It's to be expected that readers will initially react negatively when their newspaper makes any kind of substantive change. After all, one of the newspapers' last great appeal is its predictability: Everything is on the same place every day.
What's disheartening - and also telling about the difficulty of change in the newspaper industry - is the catcalls a big change in a newspaper will elicit from other journalists, especially those sitting in the cheap seats of the sidelines (where I, too, sit.)
The San Jose Mercury News, the former Knight Ridder flagship of Silicon Valley whose circulation in recent years has suffered the same descending fate as the Valley's economy, recently did a big remake of its front page (pdf) and main news section. The paper did away with the local section, pushed more local news to the front page and front-loaded the main news section with local.
Susan Goldberg, editor of the Merc, explained the changes in a reader forum (emphasis added):
"We made the change in part to try to differentiate ourselves even more from other news sources by putting the local news you seek in the front of the newspaper. We felt that, in addition to the many locally produced stories on 1a (a typical 1a has 75% locally produced stories) that putting local in the front of the book makes that news more prominent. Plus, it's the kind of news that people can't get other places and responds to a growing sense from our readers that they often know the national and international news headlines by the time they pick up the paper in the morning because they've gotten it off the Internet or TV."
Good thinking. Local news is a differentiator. Wire news is generic.
Those readers who complained said the front section is more confusing (I haven't seen the paper, so it may be) and that the pre-eminence of local news over national and international belittles the importance of the latter two in favor of the former.
CJR Daily, which is not in the newspaper business, but, like me, is in the opining about newspaper business, snarked at the changes (emphasis added):
"What the Merc did was to abolish the whole notion of separate sections for local, national, and world news -- come on, separate sections are something you can get on the Internet -- and collapsed all those stories into one A section, with oomphed-up emphasis on local news. In fact, it's not until about halfway through the section that you even see any mention of newsworthy topics like, oh, President Bush, or the turmoil in Middle East."
"The San Jose Mercury News has launched a newspaper redesign that attempts to move the paper into the future. They've come to the realization that most people know the news headlines from around the world by the time the paper is delivered so they put national and international stories in the back of the A section and, instead, focus on local news. Sound familiar? I say good for them."
Snark vs. support. Who do I want to bet on as being instrumental in reinventing newspapers? Here's to you, Mr. Robinson.
Change is hard. Disregarding traditional thinking in favor of new ideas without guarantees of success is hard. Doing journalism differently is hard. The Merc's front page is far from perfect, but it never will be. The news business is - and should be - a messy business. Criticism is necessary, both of the status quo and of efforts at reinvention, but let's be constructive because we must change or we will disappear into irrelevancy.
Tweaking won't cut it. We need big ideas. [Read: Explode the Newsroom.] The Merc should be applauded, then critiqued. Tradition fights change disguised as defensiveness, opposition and safe decision-making. It also emerges as snark.
When the Readership Institute and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune finished their presentation at ASNE in April about their efforts to remake newspaper from a reader's perspective, the first question asked by editor from the audience was: Do we have to run poker stories on the front page? He was referring to a centerpiece in the Star-Tribune's "experience" prototype. (See all the Readership Institute material on the project, including the Powerpoint presentation.) [Read: Readership: Survival Lessons for the Future from Minneapolis.]
The answer, of course, is no - but, we have to do something differently and it has to be big not small.
Saying that international or national news is more important than local news is pressthink. It is thinking from the perspective of the newspaper, using the language of journalism. These are our definitions, our rule, not those of the readers and we can change them any time we want.
Here's an anecdote: I recently spent several days in the newsroom of one of the Tomorrow's Workforce newspapers and witnessed a debate at a meeting of editors about the paper's new page 1 index, which had been expanded to fill a third of the page. One editor, reporting on reader reaction from a focus group, noted that readers like these new "short stories" on A-1?
Short stories? We call them reefers, teases, blurbs, whips, etc., to distinguish them from stories. That's our language, our vocabulary, our presstalk. To readers, though, they are stories, just more of the mix.
We don't need to stop being journalists. But we do need to starting thinking like readers.
UPDATE: Dan Gillmor, who left the Mercury News to found Bayosphere, weighs in: "... I wondered if it was an example of the major media's relentless cost-cutting as opposed to a well-intended effort to serve readers better. It's both, probably."Posted by Tim Porter at July 2, 2005 08:33 AM