With technological innovations that have threatened traditional media revenue systems, what is the future of the business?
While Cathie Black and Frank Vega were being recognized Thursday, Sept. 30 at the University of South Dakota for their leadership and lifetime accomplishments in the field, the questions being posed to them during an afternoon media conference weren't so much about their past as their future.
The pair are the 23rd and 24th recipients of the Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media. Al Neuharth is the founder of USA Today and a 1950 graduate of the university.
Black and Vega said they were honored by the recognition. They received their awards Thursday night during a ceremony that was broadcast live from the Warren M. Lee Center for the Fine Arts on South Dakota Public Television.
Sharing his admiration of Neuharth, Vega pointed to his son in the audience and shared that he was given the middle name Allen after the South Dakota native.
"Cathie and Frank were two of the three key people who were responsible for the success of USA TODAY," Neuharth told the collection of journalists and journalism students at the media conference in explaining why they were chosen for the recognition.
The third was editor-in-chief John C. Quinn, he said.
Black served as president and publisher in the early days of USA TODAY, and Vega was the circulation director.
"Without both of them, those (blue and white USA TODAY) vending machines would be rusted or empty or gone by now," Neuharth said.
Black is now chairman of Hearst Magazines, where she oversees titles such as O, The Oprah Magazine; Popular Mechanics; Esquire; and Cosmopolitan.
Vega currently serves as publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Most of the questions asked of the two award recipients revolved around the current challenges facing the media industry and how they see those issues being resolved.
Things have changed dramatically since they collaborated to launch USA TODAY in the early 1980s.
"All of our promotions were to get people to read the paper," Vega said. "We had newspaper racks at every corner throughout the country. The whole thing was getting people to take a look at us. It's a much more complex world today. It's not just marketing one product. It's having to market a whole different way we get information to our readers."
He said the San Francisco Chronicle website is visited by about 11 million unique visitors per month – about 8 million of whom live outside its print market. Reporters regularly convey information not just through the paper's print product but also via websites like Facebook and Twitter.
Many of the magazines in the Hearst line are having applications developed so they can be read on different electronic devices, Black said. An application released this year for Popular Mechanics was purchased by about 50,000 people for $2.99.
"We're trying to figure out the business model of all these things," Black said. "That's the biggest challenge. Can we charge for downloading an app? Hopefully, it will shift some of the burden of the revenue stream that has been so dependent upon advertising.
"Our whole concept is, we should be able to move content out into whatever form or device we can," she added.
It was a philosophy Black said she learned from Neuharth, who advocated giving consumers information in the format they wanted it and had already begun a new media department in the mid-1980s to address changes in the market.
Vega said the San Francisco Chronicle is also developing applications for sale so the paper can be read on different electronic platforms and receive remuneration.
"We all know circulation has been coming down for different reasons," he said. "Young people are more apt to go to other devices. … But you can't gather content and give it away for free all the time."
One of the biggest challenges facing those in the media industry today is keeping up with technological advancements and putting them to use, Black stated.
"It's retraining people. It's understanding that people need a different skill set today. It's giving them the developmental opportunities so they can really learn it," Black said. "At the end of the day, it's that you really have to dive in and understand it and start doing it. You can't just go to course after course after course.
"(Young people) may think they're coming in to do one thing, but what that job definition is today may in five years be quite different," she said.
Neuharth expressed hope that students at the media conference were absorbing the message Black and Vega were delivering.
"You must not prepare yourself (exclusively) for the newspaper industry or the magazine business," he said. "You must prepare yourself for the media business. The media business is to deliver news and information … in whatever form the customer wants it. Unless you're prepared to do that, you won't make it."