Brian Burns is a likable guy with a really hard job. As the new publisher of The Ledger, the 42-year-old former firefighter is tasked with rebuilding a business that has seen slips in readership and advertising for several years.
But Burns exudes enthusiasm and optimism. You get the feeling he is convinced that if he could spend five minutes with every person in Polk County, he’d have thousands of new friends who would understand the importance of the newspaper in binding a community and reaching customers.
A month after Burns started his new job in Lakeland (he most recently spent three years as publisher of the Tampa Tribune), LkldNow spent time with Burns at Mitchell’s Coffee House and his office. Then we posed some questions that he answered via email.
He talks about what he can do to reverse the decline in the number of reporters covering Polk County and why he is excited that the newspaper staff might move to new quarters in their downtown headquarter’s first floor, much of which is currently unfinished storage space.
[dropcap]Q[/dropcap] You seem like an extremely optimistic guy. How do you stay optimistic working in an industry seeing record advertising and circulation declines?
[dropcap]A[/dropcap] Thanks for the question Barry. Yes, it’s a tough industry, there is no doubt. With that said, it’s a necessary part of the foundation of our nation and our communities.
Here at the Ledger Media Group, we have an opportunity to rebuild our base of subscribers both in the newsprint subscriptions as well as our digital assets. We are focused on the continued quality of content that our reporters and editorial staff crank out each day as well as the improvements in servicing our subscriber base.
As a person with a strong background in digital technologies, I believe wholeheartedly in our print products and the information and services those products provide to our readers and advertisers.
You announced that Ledger staff might be moving to the first floor of your building if Publix IT staff takes over the second floor. Some of your staff is concerned about that, but you see it as a positive. Explain.
We will have the opportunity to create a work environment that is collaborative, vibrant, and quite frankly, fun. This will allow us to construct the area with feedback ahead of time from the employees. We have already had some fun discussions in regards to themes and the look of certain departments.
Do you think you’ll be able to turn around the decline in the number of Ledger reporters covering Polk County? It’s gone from 22 in January 2016 to 14 now.
Growth is our focus. We have work to do, there is no doubt. We want increases in all areas of the company. In order to do this, again we are focusing on the subscriber and advertiser support.
Our reporters are an amazing group of people, that in a very short time I have grown to know quickly. They are diligent, professional and thorough. Our photographers are an incredible pool of personalities and extreme professionals.
What’s happening in the advertising department? Some people were surprised when four experienced advertising staffers were laid off recently since the revenue staff has been less affected by layoffs in the past. But I also hear there have been some sales staff hired lately. What’s up?
No comment. (Burns explained he didn’t want to discuss personnel issues.)
It’s been eight years or more since raises have been given to Ledger employees. Is that something you can fix or is that up to GateHouse?
Tell us a little about your background. How did you go from firefighter to newspaper publisher?
I have a somewhat crazy resume, to say the least. I had a love for media, especially digital media, dating back to the late ’80s with Apple and that passion grew as the floppy disk shrunk to 3.5” and wasn’t so floppy.
As the web started to develop and my NetZero account started working, a world of endless knowledge and opportunity opened up. Meanwhile, in the fire service, there was a need that technology could prove to assist with in reporting and accuracy. This helped me further explore digital avenues until one day I decided I wanted to learn digital marketing.
I had applied and sent resumes to numerous media outlets in anticipation that someone would take a chance on a person with passion but no experience. That happened in the early 2000s with The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and my manager and still very closer friend, Cynthia Banks.
Cynthia took a chance on me and placed me as a digital media salesperson. My career set sail that very day as I focused on learning the newspaper business through and through.
Were you an athlete growing up? Are you still involved in athletics?
I played football and baseball growing up but would never consider myself an athlete. I am involved in assisting and helping coach my boys in football now, however.
What’s your favorite leisure activity?
Anything on the water! I am a boater and an adventurer at heart.
What can Ledger readers expect to see changing in the next few years?
There is constant change in the media landscape. In my estimations, as history repeats itself, I believe our print products, including newspaper and our magazines, will make a strong comeback.
Yes, that’s a very optimistic thought process I know. But true reporting is needed in every society and is essential as watchdogs for our communities. While the Internet is an amazing tool and our readership online has increased year over year and will continue to do so, I believe that our print products will always be a wanted and needed entity in our communities.
How are you fighting the national trend we’ve seen of businesses diverting ad dollars to Facebook and Google?
Actually we are not fighting them at all. Rather, we are utilizing their abilities as partners and being able to manage these services for our advertisers. Also, both of these entities, as well as many other digital and social brands, allow us to get breaking news and information to our readers exponentially faster and in real time in most cases.
Do you anticipate reducing the frequency of print publication?
I do not see this happening at all.
What’s the future of the News Chief?
The News Chief plays an important role in Winter Haven/East Polk County. We will continue to focus on growing this publication in both print and digital formats.
How is The Ledger doing at growing other revenue sources such as outside printing, events and digital marketing?
We are focused on comprehensive solutions that truly work for our advertisers. Combining products and services that work for their business is key. This could be an event such as the Life Expo, or a combination of print, digital and events as an example.
What is The Ledger doing to draw younger readers to its products?
We have incorporated social media into everything we do. This will continue and we will expand this. Laura Davis and Brady Fredericksen run a Facebook Live event each Friday and do a wonderful job at speaking on fun topics, what’s happening, and what to expect from the paper over the weekend. (View last Friday’s video.) I am very proud of this group and always look forward to their live discussions and topics!
Can readers expect any shifts in editorial policy?
A fair and balanced editorial policy is to be expected. We want to show views from both sides of the fence and I believe we have done a good job with that. We will never be able to make everyone happy every day, but that’s the beauty of true journalism and the free society that we relish in each and every day.
Will you become involved in community organizations? If so, what kind?
Absolutely. Chambers, EDC, volunteer organizations and education institutions are among a few that I will. I also want to be involved with our local and county law enforcement as well as our fire service departments. These men and women play an amazing role in our community standards and work diligently to serve and protect our communities.
Are you and your family planning to move to Polk County? (Burns currently commutes from Land o’ Lakes.) If so, are there any specific areas you’re looking at?
Yes, and we have started looking at certain communities such as Grasslands and may decide to build a home. We will wait until the kids are out of school in June, as to pull them out mid-year would not be fair in our opinion.