Such skepticism hasn't daunted the former General Mills executive, who recently added the title of publisher of the Times. Nor has it stopped him from putting in place a controversial, brand management-like plan to market the paper as if it were a package-goods product.
The plan encompasses everything from intense consumer research to separate profit-and-loss reporting for each section of the newspaper to direct-response advertising, marketing partnerships with retailers, a major ad campaign and frequent-buyer programs.
"There is so much to learn from what the great consumer-products marketers have done," Mr. Willes said.
NOT JUST OTHER PAPERS
"We're in an environment now where there are 500 TV channels," added Jeffrey Klein, senior VP and newly named general manager-news, noting the Times doesn't just compete with other California newspapers anymore. "Competition is so intense we have to be much better marketers."
Most consumer products, however, aren't created by journalists. Which is why Mr. Willes' plan has drawn fire from those who believe it could eventually demolish the traditional wall separating business and editorial concerns at the newspaper, and destroy the product in the process.
Those concerned with Times Mirror's bottom line, however, don't seem concerned that the Times' plan could blur the advertising and editorial lines.
"Journalists view profits and Pultizers as mutually exclusive goals," said Salomon Bros. analyst Charles Baker. "I believe they are mutually supportive goals . . . To think there will be a huge blurring of the lines, I think that's naive."
GEN'L MANAGERS FOR SECTIONS
The marketing program, although still not finalized, will create loose groups around sections led by a general manager who will work closely with editors and reporters. The journalists will not, however, report to the general manager but to the paper's new editor, Michael Parks. Mr. Parks replaced longtime Editor Shelby Coffey III, who resigned just before Mr. Willes' new plan was unveiled, (AA, Oct. 13).
"It's very much like a typical brand management organization, with a very critical exception," Mr. Willes said. "Typically a brand manager is responsible for quality and content of the product itself
. . . Here, we've made a careful separation."
He insisted that while the Times' experiment has been called revolutionary, it actually represents more of an evolution.
Times Mirror's Hartford (Conn.) Courant already has "cross-functional teams organized around circulation," said Mr. Willes, and both its Baltimore Sun and Newsday have had "complete redos," he added. "We're trying to be experimental. All to the end of demonstrating that newspapers are not old and tired."
PRODUCT MANAGERS IN PLACE
Mr. Klein noted that the Times employs two product marketing managers and is "thinking about throwing more resources behind that." The product managers, in place for about a year, are charged with marketing sections and have already branded several with special logos. The business section, for example, now uses while the Metro section is dubbed "Having an impact."
Under the new organization, the paper will look to create new sections to appeal to reader interests and focus existing ones on issues that will draw new readers. To determine which issues are most pressing for readers, the paper will undertake frequent surveys to find out what southern Californians are most interested in.
The Times also will evolve its advertising campaign, themed "Get the story. Get the Times," from DDB Needham Worldwide, Los Angeles.
"My guess is, you'll see it move from less about the total paper to a section-by-section approach," Mr. Willes said.
Mr. Klein said the campaign, which has been running since April, "more than doubled our awareness."
A higher profile for the paper also came from the creation of a retail marketing group, whereby the Times inked marketing partnerships with retailers like Macy's, Barnes & Noble and Ralphs Grocery Co., combining gift certificates with newspaper subscription offers. Subscriptions also are pitched at Barnes & Noble book signings and street fairs.
And the Times has linked up with convenience-store chain 7-Eleven to create a frequent buyer program, giving loyal Monday through Friday readers a free Sunday paper.
While the primary target for now at the Times is readers, Mr. Willes is confident advertisers will follow.
"We've done a good job of thinking of advertisers by categories like entertainment and department stores," Mr. Willes said. "We're trying to marry that category thinking with sections to find additional opportunities in existing categories-for advertisers to find a place."
NO AD REVENUE TARGET
But while there's a stated goal to raise circulation by 500,000 from its weekday average of 1.06 million, Mr. Willes has set no target increase for ad revenues. Times Mirror's 1997 revenues for all its newspapers through August were up 6.1%. A Times spokesman said linage for full-run advertising for that paper was up 2.9% during the period and that preprint pieces were up 6.1%.
Although his experiment has drawn fire, Mr. Willes said it has the potential to change how newspapers market themselves to consumers.
"If we flame out, they'll go back" to the way they market now, he said. "But it