UMUC alumna and Post-Newsweek Media Inc. CEO Karen Acton makes the case for community newspapers
Karen Acton launched her career with a UMUC degree in accounting, intent on getting a nice, stable numbers job. Along the way she happened upon journalism. Now, as the new CEO of Post-Newsweek Media Inc., she finds herself defending a business she loves that, these days, is anything but stable.
In her Gaithersburg, Maryland, office—one of two she occupies in her far-flung media company—she talks about what attracts her to the news business, and why it must, and will, survive and thrive.
“I enjoy it immensely, because the newspaper business is different every day,” said Acton, who was promoted to CEO in January 2012. “You never get bored. I’ve been in it 30 years. But every day is different, every day is exciting, and you feel that you’re doing something worthwhile for your community.”
The name “Post-Newsweek Media” conjures up images of globetrotting journalists who question presidents and write about wars and disasters. But while Post-Newsweek Media Inc. is owned by the Washington Post Co., its mission is to provide community news in the Maryland counties around Washington, D.C., in Fairfax County, Virginia, and on nearby military bases.
It is community journalism at its most basic, and it touches the lives of individuals in ways that big city newspapers rarely can. And Acton would have it no other way. Community newspapers provide news to people that no one else will produce, she said.
“You get to meet the people in the community. You tell their stories. You are the historians for the communities you are serving,” she said. “That is vital. Whether it’s the parents of the children playing on the soccer or baseball team, they think it is very important. It is recording the history of their families with their births, engagements, weddings, and obituaries. You are providing the information they need every day to live their lives and have the information they need to make good decisions for their families.”
But don’t think that Acton is running a tiny weekly newspaper. With an army of 176 reporters, editors, and photographers, the 19 newspapers she controls reach 671,000 homes in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and southern Maryland. That is just slightly fewer than the Washington Post’s Sunday circulation of 688,576.
Additional newspapers Post-Newsweek Media publishes circulate on local military bases, and the company has separate weekly newspapers focused specifically on Maryland business and politics.
Unlike the Post, which relies on paid subscriptions, theGazette newspapers that make up a large part of her business are delivered free to homes in targeted neighborhoods. In this time of turbulence in the news business, many pundits predict that newspapers will disappear, overwhelmed by Web based and app-based journalism. Acton begs to disagree. Not only will the printed version of the newspaper survive, she predicts, it will thrive.
People, she said, like to see their news on paper.
While Web sites are important to news and Post-Newsweek Media has a healthy online presence, she said, they provide an entirely different experience than the printed newspaper.
“I think print is—and I hesitate to say it—more important, but in some respects it is,” she said. “When you read a newspaper, in particular a community newspaper, you are browsing. You come across stories on taxes being raised in your community, how the planning commission might affect your neighborhood, what is happening in your child’s school.”
But when most people go to the Internet, she said, they are looking for a specific piece of information. They are hunting, not browsing.
“You go to find something about x, y, or z; you don’t have the same experience of browsing,” she said. “That experience is important and necessary, and I have not seen any way of packaging information on the Internet that makes it possible.”
The Internet, she said, serves a good purpose, and every news organization must have a mix of ways to reach people where they want their news. “But it can’t replace the print product.”
One of the main reasons for that is advertising. In the printed newspaper, advertising provides far more revenue than anything else devised so far on the Internet, she said. And the basic reason is the same: browsing vs. hunting.
People reading printed newspapers see advertising as part of the news, and they will peruse the ads the same way they peruse the stories, she said. But for most Internet users hunting for specific information, advertising is a nuisance. Pop-up ads or blinking banners get in the way of their mission.
“Print advertising serves advertisers much better,” she said. “The difference in revenue between print and online advertising is unbelievable, and I don’t see that need going away.”
While Acton seems as thoroughly Maryland as Old Bay seasoning, in fact she was born in England. Her mother was English and was visiting home when it came time for young Karen to arrive in the world. It took a couple of months for her to get to Maryland, where she has remained ever since, growing up around Camp Springs and living now in La Plata.
Her father was a Washington, D.C., fireman, but her mother gave her a first taste of journalism.
“My mother worked for the Associated Press (AP) as an administrative assistant,” she said. “On election nights in particular when I was a young teenager, I would volunteer to help. It was exciting.”
During summers, while in college, she worked as a “gofer” for the AP on Capitol Hill.
“My mother loved working at the Associated Press,” Acton said. “She would come back with stories of this reporter or that reporter, and it was exciting to me to meet the people and then see the byline in the paper.”
But that’s not how she ended up in the newspaper business. She went to college—first to Prince George’s Community College and then to UMUC, where she graduated in 1982 with a degree in accounting. That was a solid profession one could rely on. Married early and working while attending college, UMUC provided the flexibility of night and weekend classes so she could combine her education with a full-time job.
She landed an accounting job in Bethesda, but commuting daily to her home in Waldorf was too taxing. She looked in the want ads of the local newspaper, and there she saw an opening at Southern Maryland Newspapers for an assistant controller. With no intent other than to find an interesting accounting job, Acton happened upon on a career in journalism and a company that would sustain her through her career, even after it was purchased by Post-Newsweek Media.
“I ended up in the newspaper business by the luck of the draw,” she said.
Finding that she needed an advanced degree if she wanted to attain the highest levels of her profession, she turned once again to UMUC to earn a master’s degree in finance in 1999. This time, she found that she could choose from classes at locations in Waldorf, at Andrews Air Force Base, at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, or in College Park. And she could try something new—some of the earliest online classes.
“There’s a lot of flexibility at UMUC,” she said. “When a schedule would come out, I would try to get the classes that would be most flexible to me and fit with my schedule.”
And the UMUC graduate degree gave her the edge she needed to move up to the top spot at Post Newsweek Media.
“It prepared me well for the work I need to do,” she said, “and in the end that is what a degree is supposed to do.”
While reporters and editors everywhere are wont to complain that the “bean counters” are slashing budgets and undercutting important journalism, Acton insists that is not true with her, even though the industry is criticized for shirking its investigative role. She said she is willing to spend the money for investigative work when her reporters present the right opportunities.
“The newspaper is the watchdog when it’s done right,” she said. “We need to make sure that the citizens are being protected and not being taken advantage of by government officials.”
That, she said, is the beauty of community journalism.
“It always comes down to making choices on resources, but we are in a position to make the right choices,” she said. “We would always like to do more.”
As is true for most newspaper reporters, Acton finds the sound of the presses roaring kind of magical.
“There is no way to explain the feeling I get when I hear the presses rolling and when I watch our newspapers coming off the press,” she said. “It’s truly exciting to know that we are producing a product that chronicles the history of our communities each and every week.”