Don’t Redesign the Print Edition to Ensure Failure

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By: Steve Outing

Is the newspaper print edition dying sooner that expected?

After all, just in the last week The Christian Science Monitor announced that it’s shutting down its weekday print editions next spring in favor of a Web-centric news service on weekdays and a single weekend print edition. In Canada, the National Post said it will cut the paper’s availability in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, only making it available on Saturdays and only in stores (no more home delivery); Post readers will be able to get the full digital edition of the paper instead.

While those headlines provided a bit of shock to the already-reeling newspaper industry, I do not think it signals a coming wave of publishers cutting their paper editions, especially for metro and community papers. (The Monitor and Post are national papers, facing somewhat different challenges than local newspapers.) The daily print edition is going to be around for quite a while longer (though I expect that we’ll see some publishers cut back a day or two from seven-day-a-week publication).

BUT … because newspaper print editions are trending toward thinned-down and content-lean versions of their former selves, they need to be designed to hold on to their core audience AND guide the print loyalists toward increasing online and mobile news consumption to make up for the paper editions’ new-found shortcomings.

After reviewing some of the newspaper print-edition redesigns that have made headlines recently, I have to conclude that many publishers are getting it wrong.

The new reality: Deal with it

So here’s my premise:

1. Young people are not picking up the printed-newspaper habit in any significant numbers, and no matter what newspaper designers do to revamp or reinvent the print edition, it won’t make much difference. Their preference for digital media consumption is a given, and will only expand further.
2. Older readers who still prefer reading news in print will be the ones who keep newspaper paper editions going for years longer.
3. But those core older readers are noticing the reporters heading out the door and the thinning of the product that they’re continuing to pay for. They’re noticing the decline in quality and the reduction in what gets covered.
4. Many older readers are recoiling at some of the more aggressive print-edition redesigns (such as those by the Tribune Co., for example), which seem geared toward attracting more younger readers rather than retaining older ones. Many of them will react to too-bold redesigns with skepticism, perceiving them as attempts to mask the reality of less content and lower quality of the core journalistic product.
5. The result of all this — with the key ingredient being the decline in quality of the print product as a result of significant staff reductions — will be to force older newspaper readers to do something they’ve resisted so far: move to online and mobile more as their sources of news, forsaking print editions because they no longer see enough value to continue buying them.

News media consultant Ken Doctor recently summed up the situation for newspapers this way on his blog: “One big reason the [circulation] numbers are declining is the product itself. In the last year, we’ve seen unprecedented cuts in the product — and the customers are noticing. It looks like the amount of newsprint is down about 10-15%; some in stories, some in ads. Trusted bylines have disappeared overnight. Readers notice, and talk to their friends, and they’re saying: it’s not the newspaper it used to be. When the subscription notices come, they’re a little less likely to be acted upon. “

If newspaper publishers don’t figure out how to make a “leaner, meaner” and thinner printed edition that?s better or at least as good as what readers used to get, then we really will see more newspaper companies forced to finally jettison print — because the paper loyalists will get fed up and stop spending their money on newspapers, as Doctor suggests.

But that doesn’t have to happen. A smartly redesigned print edition can continue to hold print loyalists while at the same time guiding them through the transition to a pattern of digital media plus print news consumption.

Mistakes are being made

Let’s take a look at one of the most prominent print redesigns of recent weeks, the Chicago Tribune. Beleaguered parent Tribune Co. has, under the guidance of Chief Innovation Officer Lee Abrams, ordered its major papers to be bold with their redesigns, along the lines of a complete “reinvention” of the old newspaper model. But the papers also are laying off lots of reporters, they’ve trimmed the number of pages published, and they’ve adopted a higher ad-to-editorial ratio (50/50).

The designers in Chicago have turned out a nice-looking redesign, featuring lots of much larger photos and graphics, Internet-inspired navigation devices designed to steer readers to content elsewhere in the paper, shorter stories, and overall a more modern look. Reviews of the new design have been predictably mixed, with a fair amount of criticism that it’s not all that different and not really a “reinvention” of the newspaper.

A common criticism you see about the Tribune redesign is that it’s made the paper have less depth of content, and more “fluff and frivolity” (to quote one critic in a survey by Crain’s Chicago Business). Some have derided the new Tribune as emulating USA Today, though Abrams has said that’s not necessarily a bad thing, considering that USA Today is still growing (modestly) in print circulation while most other papers plummet. The post-redesign Tribune seems less serious and substantial, as though it’s catering to those news consumers with short attention spans. In other words, it’s aiming at growth by drawing in a younger demographic, and no longer serving the older crowd as well.

