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Quality Not Quantity The Way Forward For Midsized Newspapers

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Charlie Schlenker
Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper editor Mitch Pugh was a speaker at ISU's COM Week.

The future of newspapers is in more and deeper local coverage, according to a prominent former Illinois State University student.

Mitch Pugh is the executive editor of the Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina. He said midsized papers can't compete with big national chains for high numbers of stories; they have to focus on their own communities.

"We think the future is all about engaging with readers and proving to them our content is worth paying for and that reader revenue is going to be what sustains us moving forward. We don't think the advertising market is coming back for newspapers," said Pugh.

Getting readers to pay for journalism has been a challenge for most media companies, though, except for places like The New York Times and Washington Post. A recent study by the Poynter Institute estimated only about 14% of Americans pay anything for the journalism they consume.

Pugh said that number is not sustainable. But he said even relatively small shifts in a marketplace can be significant. For instance he said if the Post and Courier captures an additional 2% of the population, it will be more than additional 20,000 people.

He said one of the ways to gain that reader loyalty is to put out a higher quality product.

Four to five years ago the Post and Courier was producing nearly twice as many stories as it does now, Pugh said. But he said research and online use showed many of those stories didn't matter.

"The data told us that the audience was telling us that really only about a third of those were worth it; that only a third of those were meaningful to our audience, and worth engaging with and therefore worth paying for. So, now we publish somewhere between 24 and 30 stories per day. And our traffic is higher, as is the time spent on stories," said Pugh.

He said it's time spent on a story instead of clicks that now drives coverage.

Quality has trumped quantity in another way as well. In 2015 the Post and Courier won a Pulitzer Prize for its work on domestic violence. And two other projects in recent years have been Pulitzer finalists.

Pugh was at Illinois State University for COM Week. He studied at ISU for two years and graduated from the University of Illinois at Springfield.

You can also listen to the full interview:

GLT's full interview.

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WGLT News Director Charlie Schlenker grew up in Rock Island and graduated from Augustana College. He has spent more than three decades in radio.