The Sun Also Rises for Betsy Brenner

The blustery, isolated saltwater port of Bremerton, Wash., is famed the world over for its U.S. Navy shipyards, undersea warfare center and Trident submarine base. But for years the town newspaper was far from shipshape.

By 1996, the inaptly named Sun had so badly torpedoed itself with inner strife and misguided marketing that only 38 percent of adults in its circulation area of sprawling Kitsap County told a survey taker they had read the paper the previous day. Just three years earlier, the number had been 52 percent.

Yet the newspaper was still profitable for Cincinnati, Ohio-based parent company E.W. Scripps Co., but just barely. Cash flow was leaking badly. In a desperate effort to slash overhead, the general manager actually decided to stop soliciting new sales in the county of 235,000 souls. The result was predictable: Circulation plunged further, to a low of fewer than 37,000 daily copies.

But Scripps was not ready to give up, and dragooned into this death-spiral-by-the-sea a new publisher named Elizabeth Brenner. The way she pulled the paper back from disaster, straightened it out, and sent it cruising full-speed-ahead as the fastest-growing small newspaper in the West offers lessons to other publishers. Her secret: Listen, reach out and localize.

Brenner, known as Betsy to friends, seemed like an odd choice to take over the tiny Sun last July because she was a big-city product all the way. Her path to this westernmost outpost of the Scripps-Howard newspaper empire is a career-development lesson of its own that spans the recent history of newspapering in America. Starting on the editorial side of the gutsy Chicago Tribune in the 1970s, she moved to the business side of The New York Times in the booming 1980s, then to the Latino-flavored Miami Herald in the early 1990s, and most recently the Rocky Mountain News in hyper-competitive Denver. So adjusting to a failing daily in tiny Bremerton could have been a gear-grinding downshift.

But far from meeting resistance as a big-city interloper in western Puget Sound, Brenner was perceived as “a breath of fresh air,” according to Sun military affairs writer Lloyd Pritchett.

On her first day at work, Brenner found a newsroom at war with production. The pressroom chief and the managing editor had not spoken to each other for more than a year. Circulation blamed plummeting sales on editors who alienated the community by reporting only bad news; editors complained of poor printing and late deliveries. “We were a paper in crisis,” says marketing director Gussie Schaeffer.

Brenner says she took a deep breath that day and recalled advice from Larry Strutton, her boss in Denver. “Larry always told me you can’t fix a problem unless you acknowledge it,” she says. “And we were pretty heavily in the denial stage here.”

Today, Brenner strides and smiles easily on a walk from the newsroom to the presses, stopping to share a laugh with a printer about her golf game and later pointing to the fresh paint she ordered in the business office to make people feel better about where they worked. Casually dressed in a vest, dark blouse, slacks and flat shoes one recent Saturday morning, she told a visitor she felt blessed by having had great mentors who prepared her for the rescue effort in Bremerton.

Here’s what she did:

First, she gathered together the people who had the power to change things at the paper. She let them know that there was a sense of urgency, and that she would accept resignations from anyone not up to the challenge. Pritchett, the military writer, recalls that soon after arriving, Brenner rented out a restaurant to bring the whole paper together over lunch. “That had never been done before,” he says. “It helped us realize we were all one team-it had a very valuable effect on morale.”

She started setting measurable goals. The paper rarely left the pressroom on time before Brenner arrived, so she introduced deadline-hitting goals that only began to be met by the fourth quarter. More recently, she reports “a damned-near miraculous turnaround,” with the paper recording its first full month of on-time performance. “Every week we’re on time,” she says, “we save $1,000 in overtime for the carriers who don’t have to stand around and wait for bundles.”

Next, she identified competitors and laid plans to grab market and mind share. The Sun had a pesky, twice-weekly competitor that was growing fast by hooking business and readers with lower prices and more local news. She started measuring for the first time how much advertising the competitor was selling in this regional zone. Then she launched a part-run Neighbors section to combat the weekly with cheaper advertising for local businesses and expanded local reporting. Finally, she smothered the area with the Sun logo on buses, benches, billboards and house ads. “I learned from her the necessity of consistent, relentless branding, even in a small market,” says Schaeffer.

Brenner started focusing on demographic slices of Kitsap County to find new sales. On Tuesdays, she publishes Express, a section written by teenagers for teenagers. The Sun regularly publishes service pages for the military and seniors. Most important, she swept all international and national news out of the front section of the paper, creating a truly local product with attractive design, sharp color and good photography. Bucking the trend at most papers nationwide, the local news hole has increased 40 percent since Brenner started and 11 editorial jobs have been added.

