Students Go To Town On Makeover

By: Mark Fitzgerald

The 15 graduate journalism students in business attire flanked the stage at Northwestern University’s McCormick Tribune Center in Evanston, Ill., smiling nervously and taking one last look at the notecards in their hands. It was showtime once again for the Media Management Project Class at the Medill School of Journalism, a unique program in which a real newspaper hires the class to research, prototype, test, and create a product in 10 intensive weeks.

In the audience were executives from the Chicago Tribune, the Daily Herald, Suburban Newspapers of America, and others from beyond Chicagoland. Media Management program leaders Rich Gordon and David Nelson, who along with adjunct lecturer Cynthia Linton had kept the class on track for the last academic quarter, worked the audience. Medill Dean John Lavine slipped into a back-row seat.

But for the grad students, the most important person in the audience was sitting on the aisle of the third row. Pete Esser is publisher of the Holland Sentinel, an 18,345-circulation Morris Communications Co. daily in western Michigan. He gave the class its task: Improve our readership and increase our revenue in the quaint town of Zeeland, population 5,805. The Holland paper presently hits that town with a weekly Zeeland Sentinel inserted in the main paper, and a total market coverage product.

Zeeland challenged the grad students’ first impulse to design something really daring and digital, project co-coordinator Brad Flora said after the presentation. “We were convinced there wasn’t going to be any print at all,” the New Media student says. “It was going to be Rotten Tomatoes meets Craigslist meets Flickr.”

But then they met Zeelanders. Matt Bigelow tells the audience that in their focus groups and conversations with merchants, students heard the same descrip- tions repeatedly: It’s a family town, close-knit, conservative, Christian. “For a conservative community like this,” Bigelow notes, “we realized we wanted to be innovative but not overwhelming.” Zeeland is also growing up, though, and feels it has an identity apart from its bigger next-door neighbor, Holland.

At first blush, what the Medill students created was not unlike Morris’ hyperlocal Bluffton Today in South Carolina. But for Zeeland, the students propose driving a free home-delivered print weekly called The Zeelander with staff- and reader-generated content on a robust Web site called Zeeland Now.

The Medill students devised a clever way to get the mostly tech un-savvy Zeelanders ? the great majority of whom still use dial-up ? to join the online community. Some newspaper Web sites, Flora notes, invite readers to create a blog, something that would stop Zeelanders in their tracks. Instead, Zeeland Now sets out “tasks,” such as review a movie, or interview a neighbor. “To say, ‘Create a blog’ would be alienating and unfamiliar, but ‘Write a movie review,’ hey, I can do that,” Flora says.

Do one of those tasks, and the site effectively creates a blog, with the user’s contributions shown in reverse order on the side of the page.

Media Management classes must cost out their projects. The Zeelander would replace the weekly Zeeland Sentinel, and the TMC effort. The existing products are on track to lose $33,000 this year, the Medill students reported. The new hyperlocal Web and weekly, they project, would turn profitable in its second year ? with an operating profit margin of 18% that would grow to 34% by the third year.

Sentinel Publisher Esser ? speaking after Medill students repeated their presentation for Sentinel and Morris corporate executives at the newspaper ? says the class “nailed” the look and feel of products that will appeal to conservative Zeeland.

The financials, though, were a little off, Esser thinks. “They didn’t include a lot of shared costs that would be borne by the Sentinel,” he says. For example, the class didn’t allocate such costs as accounting or ad production.

But overall, the publisher was impressed. The Sentinel and Morris will take some time to digest the findings, he says, but it sounds as if there may be a Zeelander and Zeeland Now in Zeeland, Michigan’s future: “I think down the road we’ll definitely be looking at taking parts of this or all of it and seeing if we can make it work.”

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