Here’s the primary reason I think you shouldn’t waste time, energy, focus and money rebranding a newspaper: Print newspapers are a declining business, and news organizations should spend time, energy, focus and money on building a successful digital business for the future, not trying to rebrand the product of the past.
I’m a longtime fan of the St. Pete Times and the Poynter Institute, the non-profit organization that owns it (and depends on Times profits for its prosperity). I wish the Times well in its rebranding effort. I hope it reaps in great profits that fund growth of Poynter’s programs.
However, I think MediaNews Group (my colleagues in Digital First Media) made the right decision in reversing a move toward a regional brand, retaining the established local brands, including the Oakland Tribune, a name with a long and distinguished history.
The Tampa Tribune is in some trouble, and perhaps the St. Pete Times will sell a few more newspapers in Tampa as the Tampa Bay Times. But that won’t change the downward arc of newspapers as a business in the Tampa Bay region. Even if Media General folds the Tribune or sells it to the Times (which would then close it), the future of that news organization rests in developing a successful digital business.
Interestingly, the Times’ website does carry a regional brand, tampabay.com, and its entertainment publication and website is tbt*, with the logo identifying the abbreviation as standing for the Tampa Bay Times. I don’t know whether this means the company has a good regional branding base from which to build another regional brand, or whether it will present a challenge, identifying Tampa Bay Times as a full-service newspaper, not an entertainment product.
Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, in defending the change, told Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman that the Times is “the important part of our name.” Seriously? I’ll bet that on the east side of the bay, if you say just “The Times,” most newspaper readers think you’re referring to a paper from New York. But the St. Pete Times does have some brand power in Tampa (where I’ll bet lots of people call it the “St. Pete Times” to avoid confusion with that other Times). Changing that brand identification is going to be risky and won’t be easy.
My second concern about the Times’ rebranding is that I know from extensive personal experience that a successful brand rests not in your name, but in what you do.
I spent more than seven years working for the Des Moines Register when it covered the state of Iowa and provided home delivery in every Iowa town. We were an Iowa institution. Whether Iowans loved the Register or hated us (and lots did each), we were as important to Iowa life and conversation as any organization in the state. It was easily the strongest brand I ever worked for. We didn’t need to be the Iowa Register to have a statewide brand.
Our slogan, boasting that we were the newspaper Iowa depended upon, was true. We were a statewide brand because we found and reported the best stories in the state. We covered the Iowa caucuses, agriculture, Iowa weather, Iowa politics, Iowa sports and Iowa’s small towns, and we delivered the paper to your doorstep every morning in every county in Iowa.
The second strongest newspaper brand in Iowa at that time was the Cedar Rapids Gazette. The Gazette has tried lots of rebranding. When I became its editor in 2008, it for several years had been just The Gazette (apparently pretending there weren’t other Gazettes in Montreal and Colorado Springs and dozens of other cities and towns). For a while, it had an Iowa City edition called the Iowa City Gazette. Since I left, it changed its website from gazetteonline.com to thegazette.com and changed the company name from Gazette Communications to SourceMedia Group.
You know what people across eastern Iowa called the paper (and the company) when I was there? The Cedar Rapids Gazette. I’m sure they still do.
More recently, I worked at a Washington local news website, and we were trying to come up with a name for it. We considered a wide array of potential names, some of them with regional references to Washington and its institutions, some of them with appeal based in other factors.
In that discussion, I made the point that whatever name we chose, the power of our brand would come from the product and how well we covered and engaged the community, not from the name. Backfence had a great name for a local news product, but that name didn’t ensure success. When Northern Natural Gas and Houston Natural Gas merged in the 1980s and eventually chose the name Enron, the brand had no value or meaning, perhaps with a sound that evoked the energy business, but no clear image. For years, the company made that a sterling brand, standing for smart, innovative people who were masters of the energy universe. And then suddenly, the brand came to stand for greed and dishonesty. Both extremes of the brand came from the company’s actions and pubic perceptions, not from the meaningless name.
We had a similar experience, though not as extreme, with TBD, the brand we chose in Washington. The explanation I wrote for the name choice would not determine the success of our brand. That was just an introduction. Some people liked the name. The Washington Post hated it — with multiple reporters taking shots at it. But the Post was our competition, so their repeated whining about the name was actually a good response.
We launched with great fanfare and made our mark quickly. Within our first month, our coverage of a hostage situation at Discovery Communications won widespread local and national praise. Traffic grew quickly and we were the shiny new thing in the local digital media field, keynoters at the Online News Association conference. TBD meant edgy, engaging, hustling, innovative, newsy.
But then Jim Brady, TBD’s founding visionary, left. Allbritton Communications changed course and slashed the staff. That quickly, the name’s meaning changed. TBD meant a flash in the pan, lack of patience, lack of courage. TBD was featured last month, just a year after that ONA conference, in a “Lessons from the Hyperlocal Graveyard” panel at the Street Fight Summit (I noted that TBD isn’t really dead).
Even the owner of the St. Pete/Tampa Bay Times, the Poynter Institute, has great experience with how actions give a brand its value. Nelson Poynter was largely unknown outside St. Pete. He was a journalist and publisher of distinction, but I had never heard of him. He founded the Modern Media Institute in St. Pete in 1975 and left all his stock in the Times to the institute. The original name matched the mission of the organization. After his death in 1978, the name was changed to the Poynter Institute, a name that initially did not mean much to the journalism profession or the news business. But through decades of excellence in training, teaching, research, writing and web journalism, Poynter is one of the strongest brands in journalism, even with people who still don’t know who Nelson Poynter was.
The American Society of Newspaper Editors, Associated Press Managing Editors and International Newspaper Marketing Association have rebranded themselves recently as the American Society of News Editors, Associated Press Media Editors and International Newsmedia Marketing Association. But those name changes won’t count for anything without genuine change in the groups’ actions, services and membership.
I’m not saying that organizations should never rebrand. I actually raised the issue myself in a discussion recently with an organization whose name presents some real problems. I am not sure that organization should rebrand, but it should consider rebranding. Fortunately, most of our discussion was about what they needed to do because that’s way more important than changing the name, even if you have a bad name.
I don’t know enough specifically about the Tampa Bay market to know whether the Times is making the right move. I’m sure their executives have studied the situation thoroughly and understand the risk in changing such a strong brand. I wish them success. But I think generally that rebranding a print newspaper is a huge waste of energy and money in a time when digital transformation demands a lot of both.