Behind the Scenes Rebecca Poynter President of Gannett Mid-Michigan
Rebecca Poynter, 50, was named president of the Lansing State Journal in August 2016. Previously, she was senior vice president of sales and marketing at Michigan.com, which includes oversight of advertising in the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News.
You’ve been at the Lansing State Journal since August. What are your thoughts on the differences between Detroit and Lansing?
Lansing’s a much welcome change, the community and the lifestyle. You feel at ease here. You’re not driving, getting stressed out coming to work. Your life isn’t go to work and go to bed. I think it promotes a better lifestyle.
What about the newspaper business?
Detroit tends to look more like a national play because it has the audience and scope, with people from all over the country wanting their sports, their automotive news. Lansing is a hyper-local community and very united. You get that very quickly when you move here, how important it is to come together and promote the region. To be a big metropolitan media company in a market that size, you don’t get the support from the community that you do here in Lansing
Have you settled someplace?
I’m living here in this building (the Knapp’s Centre). I was staying here temporarily until I found a place. I found some homes on the west side that I liked, but things didn’t work. I had some people from work upstairs for a little get together. There are nice balconies and things, and they said why do you want to leave? That’s a good question. Why leave? It’s a beautiful building and right downtown. I can walk to everything.
Talk about the role of the Lansing State Journal.
Gannett and the State Journal are very committed to local journalism. Our role in the community is to be even better, to provide watchdog journalism and at the same time promote this region. You’ve got Lansing and East Lansing. How do we all come together in the right way for this community to grow and develop? I lived in downtown Detroit before I moved here. I see a lot of the development happening there that’s happening here. You have the Eyde’s and Gillespie’s, the groups that are working on downtown. In Detroit, you had Gilbert, of course, and the folks in the Downtown Detroit Partnership. Woodward was our Michigan Avenue. This can be an Austin or a community like that if we do our part to help promote that. It’s critical.
The Lansing State Journal audience is changing and the way you deliver news and information to that audience is changing.
What does that mean?
I learned a long time ago that you can’t tell your audience how or when to read, or what to read. The beauty of the time and place we live in now is that we see how people want their information and what they like. You can see all of this on screens. Which stories are trending, what people are sharing. In Lansing, we have our flagship product, which of course is our print newspaper. That’s a long read and we still have core basic journalism principles that we will always follow with that.
But some of our audience wants quick, fast, interesting and generally some video or something that’s interactive. How do we capture that and still bring them back to our site so they can get the important information that we want them to get to? We balance all of that. It’s funny, you can see that breaking news will spike really high and that’s great. But it’s a brief moment and things come back. We just have to make sure that we have the staff and the updates so that they can get it when they want it.
What’s your strategy for attracting really good people to an industry that by most measures is declining?
We have good talent here and we are very fortunate that we are close to a university so we have a lot of access to talent on the news and advertising/marketing sides. In a bigger, national market like Detroit with its auto industry you are competing with everybody for talent.
I still see a great interest in the news business and there are people who want to make a difference in their community. This is still a great job. Does it have to be something that I do for the rest of my life? Maybe not. Our world can be to have people come and create and learn about the great things that you do and then move on to other careers. But then some people stay.
Most of your career has been with newspapers. But you also worked at Coca-Cola. What was that like?
It was the best professional learning experience that I had because Coca-Cola is such a fabulous company and so was the training and the brand experience. You learn very quickly that you are the front person or the ambassador for that company, no matter what you do. You learn how to think and process and speak professionally. To listen and to empathize with people, but to do that in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the company’s brand.
They were so excellent in tracking information. It would tell them things about flavors or their marketing. And there is also the great customer service. For anybody who called there, you would personally write them a letter. It was just that great touch. That helped me when I came back to our industry. I was doing sales and I realized that I really liked that part of the business, the sales and marketing side. I could see where I could make such a difference because I knew how to communicate so much better to customers so they could feel good about doing business with you.
Did that approach set you apart from the sort of people who worked in the newspaper industry?
Absolutely. Our industry is very volatile, fast paced. Mistakes are there for everybody to see. Being able to recognize and get ahead of issues in honest and transparent ways are things that I learned and didn’t shy away from.
What kind of goals have you set for yourself and the newspaper?
The Lansing State Journal is a jewel in Gannett. It has great audience numbers and has a great staff on the news and sales and marketing side. What I can help this organization with, and what I’ve already seen, is connecting the dots. Lansing has been a little isolated. I can push to get help from our larger markets for things that we are doing. I want Lansing to get the most that it can from being part of a larger group.
What are the challenges you face here?
It’s always about talent. Making sure that our pipeline is full. We just aren’t always recruiting or knowing people in the community who might want something here. We have to do a better job, myself included. And another challenge is getting to know people in the community.
What does Gannett want from you?
They want somebody who understands that when this is not working I’m going to focus on this area.
You have to be able to focus on the big picture and not get too far down the minutia. And the other thing is letting some things go, recognizing that these are things I can control.
This conversation with Rebecca Poynter has been edited for space and clarity.