July 11, 2005

The Times Follows the Audience to the Green Felt Table

The Readership Institute and the Minneapolis Star Tribune told the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April that making big changes to the front page - changes designed to create positive reader experiences - appeared to entice a younger audience.

They showed several hundred assembled editors three versions of the paper's front page - the original; a modified one with some stories made larger, some smaller; and the "experience" version, one in which editors chose A-1 stories from any place on the news budget. (See the Powerpoint slides.) [Read: Survival Lessons for the Future from Minneapolis.]

The "experience" model, of course, was much preferred by new readers (i.e., non-readers) as well as current readers. The centerpiece of that page was a package about poker, two short, pro-con opinion pieces about legalizing Texas Hold 'Em in Minnesota.

After the presentation, one editor from a New York State newspaper asked, does this mean we have to run poker stories on the front page to attract readers? (Culture check: Oppositional and Defensive - beats down new ideas, finds reasons they won't work.)

The convention newspaper also quoted Chris Cobler, editor of the Greeley (Colo.) Tribune, saying, "I'm a bit concerned that we have to find Texas Hold 'em stories 365 days of the year." (Cobler certainly isn't opposed to new ideas; he blogs here.)

What the "experience" front page tells us is simple: Newspapers have to follow their audience. It is a lesson the Star Tribune is learning, and it is one the New York Times has put into practice.

On the front page of today's Times is a highly readable piece about one 26-year-old recent college grad's efforts to make the leap from on-line poker player to big money winner of the World Series of Poker.

The Times has also hired novelist and poker aficionado James McManus to write a weekly column on the game and to report for the web version of the Times on the World Series of Poker.

Smart moves. Poker is huge among college students and others in their 20s and 30s. Spurred by a seeming ubiquitous array of broadcast poker - from ESPN to C-list celebrities - this generation is playing the game online and helping grow a billion-plus dollar industry.

To answer the questions, then, asked by the skeptical editors at the ASNE convention: No, you don't need to run poker stories every day. But, yes, you do need to follow your audience. They are playing poker. You should write about it. They are going online. You should, too.

For local newspapers, the message is to be a part of whatever the people in your community do, to be the journalistic component of that community. Covering poker - or bowling or geocaching or youth lacrosse - connects the newspaper as an institution to the readers as individuals. When newspapers just cover crime and government and politics, as most do, then it is nothing more than one institution talking to another.

Twenty years from now, we might look at a poker column the same way we look at the bridge columns that still persist in some papers: How quaint? Do people still do that? For today, though, poker is a good bet.

Putting poker on A-1 doesn't mean forgoing more serious journalism. The newspaper with the flop and the turn and the river on its front page today is also the one with a reporter in jail for her principles.

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Posted by Tim Porter at July 11, 2005 11:48 AM