Gannett’s Gupta: ‘You Need a Culture That Thrives in Chaos’

Strategy Chief for Nation’s Biggest Newspaper Chain Puts Laser Focus on Subscriptions

Mayur Gupta, a former executive with Spotify and Freshly, joined the Gannett USA Today Network in September as Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer. He holds this crucial role at a key time for Gannett, which merged with GateHouse in November 2019 to form the nation’s largest newspaper chain.

Gannett has partnered with Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative in data analysis involving more than a dozen of its news outlets. In this interview with the initiative’s Mark Jacob, Gupta discussed Gannett’s emphasis on subscriptions, the need to operate amid chaos, and the value of bringing in experts with non-journalistic backgrounds. Here is an edited transcript.

  • Mark Jacob

    When you were hired, Gannett CEO Michael Reed cited your experience “building content-driven subscription models.” Does this mean Gannett will predominantly be a subscriptions-driven business? Is that the future for you?

    Mark Jacob
  • Mayur Gupta

    Yes, absolutely. Mike has now repeatedly said that, which means that it is definitely a belief we have and a vision and a strategy, and he recently shared our goal of hitting 10 million digital-only subscribers [in five years]. Having said that does not mean we don’t value our advertising business, which has been growing and will continue to grow. It just means that we want to put customer value at the forefront of our business. We want to shift from being driven by user traffic, because this entire industry has monetized traffic, to now being driven by incremental value to our customers, which includes people who pay and who don’t pay. There are brilliant examples of a successful freemium model where both subscription and advertising can thrive as long as you bring the same customer obsession even behind your advertising efforts. But when there is a choice we have to make, we want to put the customer value first, which inherently drives a subscription mindset.

    Mayur Gupta
  • Mark Jacob

    Pivoting from an ad-centered model to a subscription-centered model challenges the culture of a news organization to think differently. What have you done so far and what do you plan to do to change the mindset?

    Mark Jacob
  • Mayur Gupta

    That’s right – it challenges the culture, in a good way. I feel firmly that your values as a business shouldn’t change. They are your values. But your culture should constantly evolve as the world evolves and as you bring new people who bring diversity. Yes, it’s a mindset evolution for us. It’s a mindset evolution that adopts customer obsession at its core. It means that we have to lean on faster experiments. Do tests and learn. It means we can no longer wait to know all the answers. In fact, we need to thrive in ambiguity. As long as you know 65-70%, and you have data that gives you belief, you go ahead, you test and learn. And it’s all going to be about the speed of execution. And that execution requires connecting through the vertical silos and operating at the intersection. We have now launched cross-functional pods that have members from different teams or tribes with a shared objective. For example, our digital subscriber acquisition pod in local markets has product managers, engineers, data scientists, designers, content writers and editors and marketers. They have a common OKR – objective and key results –  that they are all held accountable for. But they also have the autonomy to make decisions.

    Mayur Gupta

We just hired our Head of Creative from Instagram and our Head of Online Acquisition from Babbel. We just created a Head of Data Science role in the organization. That diversity in our people and leadership will challenge our thinking.

Mayur Gupta, Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer, Gannett
  • Mark Jacob

    You do have the advantage of everyone knowing that things can’t stay exactly the same.

    Mark Jacob
  • Mayur Gupta

    No doubt, we’ve definitely arrived at that conclusion. In fact, the entire industry has. Now it’s all about speed of iteration and who can move faster.

    Mayur Gupta
  • Mark Jacob

    There are some similarities with what Spotify does and what local news businesses are trying to do now with subscriptions. Can you talk about the lessons you learned at Spotify?

    Mark Jacob
  • Mayur Gupta

    Of course, you learn a lot when you work at a place like Spotify. I can summarize my lessons at two levels. One is philosophical and foundational, which I think are more relevant. And then two, there are a lot of things I learned in terms of how do you drive sustainable growth. I call them more “mechanics.” When you become the size of a Gannett or a Spotify, the companies that continue to grow are the ones that are conscious about not changing the core of what worked well for them – their speed and a belief in maintaining controlled chaos. It’s the mindset to take risks and be fearless, which only gets harder as you get bigger. That’s why you need a culture that thrives in chaos, where you’re not afraid of chaos, you’re not afraid of ambiguity, you’re not afraid of change. We are bringing talent from different industries and growth experiences and blending it with thought leadership and foundation in journalism, content and local communities. We just hired our Head of Creative from Instagram and our Head of Online Acquisition from Babbel. We just created a Head of Data Science role in the organization. That diversity in our people and leadership will challenge our thinking, will challenge and disrupt the category as they are coming in with no baggage. When you bring great people, they come and tell you what needs to be done on Day One.

    Mayur Gupta
  • Mark Jacob

    When you’re getting people from all kinds of non-journalistic fields, how do you assure people that the journalism is going to be as good or better?

