July 02, 2005

Snarking vs. Supporting Change

San Jose Mercury NewsIt'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."

John Robinson, on the other hand, who is in business of remaking his own newspaper, the News-Record of Greensboro, N.C., was more sincere and more sanguine:

"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."

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Posted by Tim Porter at July 2, 2005 08:33 AM

It's hard to tell from the front page what the section is like. When I first heard the idea, it was jarring. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it.

However, the fact that half the front page is a story about hot weather and that one of the five front page stories is "Rising gas prices alter holiday driving plans" aren't exactly encouraging.

Posted by: Barry Parr on July 2, 2005 09:43 AM

I applaud the Mercury News for being bold and I'm disappointed in the piling on by those who aren't so bold. The trouble is, even newspapers that are good at change tend to change from one thing to one other thing. The Mercury News has ended up back where it was, telling the reader, "This is who we are, you the reader will have to change." The editors decided that being in the A section conveys the importance of the local news, while many readers feel that a separate section does a better job of that. Who got their way? The editors.

A truly bold move would be to produce the usual sections, then offer each reader an additional section configurable to his or her tastes. If you want more international news, plus women's sports and the stock listings, choose from the menu and we'll deliver that to you. Same if you want soccer coverage plus more news about agriculture and the environment. Or minor-league baseball and the arts. Most newspapers have vastly more information than they can get out the door in the traditional format.

As well as zoning geographically, newspapers need to zone culturally. Instead of changing from one thing to one other thing, newspapers need to change from one thing to many things.

Posted by: Brian on July 3, 2005 04:48 PM

Smart: The local emphasis. Those worried about the lack of world/national news should look at the date: On the Friday before the Fourth of July weekend, it's safe to assume that readers are especially interested in the weather forecast and gas prices.

Not smart: jumps. Every conventional story on the new front page jumps -- and the jumps go to 3 different pages, not one semi-convenient jump page. Jumps kill readership of stories and waste space inside. A truly user-friendly design would do away with jumps -- or at least jump no more than 1 story per section front.

Posted by: Mikhail on July 5, 2005 02:51 PM

A Merc insider's take: The remake is not perfect but I simply cannot argue with the logic of giving the most emphasis to the one thing we have that nobody else has - that is, local news. This is pure economics 101.

It is a bit troubling to see Iraq carnage seemingly buried in the A section, and the pass-around opportunities are limited when national/world and local are in the same section, but other than that, the change is fine.

It'll still be up to us to find stories that engage our local audience; that'll be hit-or-miss because we don't always know what our readers want, and often, they don't know either.

I do think, though, that papers in the Merc's circulation range are in a particular bind because they're just big enough to have national/regional ambitions, but just small enough to have a difficult time assigning the resources needed to realize those ambitions day in and day out.

The urge to chase the "big" stories can't help but draw resources away from the "little" stories loathed by everybody except the folks who read the paper. I think, though, that if papers in our size range learn to channel their big ambitions into finding big local stories, everybody will be better off. The trick will be teaching ourselves to like covering local news. Most of us start out doing local, but it's something to work one's way out of, not something to build a career around.

Posted by: tom mangan on July 5, 2005 03:54 PM

Journalism largely consists of saying ‘Lord Jones is Dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.
-G.K. Chesterton

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Posted by: jozef Imrich on July 6, 2005 04:27 AM
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