Not only must a newspaper bent on innovation overcome the cultural obstacles and the journalistic traditions of what is considered news and the so-called proper presentation of it, it must also confront and resolve a myriad of production, advertising and logistical issues.
John Kirkpatrick, a former colleague of mine who is now the editor and publisher
of the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., recently sent me a copy of the new tabloid (i.e., compact) version of his paper. Aptly, it bears a shorter name: The Patriot.
The Patriot-News and its more diminutive offspring co-exist, two editions produced by the same newsroom, pressroom and sales force, a first says Kirkpatrick. (The notion of two versions of the same paper, rather than, say, converting the broadsheet into a tab, was inspired by this Malcolm Gladwell story in the New Yorker by about ketchup headlined: “The Ketchup Conundrum: Mustard now comes in dozens of varieties. Why has ketchup stayed the same?”) The goal of the Patriot was to produce a different product for readers – mostly younger people and women – who wanted a quicker, but still intelligent package of news.
“The one-size-fits-all model is no longer ideal for newspapers in today's marketplace any more than it is ideal for magazines or cars or spaghetti sauce,” Kirkpatrick said in an email to me. “…We decided to give readers the kind of choice in their daily paper that they have everywhere else, to answer the ‘broadsheet or tab’ debate by producing both.”
I had asked Kirkpatrick to elaborate on how the Patriot came into being with the intent of pulling out lessons for other journalists. He responded at length (paraphrasing Mark Twain: “My goal was to write something shorter. I didn't have time.”)
I’m going to run Kirkpatrick’s complete letter, which you should read because he walks us through all the decisions, philosophical, physical and financial, that had to be made to product the Patriot. First, though, I’ll give his shortcut version and a few excerpts from the longer letter. Here’s the quick read.
“So, how did we do it?
It was easy.
We came up with an idea.
We ignored the common sense which called it impossible.
We ran smack into a million operational issues that seemed intractable.
We met as a paper and decided to suspend all sense of limitation.
We solved every problem.
We practiced a few times.
Then we produced The Patriot.”
Here are some excerpts, with my headings and comments:
The Biggest Lessons: “It turns out that ‘Just because it’s been done this way doesn’t mean we can’t do it differently’ can be a powerful message. It turns out that going to the folks on the front lines, presenting all the available information and being willing to answer any question -- no matter how painful -- is a powerful tool. It turns out that when you ask each and every staff member to make this ‘his or her; project and to take a leadership role, it actually works. It turns out that taking advantage of, rather than working around, the interdependence of departments not only solves problems but it creates opportunities. It turns out that when you put your trust the staff, they do amazing things.”
There is so much to learn from the making of the Patriot, but the above paragraph contains the most important lesson because it addresses directly the culture issue: Communication from management, transparency of information and decision-making, empowerment of the front line results in engagement, creativity and innovation.
What Readers Want: “This group of readers is overwhelmingly NOT interested in a dumbed down ‘youth publication.’ In fact, they are resistant and even resentful of one. They don't want fluff. They want real news, especially local news, in a condensed form. … They wanted a paper infused with our values -- the integrity of the news columns, the integrity of our advertising, our commitment to the community -- but not confined by the past.”
This fits in with what the Readership Institute found in its study (PDF) of reader experiences: Readers are drawn to publications that respect their intelligence and make them smarter.
Communication Trumps Adversity: “Not having someone else to copy, having to figure this out for ourselves, proved to be the best part of the experience. We had to listen to the readers and we had to work together as an entire newspaper. We thought we did both of those things in the past, but this pushed us much farther than we ever imagined. … We had leaders and managers at all levels who were willing to be bold, to question assumptions, to look past roadblocks and ask “what if?” And folks throughout the paper embraced one underlying idea: it was better to forge our own future than bemoan our fate.
What if? That question holds the power to change. Newspapers may or may not be dying. That debate continues (Farhi vs. Meyer). What is certain, though, is that the future of the news game will be played on an entirely different field that those we have today. We best get ready for it. [Read: The Mood of the Newsroom for a series of “what if” questions.]
