By: Mark Fitzgerald
South Florida Sun-Sentinel Publisher Bob Gremillion came up on the broadcasting side of Tribune Co., so he knows a shrinking audience when he sees it. And in its highly competitive playing field, fighting The Miami Herald to the south and The Palm Beach Post to the north, the Sun-Sentinel was indeed shrinking.
All the newspaper’s research, plus the national studies of the Readership Institute, turned up the same findings. But the Sun-Sentinel decided to do something unusual for the American newspaper industry: act aggressively. Editor Earl Maucker and Marketing Director Jeff Levine teamed up to gradually reshape the newspaper’s design and content in ways they hoped would give readership a needed boost, and make heavier readers of its many skimmers.
At most papers, marketing and editorial simply don’t mix ? and they might not have at the Sun-Sentinel, either, if Maucker weren’t a true believer in the need for change. He led more than 50 meetings of small groups of concerned journalists, assuring them that readership-driven content doesn’t have to mean fluff. “People think we’re going to put Britney Spears on the front page, but that’s not what people want,” says Levine.
Changes to the Sun-Sentinel came in all sizes. There were the little things, like space reserved in the same spots every day for content promo ads created by marketing. And there were also larger steps, the kind that make newsrooms nervous but that readers notice, such as the daily digest that metastasized to a third of the front page.
Research showed that on any given day, any given story is likely to be read by just 10% of readers. So now the Sun-Sentinel gives them another chance by running many of its stories twice: once, say, in a zoned section and again, rewritten and “repurposed” in the main section.
The research also showed that most of all, readers want a newspaper to be useful in their lives. The paper created an eight-reporter “Help Team” for consumer issues, along with a “Sun-Sentinel Watch” that uncovers fraud ? say, among post-hurricane contractors. The paper is not subtle about promoting it: A current marketing tagline is, “How Can We Help You?”
The Sun-Sentinel’s formula of research and content change is working. In the first year, the Scarborough Report found readership was up 2.9% daily and 1.5% Sundays. Its 7-day cumulative audience of nearly 1,160,000 adult readers gives it bragging rights as “the most widely read paper in all of Florida,” says Maucker. As for the editorial “fluff,” the Sun-Sentinel was a finalist for three Pulitzer Prizes this year, and hailed by many for its investigative reporting on mismanagement of federal disaster aid.