April 15, 2005

Readership: Survival Lessons for the Future from Minneapolis

Could the most ambitious readership experiment underway at an American newspaper provide clues to construction of a future in which newspapers survive by embracing the values of the very forces that are threatening their distinction?

Star Tribune Readership InstituteThere is no lack of evidence that the U.S. newspaper industry, beset by seemingly irreversible social, economic, technological and creative forces that are undermining its business model, faces an uncertain future at best. Nor is their a dearth of scholarship, analysis or commentary predicting disastrous days ahead for newspapers unless the business and editorial managers can overcome their own cultural handicaps and create new models for commerce and journalism. [Read: The Abandoned Newspaper and Reading the Vanishing Newspaper: A Guide.]

Threading in between these two mountains of doom (apologies to Frodo and company) is a thin, but I think widening, valley of hope in which lives the promise of new, and reformed, journalistic enterprises whose superstructure contains both the steely principles of good journalism as well as the more ephemeral, but flexible fiber of news media produced for and by the community.

Thus far, the spadework necessary for these combined journalistic ventures has been done, not surprisingly, outside of the defensive realm of traditional journalism platforms, of which newspapers are the most powerful economic and editorial component.

Within newspapers, most change has been more incremental, tweaking the design or adding bits of new content with the intent to pull in the only audience that can save them as a mass vehicle for journalism - the post-Baby Boom generations.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, a 378,000-circulation, 370-person newspaper once seen as an innovator in the industry, is attempting to prove that revolution is possible in a business that barely tolerates evolution. (Full disclosure: I have done some research and assessment work at the Star-Tribune with Tomorrow's Workforce.)

Under the direction of new leadership who didn't want to just redesign the Star-Tribune but reinvent it, the newspaper decided to become a laboratory where the Readership Institute could put to the test its latest theory: Newspapers that could create "experiences" could attract younger readers (and retain older ones).

At last year's conference of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Readership Institute released its work on reader experiences, citing several broad types of responses from people (young and old) who had positive reactions to newspapers. They said, for example, the newspaper "makes me smarter" or "looks out for my personal and civic interests."

At this year's ASNE conference, the Readership Institute and the Star-Tribune reported on their work during the last year to reinvent the newspaper using the goal of creating three reader experiences aimed at young adults - "gives me something to talk about, looks out for my interests, turned on by surprise and humor.

John Lavine, director of the institute, calls this approach "editing for experience."

In a slide presentation, Lavine layed out how the experiment worked:

 A group of Star-Tribune staffers selected one day's front page and a jump. It was a typical day's paper, reflecting both the Star-Tribune's reputation for quality and the broader industry's reliance on a predictable news agenda to fill its pages: A more-than-day-old news lede on President Bush heading to Europe; a big feature on a woman intent on walking all the streets of Minneapolis; another feature on local officials who blog; a legislative proposal to broaden DNA collection from citizens; and a sizable photo promo to an anniversary package on the U.S. Olympic hockey team's victory in 1980. (See photo.)
 First, they remade the page using only the stories already on it, but changing their "emphasis, play and approach to enhance" the three chosen reader experiences. As you can see, the hockey package grew, walker story shrunk the DNA story was rewritten with an it-could-happen-to-you lede and the Bush story was downsized to a refer. They called this version the Improved Paper.
 Next, "the team selected stories from anywhere in the newspaper or in that day's news budget and remade the page gain. The walker story fell off Page 1, a no-jump centerpiece grew out of debate about local poker laws, the Bush and DNA stories stayed the same, and a story on the insecurity of private data was pulled forward from Business and hotted up with a Paris Hilton photo. They called this version the Experience Paper.
 Finally, Lavine and the Star-Tribune showed all three versions of the paper - the Original, the Improved and the Experience - to 340 young adults and asked which they preferred, which they would read and which they would recommend to their peers. (Go to Lavine's slides to see large versions of these pages.)

The results must have been sobering to the room of gathered editors. The group of young adults preferred the Experience edition 2 to 1 over the Original the Improved. Here are some results for the Experience paper:

 More likely to catch your attention - 73 percent.
 More visually appealing - 71 percent.
 More memorable - 63 percent.
 Easier for you to get information - 63 percent.
 Mention some of the information when talking to friends - 63 percent.
 Best story selection - 62 percent.
 Seems to look out for your interests - 62 percent.

