Eagle moves out of historic location in Wichita

May 1, 2017
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By Dan Voorhees, Wichita Eagle

Why is The Eagle moving? Where is it going? Is it still Wichita’s newspaper?

Good questions amid a complex situation – but the short answer is yes, The Eagle is here to stay in Wichita.

It is moving this weekend from its longtime building at 825 E. Douglas to a smaller, more modern space at 330 N. Mead.

It’s true that the internet, changing reader habits and shifts in advertiser needs have prompted the industry to consolidate some operations and cut expenses.

But it’s also true that The Eagle and the industry in general are working hard to adapt. Newspapers are shifting from 20th-century businesses based on printing presses to nimble 21st-century digital companies.

The move to 330 N. Mead is another step of many in that transition. It’s a sleek, modern high-tech office in the heart of Old Town. It has a completely different feel than the old building.

The company’s executives say it is part of an ongoing culture change, both inside and outside the building.

Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit school for journalism, said selling a building to help hold on to the most important part of the business – news and ad staffs – is a reasonable decision.

“There was a very extended era where newspapers were the most profitable business in town, and they took a prominent location downtown for symbolic reasons,” he said.

“You have to swallow your pride and say that is not the case anymore. They can do what they can do from a smaller office.”

Digital transformation

The Wichita Eagle building at 825 E. Douglas is 181,000 square feet of thick 1950s concrete.

Not only does it have tens of thousands of square feet devoted to a printing press, newspaper assembly machinery and a storage area for 2,000-pound rolls of newsprint, it has a warren of rooms for news, marketing, circulation, classified advertising, maintenance, display advertising, customer service, finance, a library, IT, human resources, page layout, distribution and a credit union.

“For The Eagle, people knew where it was and what it stood for and what it represents,” said Scott Reinardy, a journalism professor at the University of Kansas. “It was no different than the post office. It was a place of significance and prestige, and the physical presence demonstrated that.”

In 1980, The Eagle had 735 employee positions. After automating much of the composing and layout functions, by 2000 it had 450 positions.

As The Eagle continued to consolidate, outsource or simply end functions, many of those rooms went dark.

In May 2016, the printing of the newspaper moved to The Eagle’s sister paper, the Kansas City Star, following an industry-wide trend of consolidating such operations. The contents of the next day’s Eagle are transmitted electronically from Wichita to Kansas City every evening, printed in Kansas City and then brought back to Wichita by trucks.

The reality is that The Eagle, at its core, is not a manufacturer of newspapers but a provider of information, said Eagle editor Steve Coffman.

About 100 people in news, advertising and finance are moving to the Old Town Square building. The new location will be about 24,000 square feet and have a high-tech office look.

Cargill plans a $60 million headquarters building at the 825 E. Douglas site.

It’s something that scores of newspapers around the country have done in the past seven years, selling their downtown locations, either to lease them back or to move to new locations.

Many other newspapers at McClatchy – such as the Miami Herald, Charlotte Observer and Fort Worth Star-Telegram – have already sold their buildings and moved. The Kansas City Star is in the midst of selling its historic downtown location and will soon move its staff a block away to its 10-year-old, glass-enclosed printing plant

Print vs. digital

While print circulation at The Eagle has declined by two-thirds over the past two decades – to 39,000 daily and 58,000 on Sunday – digital readership on the organization’s website, Kansas.com, has exploded. It is by far the dominant news website in the city.

With nearly 13 million page views and 2.4 million unique visitors in March, more people are reading news published by The Eagle now than ever did in the heyday of print, Coffman said. The newspaper now is just one part of The Eagle’s mission.

“We are a digital-first news organization, particularly for breaking news and getting that news out there on digital platforms as quickly as we can,” Coffman said. “We are much more aligned in that way.

“We have online media producers on staff, and their goal is to maximize that experience for the reader and maximize that exposure to audiences. Our writers are thinking along those lines in terms of things like key words and the headlines they write,” he said.

So raw readership isn’t the problem. The challenge for the industry is revenue.

For more than a century, the bulk of newspaper revenue came from print advertising. That model allowed for affordable subscriptions for readers, larger newsrooms and hefty profits.

But print advertising revenue has eroded in the face of proliferating web platforms and changing culture and demographics. Those declines have accelerated in the past two years with the financial turmoil of major retailers, traditionally among newspapers’ largest advertisers.

At McClatchy, The Eagle’s parent company, all advertising revenue was down 10.6 percent in 2016 from the year before.

Fighting back

The industry has tried to get in front of these changes for 20 years. The website that became Kansas.com started in 1996. Newspaper companies pushed into digital advertising and a host of other money-making ventures. The challenge is that digital ads pay a fraction of what print ads do.

Some critics have also noted that newspapers have been notorious for their resistance to change.

But the organizations are changing. The Eagle’s news and ad staffs are retooling how they work in order to keep driving more readership through existing and future platforms. There is a great deal of experimentation and innovation going on throughout the industry.

The Eagle remains a profitable business, but some of those profits have been retained by cost cutting. Officials at McClatchy and elsewhere in the industry hope soon to reach the “digital transition” – the point at which company revenue grows again because digital revenue growth outpaces print revenue declines.

For 2016, McClatchy reported that just less than 50 percent of its ad revenue came from digital or direct marketing. Overall, 71 percent of company revenue came from sources other than print advertising, up from 67 percent in 2015. That increase came partly from growth in digital advertising, subscriptions and more – but also from the ongoing drop in traditional print advertising.

The Wichita Eagle is 145 years old, among the oldest continuously operating businesses in Wichita. It has had to adapt in its long history, moving five times.

The company is betting that it will continue to do so as it adapts to the trends shaping the industry.

“Our future is much more digitally focused,” Coffman said.

“Obviously, this building (at 825 E. Douglas) just doesn’t suit our needs anymore. It’s way too big for our needs, particularly without printing here, and, as we have adjusted our staffing sizes to the new realities, we think (the new location) presents a positive image of our organization as we go into the future.

Dan Voorhis: 316-268-6577@danvoorhis