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Papers challenged to change with times

The new spokeswoman for the newspaper industry believes the biggest threat to the recession-battered business comes from papers that "continue to do things the way they have always done them." For Cathleen P. Black, that is a sure prescription for failure.

Ms. Black, publisher of USA Today since 1984, is used to shaking things up. In her eight years with parent Gannett Co., she helped move the mold-breaking USA Today out of the laboratory to become the largest general-interest newspaper in the country, with a circulation of 1.8-million.

She takes the helm of the American Newspaper Publishers Association at a time when the slow economy has brought two lingering industry problems to a head: Ad revenues are down, and so is readership.

Ms. Black promises to address those ills by breaking more molds.

"It has been a very successful industry, and if you're running something very successful, there's not a real impetus for change," she said in describing why old habits die hard in the business.

But change is less frightening to newspaper leaders these days. For one thing, papers such as USA Today have proved it can be done. And circumstances have made it imperative.

The recession has depressed retail and classified ad revenue, and circulation has encountered increasing competition for readers' time from radio, television, cable and magazines.

The ad slump has been labeled the worst in 20 years in a recent survey of publishers, general managers and ad executives by Alex. Brown & Sons, the Baltimore securities firm.

A study last summer by management consultants Booz, Allen & Hamilton concluded that newspapers should consolidate their marketing efforts and pick a strong chief executive to speak for the whole industry.

Toward that end, the ANPA, a trade group that represents 1,400 papers in the United States and Canada, tapped Ms. Black at its annual convention in Vancouver, British Columbia, last month. The theme of the meeting was how to "reinvent" the newspaper. She was to make her debut in the job at the industry trade show Sunday in Las Vegas, Nev.

The group also has launched a $500,000 advertising campaign to raise the profile of newspapers with potential advertisers and readers.

"I think that newspapers have not marketed themselves very aggressively or very cohesively to national advertisers," she said in a recent interview sandwiched between attending goodbye parties, answering business calls and packing up her office at Gannett's Arlington, Va., headquarters.

Beyond circulation and readership, Ms. Black plans to tackle issues ranging from postal rates to sales taxes to recycling.

At 47, Ms. Black said she is no stranger to the hard work ahead of her.

"If one looks back on my professional history, I'm certainly a person who has embraced change and taken a number of risks," she said.

After graduating from Trinity College in Washington, D.C., in 1966, Ms. Black, a Chicago native, rose from an advertising sales representative at Holiday magazine to publisher of New York magazine.

In between, she served as advertising director and later associate publisher of then-fledgling Ms. magazine.

In 1983, she became president of USA Today, rising to publisher the following year. During her tenure, daily circulation rose from 1.1-million, although the newspaper has yet to make an annual profit.

Gannett paid her $600,000 last year, and she is not expected to take a pay cut at the ANPA.

Ms. Black defends her newspaper credentials despite a background mostly in magazines. Her experience in advertising is key to the ANPA's mission to upgrade the image of newspapers.

"Have I been in the trenches in the newspaper industry in a local market? No," she said. "But I've run classified sections and I understand real estate, and at New York magazine, retail was our strongest category. So I understand how retailers think and how they act and what they need and what they want."

She added that when she joined USA Today it had "virtually no credibility" with Wall Street, advertisers or journalists, but that now it is a part of the "fabric of this country."

Reaction to the appointment has been positive. "I consider her to be very capable," said Michael A. Kupinski, a media analyst with A.G. Edwards and Son in St. Louis. "I thought she had a very difficult task at Gannett, and I consider that she did an excellent job while she was there."

A search committee composed of Ms. Black's peers and some of the leading lights of the newspaper business picked her for the job. Among those on the committee were Frank A. Bennack Jr., president of Hearst Corp., and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times.

During her time at Gannett, Ms. Black kept up a grueling schedule of travel, meetings with advertisers, travel, speeches and more travel.

"I was literally only in the Washington office probably one or two days a week," said Ms. Black. She has a husband and a 3-year-old son. In her precious spare time she enjoys tennis, skiing, jogging and a recent addition, golf.

"I guess I have been blessed with a lot of energy. People seem to comment on that all the time," she said.

Ms. Black sees a strong future for newspapers _ no matter what form they take.

"I would imagine by the year 2000, many newspapers will be better edited, better designed, better organized with the understanding that our readers live in a time-pressed mode and that to keep their loyalty and following we have to be responsive to those pressures."

Does that mean all newspapers should be facsimiles of USA Today?

"Not at all, but I think that what this newspaper has led the way for is to show that news and information can be displayed graphically and visually and it makes for a more interesting newspaper, particularly for a younger generation who has grown up with television being a major part of their lives," she said.