Significantly, in most of these categories there was little statistical preference between the Original paper and the slightly enchanced version, the Improved paper. In other words, small changes yielded negligible results.

The lesson here is huge: Just shuffling the deck, rearranging the chairs, remixing the stew - insert your own metaphor - is not worth the effort. Newspapers that want to get serious about surviving in the information age - and younger people have no other frame of reference - must discard previous conceptions about news, explode the newsroom structure and listen to the words of Star Tribune editor Gyllenhaal:

"Experiences are ways of converting traditional news judgments from editors' definitions (what's most interesting, what's most important, what you can't believe just happened) to readers' definitions of how they react (what makes readers feel informed, what gives them something to talk about, what tells them the paper is looking out for their interests.)" (Emphasis added.)

Smart stuff. It's what Lavine & Company (and many others outside of the newspaper industry) have been saying at length. But, as Nancy Barnes, a team leader on the Star-Tribune project, says: "It goes against our natural instincts."

Thinking of the reader first means relinquishing control, stepping down from the pulpit of the journalistic priesthood and conversing with the flock instead of lecturing to them.

In their presentation to ASNE, Lavine, Gyllenhaal and Moses offered up eight lessons learned so far in Minneapolis. They should be engraved into the foreheads of every newspaper editor. The lessons:

 "Don't be afraid to talk directly to readers." In part, this means using new way of writing headlines - ask questions in them - and allowing the opinions of readers to guide some editorial decisions.
 "Bring younger voices to the table to share in decision-making." I love these observations: "40 to 50-year-olds can be dead wrong about 20-somethings" and "Young people aren't monolithic."
 "Humor is a huge selling point." Use catchier language and pop icons (Paris Hilton, e.g.) to draw readers into serious issues (data privacy.)
 "Different story forms are a big hit." Look at the poker story. It was presented in a pro-con format.
 "Be more interactive every day." One platform is not enough. You can't layer information too much. Provide opportunities for readers to participate in the story and the follow-up.
 "Look out for their interests." Here's good advice: "Be practical, personal. Tell conspicuously what action they can take (e.g. if identity is stolen)." Note the word "conspicuously." The Minneapolis team found the paper already did many of these things, but readers weren't aware of them. It's OK to shout: Here it is!
 "Not hard to make the paper a little younger." It requires focus (short brainstorming sessions), accountability (requiring editors to look for "talkable stories"), collaboration (cross-discipline teams) and candor ("Is this really interesting?").
 "'Interesting' is not optional. 'Informative' is not sufficient. 'Compelling' is mandatory." As I said the other day, Boring Begone! If it's important enough to cover, it's important enough to make interesting. [Read: ASNE Convention: Six Things that Should be on the Agenda.]

I'm going to add a ninth lesson:

 Change requires learning. The Star-Tribune now has to convert its daily edition into an Experience Newspaper and to that its staff members must unlearn old habits. Even old dogs can learn to write, edit, design - think! - differently, but to do so teaching, coaching, trying and failing is required.

The Star Tribune has accomplished the first step toward intentional change - knowing what it wants to do. It has a definable goal, something many newspapers don't have. Next it must determine what steps are necessary to achieve that goal. And, then it must give its staff members the skills and tools they need to climb those steps.

This is the ladder of intentional change - knowing what you want, identifying what you need to do in order to get there, and acquiring the necessary skills to do those things. Change requires learning.

This is why, of course, the newspaper industry must invest more, much more, in staff development. The future awaits those who build it.

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Posted by Tim Porter at April 15, 2005 09:07 AM

Much as I admire what the Readership Institute and the Strib are up to with this work, let's not go off the deep end about how ground-rattling it is. There are newsrooms all over the country working on similar approaches, and let's just call this latest RI research another focus group. That's all it is, another focus group looking at relatively marginally different Page Ones.
Is this the stuff of revolution? I don't think so.
Does it serve as a way for the RI to validate its existence and its work to date? And also for the Strib to get gigabytes of good publicity on sites such as this one? Sure.
Tim's bottom line, though, that the newspapepr industry has to invest more in just about all areas of readership-building is obviously right on.

Posted by: Jay Furst on April 15, 2005 09:42 AM

I think this is one of your best posts, Tim, and you always write good ones.
Lots of practical advice here.
It should be noted, however, that just because a young person in a focus group says they like one page over another - that still doesn't mean they'll subscribe, right?

Posted by: Rich on April 15, 2005 12:56 PM
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