By Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg
Gannett Co. has named Mayur Gupta to the newly created position of chief marketing and strategy officer, a move meant to sharpen the U.S. newspaper chain's focus on attracting digital subscribers as the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc on the publishing industry.
Generating digital subscription revenue was already critical for media outlets, given the difficulties of sustaining newsrooms on ad dollars and declining print-circulation revenue. The crisis has exacerbated those challenges.
"Our future will be a digital-subscription-led business," said Mr. Gupta, who earlier worked at such subscription-oriented businesses as Spotify Technology SA. "Success will reflect our speed and the overall user experience, with journalism at the core."
Gannett, whose holdings include USA Today and more than 200 daily newspapers, was hit hard by the pandemic, as were other local publishers. Adjusting for the big merger Gannett completed last year, second-quarter print advertising revenue fell 45% year-over-year, while revenue from digital advertising and marketing services declined more than 26%.
The company posted a net loss of $436.9 million in the quarter, driven largely by a noncash charge of $393.4 million related to uncertainty about the Covid-19 crisis. Gannett eliminated more than $125 million in costs in the quarter through pay cuts, furloughs and reductions in travel and other spending.
Michael Reed, Gannett's chief executive, said on an earnings call with analysts that the publisher intends to phase out those furloughs and pay cuts and replace them "with permanent cost reductions, since the economy is likely to remain challenged or under pressure until the pandemic is fully under control."
Gannett ended the second quarter with 927,000 digital subscribers across all of its outlets combined, up 7.4% from the first quarter. Local publishers have had a harder time persuading readers to pay for journalism than select national outlets. The New York Times reported nearly 4.4 million digital news subscribers in the latest quarter, while News Corp said The Wall Street Journal had over 2.2 million.
"Gannett is a collection of individual local markets, with the exception of USA Today, and all local-market publishers have had a more difficult time signing digital subscribers," said David Chavern, chief executive of the News Media Alliance, a lobbying group for the publishing industry.
Mr. Gupta said that while Gannett is behind those national competitors, the "market is massive, and the need for trusted news in local communities has never been stronger."
Competition for subscriber dollars is fierce. "There's no question that at some point the subscription economy reaches a saturation point," Mr. Gupta said. "Companies that solve societal needs will be successful."
Mr. Gupta, 42 years old, brings a background in technology and marketing to the new post. An engineer with a master's degree in computer science, he earlier served as chief marketing officer of prepared-meal subscription company Freshly Inc. and vice president of growth and marketing at Spotify.
"What I learned at Spotify is that the only moat you have as an organization is your ability to move faster than the competition," he said.
New Media Investment Group Inc., the owner of a large group of dailies and community publications, agreed to acquire Gannett in August 2019, combining the two largest U.S. newspaper chains. The deal, which required substantial debt financing, closed that November, with the combined company using the Gannett name. At the end of the second quarter, Gannett had long-term debt of $1.63 billion and cash and cash equivalents of $158.6 million.
Write to Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org