK, gotta ask about your given name. It’s not pronounced like Conan O’Brien or Conan the Barbarian but as Kahn-un. What’s the story there? My mother was a big reader of mysteries and her favorites were Agatha Christie and (Sherlock Holmes creator) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. If I were a girl, I’d have been called Agatha, so I guess that was lucky break.