And more recently, Brenner says, the paper has taken the lead in helping its military-dominated region plan for business diversification. She backed the paper’s editor, Mike Phillips, in the publishing of an essay criticizing the local economic-development council for proceeding too slowly to plot an effective strategy for the next century. Civic leaders snapped to, forming a new task force. “We took it as a scolding, but there were good points made,” says Robert C. Schneidler, a major advertiser and president of a local health-maintenance organization who also heads the council. “I felt good that the Sun took the issue seriously-it opened a lot of eyes.”

Phillips gives his new boss high marks for that and other circulation-building efforts. “A lot of publishers tend to think of the newsroom as a place that only spends money,” he says. “But Betsy understands the role readership plays in the effort to build revenue.”

Indeed, Brenner’s business model is focused on making the Sun the first source for all information about Kitsap County. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, she’s made a lot of progress toward that goal: The paper’s sales were up 11 percent daily to 39,850 and 6.5 percent on Sunday to 42,500 through March 31-reportedly the fastest growth for any newspaper west of the Mississippi. And the number of people telling survey takers that they read the paper the previous day has climbed back to 49 percent.

Like the Sun, Betsy Brenner’s rise did not occur overnight. Born in Seattle 42 years ago, Brenner earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in journalism and business at Northwestern University. She then quickly rose at the Chicago Tribune to become a financial columnist in the late 1970s. At the Tribune she reported her biggest story: a prophetic saga, labored upon for months, that described the extent to which huge shopping malls opening on the outskirts of small towns around the Midwest were killing downtown mom-and-pop retail stores. She still gloats that she got the story five months before The Wall Street Journal.

The thrill was hollow, though, and the moment catalyzed her decision to make a new career plan. “The morning the story came out everyone patted me on the back, and I was the center of attention, but by afternoon it was all forgotten,” she says. “I realized you could have a much bigger impact on the business side of the paper.”

In 1981, she snagged a chance to join the marketing department of The New York Times, and moved to Manhattan. It was the start of the Reagan era of greed and glitz, and, she says, “money was just flowing over the transom.”

Before her arrival, Brenner said salesmanship at The New York Times amounted to presenting your business card. “There was virtually no marketing-no sense that there was competition or vulnerability at all,” she says. Her boss and mentor, James A. Cutie, showed her and colleagues how to identify threats, quantify market share and find ways to grow an established business. Her team then enumerated the importance of ferreting out new sources of help-wanted advertising and launched a Northeast Corridor strategy for the paper, seeking ads from Boston to Philadelphia. Brenner’s success at the Times culminated in a publisher award (with commendation from Arthur Ochs Sulzberger) for a marketing effort that now hangs on the wall of her diminutive office in Bremerton.

But soon Brenner was ready for a new challenge. She moved to the Knight-Ridder chain when The Miami Herald offered her a job as marketing director. Job 1: Creating a marketing department. A memento of one of her enduring successes there-creation of the nation’s first mass-market Spanish-language newspaper, El Nuevo Herald-also hangs on her Bremerton wall. Launched on Nov. 2, 1987, it was then and is now a model for Latino news coverage by U.S. metro dailies.

Brenner’s efforts in the South caught the eye of an executive recruiter dispatched in 1991 by the Rocky Mountain News to find a new advertising vice president. The Scripps newspaper had just hired Strutton as publisher, and the Los Angeles Times veteran hired her to help hunt bear in the most competitive newspaper town in the nation.

“I was very impressed with her poise and candor; you never had to guess what she was thinking, which was refreshing,” Strutton says. “She also had a great deal of energy. I have been accused of being a workaholic, but she works more than me. She was always at the paper first thing in the morning and last thing at night.”

Brenner thrived in the Mile High City, and speaks fondly of pitched battles with The Denver Post that might have made others gasp for breath. “There are other markets with more than one paper, but none like Denver-it’s nose to nose, it’s fierce and unrelenting,” she says. By the time Brenner left, she had increased advertising by 50 percent and added circulation and marketing to her portfolio; 450 people worked for her.

She might still be in Denver had the Bremerton Sun not been sinking fast into the Washington overcast. Brenner said she had never been shy about telling Strutton that she wanted to be a publisher someday, but such jobs don’t open up very often. Still, when Scripps vp Alan Horton asked her to pack her bags and head for the Puget Sound, she had to be sold on the wisdom of his thinking.

“It was time to fish or cut bait,” she says of her desire to be a publisher. “I had only been at large papers, and I had a great fear of the unknown. In retrospect, I’m very fortunate to be here. There’s no shortage of things to do here to keep me busy for a long time.”

Posted by on July 21, 1997