    Mark Jacob
  • Mayur Gupta

    We are leading with action and accountability. We have an incredible team of local and national reporters, editors and newsroom leaders that hold us accountable and ensure we maintain our core mission and purpose, which is grounded in quality journalism. As far as action, we are continuously investing in our journalism and our journalists. We recognize that in order to evolve into a content subscription platform, we must provide quality journalism. That starts with giving our newsrooms the talent and resources they need to make that happen. Our purpose to build local communities where people and local businesses thrive will never go away. But everyone realizes that we need a more sustainable model and mindset. Today’s customer has so many choices. The value proposition can no longer be static. It’s the Amazon mindset that you’re constantly thinking about giving incremental value to not only the user at risk – on the contrary, to your most loyal customer. Putting the customer at the center means understanding what their true needs are, and positioning ourselves to meet those needs with what we do best – quality journalism.

    Mayur Gupta
  • Mark Jacob

    How do you project to the communities you serve that you are local when you are a giant corporation? What is Gannett doing to strengthen its relationship with communities?

    Mark Jacob
  • Mayur Gupta

    What makes Gannett unique is what we call the Gannett ecosystem. We are not just a local player but a national and international player with USA Today and Newsquest in the UK. We are not just a consumer business but also a B2B business. We are content, we are events, we are marketing solutions for local businesses. We have 150 million unique individuals who engage with us every month. The future of Gannett and the value we bring to these individuals is best answered by how we stitch it all together to elevate the value we bring to each user.

    Mayur Gupta

We are not just a consumer business but also a B2B business. We are content, we are events, we are marketing solutions for local businesses.

Mayur Gupta, Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer, Gannett
  • Mayur Gupta

    Being a large company with a powerful network of brands provides us the data insights and technology we need to develop and scale practices that best serve the communities we are a part of. We must use the local-to-national ecosystem to our advantage without losing the autonomy of the local brands. As long as each brand continues to benefit and learn from sister brands in similar markets, we will stay hyper-connected to the local markets we are a part of. We have looked at our markets and identified market segments, so while we are operating in over 250 markets, these are not 250 distinct markets. They have similar behaviors. This allows us to quickly test and learn new, innovative content and business strategies based on those archetypes.

    Mayur Gupta
  • Mark Jacob

    Do you have a specific number of archetypes or “buckets” that you put news outlets in?

    Mark Jacob
  • Mayur Gupta

    We are working on enhancing that work with our new global data science team that is looking at these archetypes and segments. We obviously have the current way, where we have five different archetypes based on market penetration and the growth opportunity. We are currently going through our segmentation work and the outcome of that will be a very different way to cohort our market and our landscape, which is also going to be a key driver for future growth.

    Mayur Gupta
  • Mark Jacob

    Like a lot of news organizations, Gannett gained subscribers when Covid hit. What have you done to hang onto those subscribers?

    Mark Jacob
  • Mayur Gupta

    Even without Covid, retention is the biggest challenge for any subscription business. Acquiring users relatively speaking is a lot easier. You can lure them in. But the real magic and the real proof of product-market fit comes from retention. You’re absolutely right. We did see a massive spike. Everybody did, at least in categories like ours, during Covid. The good news is our over-all digital subscriber number continues to grow every month. With the evolution into a subscription-led business, monitoring, measuring and analyzing subscription growth is what we are focused on. How do we look at our funnel? How do we measure retention? And very importantly, understanding why people stay and why people leave. And that’s the investment in data science bringing qualitative and quantitative data together to not only know what users are doing but why they are doing it.

    Mayur Gupta
  • Mark Jacob

    Do you have an example of a Gannett outlet or any other local outlet that seems to be doing it particularly well as far as serving its subscribers and therefore getting more subscribers?

    Mark Jacob
  • Mayur Gupta

    With the growth that you see year over year, especially last year, of course we have quite a few of our own local markets that are nailing it. As an example, Arizona Republic is our top leader in digital subs. Their focus is massively on driving loyalty and retention. The Detroit Free Press, where we tested a unique freemium model as the first freemium model at Gannett, has had tremendous success as well and has been the leader in weekly starts since the freemium launch in August 2020. Our advantage is that we can take content insights and learnings from the successful sites and leverage them to amplify growth across other USA Today Network sites.

    Mayur Gupta
  • Mark Jacob

    Is there any question that I haven’t asked that you wish I had? Any area that you think people need to understand better?

    Mark Jacob
  • Mayur Gupta

    I will close by saying that there has not been a more important time for an organization like Gannett to stand behind and deliver its purpose and mission. We are very proud of that. We have a responsibility to build strong, trusted communities based on unbiased facts and honest journalism. There is no question about the headwinds the category has faced. We are very excited and confident about this transformative journey to become a subscription-led digital and content business.

    Mayur Gupta

About the author

Mark Jacob

Editor

A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of eight books on history and photography.

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