Will New Web-like Front Page Click?

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By: Joe Strupp

Readers of The Janesville (Wis.) Gazette who are looking for news stories on the front page won’t find much. But that’s the whole idea, according to editors who recently redesigned the paper. Now, nearly all of Page One is filled with summaries of inside stories, and other teasers aimed at giving readers a quicker news fix and more reason to go beyond the first page.

“We wanted to make a commitment to readers that if they only have five minutes, they can get the news they need to stay up to speed,” said Scott Angus, editor of the 22,000-circulation daily. “We need to get light readers to read us more.”

Launched Sept. 27, the new look is a far cry from the Gazette’s previous front-page layout, which often carried five stories, many jumping to inside pages. Under the new design, a wide, right-hand rail offers summaries of inside stories ranging from news to sports, while the bottom section promotes upcoming pieces and another area teases weather. Even death notices and obituaries are given a highlight mention.

“It is a bold move and not without an element of risk,” said Sidney H. “Skip” Bliss, publisher of the paper, one of four dailies owned by his family’s company, Bliss Communications of Janesville. “Little of its former self remains.”

The only typical front-page news story will be in “The Window,” a centerpiece space dedicated to a main visual element, which may not even offer a text story on some days. “We believe that once people look at the front page, they will look at more,” Angus said, adding that about 20% of the paper’s sales are single-copy buys. “We want to get people beyond the front page, and beyond the obstacle that they don’t have time. Much of this makes the paper easier to read, easier to navigate.”

Angus adds that the traditional front page is still in the paper, on Page 3, which offers the top news stories of the day. He also stressed that the paper is not cutting news space, expanding from a minimum of 24 pages each day to a minimum of 28. “We believe we can keep loyal readers, but also attract new ones, younger ones,” he said.

The summary approach is not really new. Last year, The Miami Herald launched “5-Minute Herald,” providing a full page of summaries, but across a back section page. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has run summary-only front pages on Sundays and Mondays since August. “It gets the time-starved reader,” said Star-Telegram Publisher Wes Turner. “Reaction is mixed, but a lot of people tell us they like it when they don’t have a lot of time.”

But the Gazette is believed to be the only paper to give up each day’s Page One to quick hits. “It’s like a menu from a computer screen,” said Angus. “But instead of clicking on a story you like, you turn to it.”

The paper began planning for the change nine months ago. Angus added a new editing position solely for the front page.

The new look comes at a time when the paper’s daily circulation had dipped slightly to 22,696 for the six months ending March 2004 from 22,813 for the same period a year earlier. Sunday circulation also went down a bit, to 25,750 from 26,389, during the same period.

The redesign followed a marketing survey of 450 Gazette readers last spring, as well as a recent session with two focus groups who reviewed the initial prototype. A handful of subscribers cancelled the paper in protest. Bliss, who said the industry needs to look at such changes more as readership problems continue, hinted that his company’s other dailies could follow in the redesign if it is deemed a success. “This may serve as a model,” he adds. “It is still a work in progress.”

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