By: Mark Fitzgerald
In a time of crisis in the newspaper industry, The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle is not letting any grass grow beneath it.
Last fall, a group of staffers holed up in a room at the Eagle, brainstormed about how to best reach time-starved working women, and came up with the idea to scrap the traditionally themed daily features sections. They then designed a prototype, printed it, tested it on a focus group, tweaked it, and after 70 hours completed plans for a daily tabloid section called Wichitalk that started running in the paper seven weeks later. Bam.
Nine months after the launch, Eagle reader satisfaction scores are up significantly, according to a survey, and the paper believes Wichitalk is a big reason.
Nine months or even longer is closer to the usual gestation period for a new newspaper product. But not at the Eagle ? at least, not anymore, says President/Publisher Lou Heldman: “We weren’t going to have a committee that would go on for months.”
Anecdotally, Witchitalk’s fast-paced mix of locally focused lifestyle features and “news you can use” appears to be finding the audience that’s proven so elusive for newspapers everywhere: working moms with kids at home and a lot on their minds. Advertisers’ support is more easily documented: The four-day-a-week Wichitalk brings in $30,000 a month ? including $10,000 in new revenue, says Editor Sherry Chisenhall. But the real story is the decision-making process that birthed Wichitalk, as well as ideas for a new business section planned for launch this fall and a reworking of the front page further down the road.
It’s all part of the Eagle’s “charrette” ? a term the paper borrowed from architecture that refers to an intense period of design activity. All the key parties in a building project are gathered together for rapid fact gathering and decision making. During this process, “The key idea is not to let the passage of time take the energy out of their ideas,” says Steven S. Duke of the Readership Institute.
People from throughout the Eagle building were called in, and they weren’t all department heads: Chisenhall says she looked for “people with a track record of being collaborative, innovative, and action-oriented.” Heldman invited people from five sister Knight Ridder papers, even reps from the corporate side. The CEO of an up-and-coming local ad agency also offered ideas. The Readership Institute’s Mary Nesbitt came in as facilitator.
And then the door was closed. “It was a 70-hour lock-in, almost,” Chisenhall says with a laugh. “I’m not sure all these people would have agreed [to it] if they’d known we were going to spend these really long days in one room.”