Below is Kirkpatrick’s full letter. Read it. I’ve added all the bold-face emphasis and the indenting:
Over the past few years, we’ve done things in every part of our operation to drive readership and to develop stronger relationships with our advertisers. We believed that quality would be the engine that drove our growth.
By many measures, we were succeeding. In 2004, The Patriot-News was named one of the top 50 papers in the world for color reproduction; we won an industry award as the top large paper in the state; we were second in Pennsylvania Newspaper of the Year; and took top honors for our promotion work. We turned our daily sports section into a tab. We redesigned and expanded our zoned weekly sections, rebranding them as “your community newspaper” within the broadsheet. We offered frequent info boxes and update boxes with stories; expanded our coverage of ordinary people; added more in-paper promos of today’s and upcoming content. We added glossy niche magazines, started a daily e-mail news update (Know@Noon) and expanded our community efforts. Editor & Publisher named us as one of their annual “10 That Do It Right.”
Yet with all this innovation -- and success -- we were struggling simply to maintain relatively flat circulation. Even though our numbers were better than most papers (we were up 1,183 in the last Fas-Fax), we were not growing the way we felt we needed or wanted to. More ominously, we faced a growing divide between the way our traditional readers want information and the way time-starved readers want it.
The circulation trend line meant that, over time, our paper would be forced to cut back rather than grow. That wasn't the future we wanted. And growing circulation through discounting and non strategic third party sales was no answer.
When we looked at the numbers, it was clear that (in our slow-growth market) the greatest opportunity was getting time-starved occasional readers -- many of them younger and women -- to read us more often. But we have found that “updating” the paper to attract them alienates some of our core readers while not attracting new readers at the same rate. It seemed like a lose-lose proposition.
When we converted our Sports section to a tab, we did attract new readers -- especially women and casual sports fans -- to the section. This allowed us to sell advertising into the section that we never had before. Yet we weathered numerous and ongoing complaints from loyal broadsheet fans.
Our conclusion: The one-size-fits-all model is no longer ideal for newspapers in today's marketplace any more than it is ideal for magazines or cars or spaghetti sauce. You can now buy 10 different version of a Hershey's Kiss but only version of the daily newspaper. We decided to give readers the kind of choice in their daily paper that they have everywhere else, to answer the “broadsheet or tab” debate by producing both.
Because we were the first paper in the United States to head down this path, we had to work through hundreds of thorny operational issues as well as test our ideas in the market. Not having someone else to copy, having to figure this out for ourselves, proved to be the best part of the experience. We had to listen to the readers and we had to work together as an entire newspaper. We thought we did both of those things in the past, but this pushed us much farther than we ever imagined.
Nearly everything changed between our first prototype covers and what is on the street right now -- the name, the design, the editorial focus, how we were going to sell, how we would print it, and much more. What didn't change was hearing from time-starved and occasional readers that they would value a compact version of The Patriot-News. They wanted a paper infused with our values -- the integrity of the news columns, the integrity of our advertising, our commitment to the community -- but not confined by the past.
Here are some of the key things we discovered from focus groups and other feedback:
1. This group of readers is overwhelmingly NOT interested in a dumbed down “youth publication.'” In fact, they are resistant and even resentful of one. They don't want fluff. They want real news, especially local news, in a condensed form. Thus this product is editorially driven –which is not only a matter of integrity, it’s what we do best.
2. These busy readers were clear that they would not go out of their way to get the paper. We were planning on single copy only, sold in normal outlets as well as places like health clubs. Instead, they told us over and over that we almost had to place it in their hands. We had been planning to print this at the end of the press run and have a small, additional group of distributors get it out on the street (much work had been done in this regard). We switched to printing it in the middle of the press run, allowing for home delivery along with the broadsheet. At first, we didn't understand how important it is to have the newspaper where these time-starved readers are, when they are there. It is our job to make that connection.
