The Tribune-Review’s top executive, Jennifer Bertetto, takes exception to the question: Does Pittsburgh still have a newspaper if neither of the city’s main newspapers appears in print every day of the week?
“It’s about reframing for the public what a newspaper is,” Bertetto, the president and CEO of Trib Total Media, told me. “We’re still in the region and we’re still producing content every day. It’s just a matter of looking in a different place for it.”
The Post-Gazette also has shifted to an all-digital format two days a week — Tuesdays and Saturdays — when it does not print a newspaper.
These moves online raise questions and concerns for readers, just as they do for journalists. Access will be the biggest question, especially for people who do not have easy access to a computer, smartphone or tablet. I’ve been doing research into communities that do not have a local printed newspaper, and elderly residents say they miss the obituaries, for instance.
Journalists who have made the switch, however, say the way people get the news matters far less than the quality of the information.
“There’s a lot of romance, nostalgia and a high symbolism factor,” said John Kirkpatrick, who served as publisher for Harrisburg’s Patriot-News when it shifted to publishing just three days a week in 2013. “The community feels something’s lost. There’s an association in many news operations and communities that journalism equals print, and especially that good journalism equals print.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. As it has moved to a digital-first format, the Trib has tried to offer readers different types of content — and more of it, Bertetto and others said. I worked at the newspaper until April 2016, but my friend Luis Fabregas, who serves as editor of the Pittsburgh digital edition and several print editions, said I no longer would recognize the place.
Now, every weekday morning around 8:30 a.m., more than a dozen TribLIVE.com editors, reporters and photographers start a conversation with the same basic questions: What do the readers need today? And what do the readers want today?
The group tries to find the answers by sifting through topics that are trending on social media, looking at stories getting the most clicks online and discussing what has happened overnight. Before, the morning meetings happened later in the day — around 10:30 a.m. or 11 a.m.
The company still prints daily newspapers with the Tribune-Review in Greensburg, the Valley News Dispatch in Tarentum and 13 free weekly newspapers across the region.
“We used to do stories because we thought they were going to be read but then people didn’t read them,” Fabregas told me. “It used to be that we told the readers what’s important. Now, we have a conversation every day about what topics people are interested in on a day-to-day basis.”
The Trib also generates more stories than in the past, although many are shorter. The company set a goal for each reporter to generate three stories daily, but Bertetto said editors vary that expectation based on the types of stories and each reporter’s workload.
In May, Trib reporters produced 7,379 stories — a 20 percent increase from the same month in 2017.
The Trib also has more online traffic now. TribLIVE.com had 2.72 million total users in their entire multi-county coverage area in May, an increase of 19 percent over the same month in 2017, while page views increased 56 percent to 21.86 million, according to statistics the company shares with employees each quarter. The numbers do not break out how many users come from Pittsburgh or Allegheny County, although Bertetto said that Pittsburgh remains the top city for total page views most weeks.
Males aged 18-34 usually make up the Trib’s top demographic, Bertetto said. Though the numbers given don’t tell us what readers are clicking on, sports coverage remains a key item for both the Trib and Post-Gazette. Online startups have divided over either devoting all of their coverage to sports — such as DK Pittsburgh Sports or The Athletic — or not covering sports at all.
The Trib continues to provide its online content for free, while the Post-Gazette limits registered users to 15 free downloads a month without a paid subscription. The Post-Gazette offers its PG NewsSlide app for free on tablets and smartphones.
“I would argue that (digital content) is better because it’s journalism for anyone who is interested in consuming it,” Bertetto said. “It’s not just for people who live in an area where it can be delivered or who can afford a daily subscription.”
The Trib’s shift to digital has meant other changes, too.
Ten years before his death in 2014, the newspaper’s former owner, billionaire Richard Scaife, created an unusual structure for the company by placing it into a trust, run by seven trustees, with three employee representatives. The trustees each year elect a board of directors to run the company.
Without an individual owner setting the editorial direction, the Trib recently replaced its opinion editors with a community engagement editor, focusing on local issues facing residents.
As part of its reorganization, the Trib closed its former North Shore headquarters, but it maintains offices for reporters in Sewickley, Aspinwall, Tarentum and Greensburg, and it has three reporters based on Grant Street.
The company recently shifted to a web-based content management system for reporters and editors, so employees can work from virtually anywhere with a laptop.
The Trib also has invested in a high school sports video network, it has partnered with a Korean company on InvenGlobal — an English-language e-sports website based near Los Angeles — and it has invested in SpokenLayer, which provides spoken media content to Alexa, Google Home and other platforms.