As I’ve scanned for reader reaction to the Tribune redesign, what I see are lots of older readers upset at what they perceive as a decline in quality masked by a fancy redesign. For older, core print-edition readers, there’s less reason to stick with reading the Tribune, and I suspect that we’ll see significant defections.

Other print-edition redesigns take a similar tack, such as Media General’s Tampa Tribune. Just as with the Chicago Tribune, Tampa has laid off staff, reduced content, and introduced a flashy new look. Again I have to ask, is this really the best approach to retaining the older audience of print loyalists? I hardly think so.

Boston is a better model

The Boston Globe also introduced a print revamp recently, but it’s not nearly as flashy and bold a change as the Chicago or Tampa redesigns. It’s more an attempt at making the newspaper better, without the type of bold change that’s being attempted by the Tribune Co. papers. As with any newspaper print redesign these days, a driving motivator for the change is to make the Globe print edition appear to be better even though it’s shrinking. As journalism academic and critic Dan Kennedy wrote on his blog recently, “My overall impression is that Baron and company have made a virtue out of necessity.”

If you accept my assumption that to save printed newspapers, publishers must improve them with the (older) print loyalists primarily in mind, then the Globe has gone in the right direction. Its redesign doesn’t seem to be guided quite as much by a fruitless attempt at getting younger people to pick up the print-reading habit of their elders. I dare say that the Globe, by taking this approach, will keep the print loyalists happy for a longer time than the Tampa Tribune or any of the Tribune Co. papers that went for more flash and less seriousness.

Minimizing the damage

Of course, most newspapers these days are shedding staff and cutting back in order to survive. So even the smartest print-edition redesign, meant to hold on to print loyalists as long as possible, merely lessens the impact of the reductions. Most newspapers, whether you’re willing to admit it or not, are getting worse. Doing more with less staff may be possible, but producing a better printed newspaper with significantly less resources? Get real.

Which leads to my next recommendation for newspaper print redesigns: Go crazy when it comes to driving print-edition readers to your Web site and any mobile services that you offer.

Tribune innovator Abrams has the right idea, though I don’t think his papers are executing it well enough yet. His advice to the redesign teams around the Tribune empire has included having lots of references and pointers to the papers? (and partner media outlets?) respective online content, so that the Web sites and digital services offered by the company are better integrated and the print-edition reader understands that there’s much more available from the Tribune brand name.

This is going to be the key to print editions sticking around for a good while longer. Since it’s inevitable that they’ll have fewer pages and be perceived as inferior to the good old days of newspapers before the Internet, Craigslist, and a sour economy did a hit job on the industry, the most important thing that publishers can do is work harder to leverage their digital offerings within the print edition.

In looking at a recent (Oct. 31) front page of the Chicago Tribune, you can see the problem. I counted only three references to the Tribune’s Web site:
1. “24 hours at” text in the lower right of the masthead.
2. A standard “Breaking News Online” promo box pointing print readers to for the latest headlines from the Tribune, CLTV, WGN Radio, and WGN-TV.
3. A promo to additional online content to accompany a feature story about Chicago school rankings.

That’s not enough. On some inside-the-paper pages, there are no online references or promos, other than e-mail addresses for reporters at the end of local stories.

Every story in the print edition should be tied to additional digital content or community. The local feature story in print should point to the multimedia graphic or online database that accompanies it on the Web. Each story should invite print readers to go online and leave a comment or express their opinions. Some stories should ask print readers to share additional information that they may have about the topic or news event online (e.g., eyewitness accounts or photos). Fast-breaking stories published in print should instruct readers how to sign up for mobile news alerts as new developments unfold.

If a publisher wants its print loyalists to stick with reading (and paying for) the paper edition, then readers must be pounded over the head constantly that “there’s more to the Tribune” and more information, content and services available via the Web or mobile device. An ever-degrading print product alone doesn’t stand a chance of long-term viability, but a print product that’s tied intimately with additional digital content and services has a higher probability of surviving. Those older print loyalists must be trained to perceive that print + digital = a better news experience than when they read only the printed newspaper.

The key, in my humble opinion, is to retain older readers by making the thinner print edition emphasize serious, quality journalism, retaining or expanding your paper’s watchdog role in the community. Forget the stuff that’s solely geared toward attracting young readers; they’re for the most part gone from print.

Then use the print edition to guide your paper readers to the extra stuff and the goodies that are on the digital side of the business.

Newspapers that ignore this advice and continue to let their print editions get thinner and weaker don’t stand much of a chance of long-term survival. The print edition as an island model that remains prevalent in the industry even today is a sure way for circulation erosion to accelerate as even the print loyalists abandon ship.

As counterintuitive as it might seem on the surface, genuine print integration with digital is the path that newspaper publishers must take in order to keep the print edition alive and avoid a quickening of print newspapers’ slide downward.

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