3. Advertising needs to be proportional to the news. If it is, it will have great impact. That means getting second ads for the compact, devising complex conversion charts, and much more. It is a huge undertaking. The easy way out would have been simply to reduce an ad until it fits, but we didn't think that would work long term. On the other hand, while both local and national advertisers have had lots of questions, nearly all have been behind the idea of growing full paid circulation with the compact edition. They were hungry for us to try something new, especially if it skewed to time-starved women.
4. Marketing gurus do not get excited by simple, literal ad campaigns but this type of promotion is essential. Our ad agency’s first clever and inventive ideas fell flat. Clarity and simplicity were what resonated with potential readers.
5. Doing this while you are strong, with a strong brand, really helps. We heard over and over that people liked us but simply didn't have time to read the broadsheet. Getting the news in a convenient format from us was far more valuable to these readers than we had imagined.
When people ask us “how did you do it?” often what they mean is: how do we manage the logistics of producing two formats on deadline, five days a week? To make things even more challenging, since we didn't know if it would succeed, we tried to do as much as possible with existing resources. Here were some keys:
1. To create time on the press, we collapsed two daily zoned editions (Lebanon and Carlisle) into our final edition. We added two additional pages to Final to accommodate the Lebanon/Carlisle stories, and redesigned our Local/State section to highlight the news from each region. This was a painful move. Our bureaus had worked hard to make these editions competitive with small dailies in Lebanon and Carlisle. We were all concerned. We had heavy financial and emotional ties to those editions. The newsroom made numerous other changes for the compact related to workflow, schedules, news meetings and more. But the zones were the most visible to readers and advertisers.
2. The advertising side of this is extremely complicated. At one point, the folks trying to work all the details said they should meet on the roof so it would be easier if they decided to jump. In the end, it has meant the likelihood of scrapping our present rate card and redoing it in a very different way. That project is almost as big as launching the tab.
3. We were spending a great deal of money on a smaller and smaller telemarketing pool as well as other ways of getting new broadsheet subscribers. We decided to move that money to the new project. That was a big gamble for circulation. Our goal is not to migrate readers or undo the broadsheet; it is to expand the market. But we felt the long term potential was much greater on the compact side. Then, working with hundreds of independent agents, more than 400 single copy outlets, introducing address-specific home delivery, and keeping the broadsheet moving forward was no easy task.
4. IT needed to make sure page pairing and all our systems worked for this project. That meant putting other projects on hold.
5. To save money and make this work, we run our State edition broadsheet in a straight mode. Then we run the compact in a collect mode. We then run Final in a straight mode again, keeping our Final off time the same. It is also a challenge managing the compact’s newshole in 8-page increments (necessary because we run collect) -- we want enough space to be a valuable news source, not so much that we use filler and defeat the purpose of giving busy readers a tight edit.
6. To give us additional money for the compact, we put off non-operational expenses that we had planned.
In the end, our ability to solve myriad problems came down to one thing: the whole paper coming together. There were a ton of staff meetings and constant communication. We held a paper-wide meeting (our first ever) to make the case for this project. We had leaders and managers at all levels who were willing to be bold, to question assumptions, to look past roadblocks and ask “what if?” And folks throughout the paper embraced one underlying idea: it was better to forge our own future than bemoan our fate.
It turns out that “Just because it’s been done this way doesn’t mean we can’t do it differently” can be a powerful message. It turns out that going to the folks on the front lines, presenting all the available information and being willing to answer any question -- no matter how painful -- is a powerful tool. It turns out that when you ask each and every staff member to make this “his or her” project and to take a leadership role, it actually works. It turns out that taking advantage of, rather than working around, the interdependence of departments not only solves problems but it creates opportunities. It turns out that when you put your trust the staff, they do amazing things.
Everything, of course, isn’t perfect. There were those who refused to engage. There are still those on the sidelines. But they are few and far between.
And in the end, we did it.
Now, of course, we'll see what the consumers have to say. When all is said and done, that is what really counts.Posted by Tim Porter at June 7, 2005 01:41 PM