‘Radical Evolution’ Needed to Curb Circ Woes

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By: Curt Chandler and Bill Ostendorf

Moving newsrooms through this period of radical evolution in the information industry can’t all be about the web. In fact, we don’t believe declining circulation is a given and we’ve helped many of our clients slow or reverse the downward spiral. The key is getting outside our own straightjacket.

So, making some of these kinds of changes to your newsroom and web site will likely help your print product as well.

* Developing different versions of a story throughout the day will facilitate alternative story forms in print. We help our clients create forms, for example, that quickly summarize the results of town and school board meetings so the information can appear quickly in print and on line. This might be a grid, or bulleted summary. Great for the web. Great for print, too. We can follow up the next day with a story that takes a sharper look or a different angle. Or not.

* We need to cover life, not just news. There is too much going on in our communities that our newsrooms just miss. We don’t like to admit it (and too often aren’t even aware of it) but our biggest single problem is that we are out of touch. User originated content might just help us get the pulse of what people are doing and talking about and get us out of our own ivory tower. Feedback is a very good thing.

* With fewer resources, it’s important to focus on doing a few things really well.

First, whatever the big story of the day is, always do it better than anyone else. Readers remember that.

Second, focus a portion of the newsroom on enterprise or in-depth reporting. Don’t be afraid to tear up old-style beat structures to create more interesting and forward-looking content. Imagine a newsroom with a quarter of the staff assigned to look forward instead of backward. If we could focus our resources to make sure each of our section fronts had one must read story combined with a strong visual and some breakouts from teams like this, our papers would actually be better, even with the mindless cutbacks that have become an industry standard.

* Truly complete and thorough web sites that are easier to navigate might finally free us from one of print’s other big barriers ? the notion that until we publish something in ink, it hasn’t happened. Who needs a headline 24 hours later saying “Fire destroys city hall”? It’s nuts and makes us look stale, but we do it all the time. If we could just trust the web site to get the news out, maybe we could actually execute “Rebuilding city hall will cost us $9 million” on the next day’s page one. Now that’s a lead!

* Learning to be more visual on the web might teach us to do the same in print. In this world of shrinking newsprint width, our photos are getting smaller and smaller. And that’s a very bad idea. In every other part of our lives, all the images are getting bigger. And people are paying more to get them. A big TV used to be 24.” Now it’s 50″ or 60″ or more. Computer screens have moved from 12″ to 20.” Standard photo prints evolved from wallet size to 4″x 6.” Going against major consumer trends is very dumb. Bigger pictures grab readers, increase the readership of stories, communicate quickly and sell newspapers.

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