Center Fielders

By: Joe Strupp A year ago, anyone who visited the Daily Record in Parsippany, N.J., in the dead of night would find it empty, except for production crews running the presses for the morning paper. Most of its newsroom staff didn't arrive until after 8 a.m.

Today, those passing the paper's cream- colored, two-story digs off Interstate 287 North at, say, 3 a.m., are likely to see a light on in the second-floor newsroom. Inside, they'd usually find Business Editor Kathy Shwiff, who until February worked days but now toils the overnight, also serving as the paper's co-digital editor. As part of the Jersey daily's new "Information Center," she is posting traffic reports, weather items, and any local or breaking news she can find.

This "helps us get people on the Web site before they go to work," Shwiff says one April morning as she works the keyboard. "It has definitely messed up my sleep sometimes, but I wanted to do it." Shwiff, who sometimes comes in as early as 2 a.m., is the newsroom's first line of offense, followed by a steady stream of Web reporters who start work at 6 a.m.

Signs tacked up around the newsroom read, "Daily Record 24/7 Information Center," but the Center goes well beyond the new Web focus. Reader comments can be posted with almost every story. In each day's paper, three full pages are dedicated to reader-supplied news, announcements, and photos. A growing database with information on such items as school test scores and county employee overtime is featured online. Much of that content is used in at least four niche publications.

But the Parsippany daily is not alone. After a year of test projects, The Information Center ? a new approach in which all of a chain's dailies and their Web sites are transformed into 24-hour, local, multimedia sources ? is now mandated at all 86 Gannett papers across the country, except USA Today.

When Gannett launched what would become its flagship 25 years ago, vowing to create the first true national newspaper with short stories and colorful graphics, critics came out of the woodwork predicting USA Today's demise ? and many wondered if CEO Al Neuharth had lost his mind. Today, it is the highest circulation daily in the country, and countless other papers have attempted to recreate its graphic-driven, tightly reported approach.

Now, in what some say is Gannett's biggest gamble since it launched what many still call "McPaper," the chain is making what appears to be an equally significant move.

Neuharth tells E&P the initiative is the most innovative way he's heard of "that a news and information company can use all of its resources, 24/7, with a cultural change. Gatherers of news and information have to find more and more ways to distribute it."

In Phoenix, for example, readers of The Arizona Republic are getting breaking news, sports, and weather from their cell phones without ever opening a page or logging on to the paper's Web site. In Rochester, N.Y., users of the Democrat and Chronicle site can discover the number of registered sex offenders in their area, or check out their neighbors' property tax rates. And in southern Ohio, readers promoting anything from a bridge tournament to an evangelical seminar need only log on to The Cincinnati Enquirer's Web site, write up a notice, and post it online.

Of course, all three newspapers ? as well as others operated by Gannett ? also are posting more local and breaking news each morning than ever before. A major story might first appear with just a few sentences, before further reporting is done.

"We think online first, and don't even think about the print paper until later in the day," admits Hollis Towns, executive editor of the Enquirer. Two reporters there start posting at 5 a.m.

But the Web push is just part of the Enquirer's new approach. The daily is also adding databases, spreading news alerts across mobile phones and other outlets, and targeting more community news. Editor Towns cites some 200 different Web pages for specific communities, noting that "We are their franchise in terms of local news."

From Fort Myers, Fla., to Honolulu, Hawaii, each daily paper owned by Gannett has undergone what is arguably its biggest transformation in history. In November, word came down to Gannett newsrooms from the McLean, Va., corporate office that editors and reporters were no longer writing for newspapers, but for Information Centers. Each paper had to submit its plans by the end of the year for implementing the new approach.

The blueprint cited seven areas that each Gannett paper would be required to embrace: Public Service, Digital, Databases, Community Conversation, Local, Custom Content, and Multimedia.

"It is completely reshaping the way we gather news and information," says Jennifer Carroll, Gannett's vice president of new media content. "We are much smarter about the way readers of any age access information ? any way people get information, we want to be mindful of."

Citing the rise of online competitors from Craigslist to MySpace and Yahoo, Carroll ? a former managing editor at The Detroit News ? says, "Amazing, disruptive events in the news industry required us to stay relevant. We use every tool available to enhance the journalism."

She adds that too many papers initially looked at the Web as a place to "dump the print paper online without understanding how people use the Internet as a medium. It is not leaning back to read, like a print paper; it is leaning forward, interacting, and using it for information."

Most editors have said the change has been a challenge, but it's been worthwhile. Some reporters, however, contend it has increased their workloads and intensified their deadline pressures.

One particularly interested exec, MediaNews Group CEO William Dean Singleton, calls the Information Center strategy "very promising," and adds that one Gannett editor will be meeting with some MediaNews executives to explain the new initiative.

Singleton says he understands the need for a company-wide mandate for Gannett: "In today's changing world, you have to give guidance to your newspapers so that they change fast enough to compete."

Gearing up for change
The Information Center actually dates back more than two years, to research that found mobile Web users wanted more than news from their communication devices. Several papers were used as test sites to expand online breaking news coverage beginning in late 2005. "Most of our newspapers were set up for a once-a-day print publication deadline," Carroll notes. "During a major breaking news story, a big group of editors would gather to obsess over the next day's headline, and one person was in the corner updating the Web."

She says the new idea was to flip such priorities and make the breaking Web news the first demand, followed later in print.

Three test sites ? The Des Moines (Iowa) Register, The Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Florida Today in Melbourne, Fla. ? implemented the seven-point initiative last summer, while eight other newsrooms instituted just one of the focus areas. "This was very much below the radar, which was important to us because we wanted to be able to fail, learn quickly, adjust, and move forward," Carroll says about the first few months' learning curve. "Even within the company, we didn't tell about what we were doing."

By the fall of 2006, Gannett officials were convinced the approach could be implemented throughout the chain, and issued a directive that all of its papers ? with the exception of USA Today ? formulate plans for putting the Information Center practice to work. Those plans were due by the end of 2006, and each paper was required to have its center up and running by May 1, 2007.

Carroll says all newsrooms have responded, with most instituting the seven areas well ahead of the May deadline: "It was up to them to decide how they wanted to implement those seven concepts. And it is also still about print. We are not exploding the print newspaper, because if you are 40 and older, it is still the preferred way to get the news."

Do the newsroom shuffle
So with their marching orders from corporate, the Gannett newsrooms went about changing hours, rearranging desks, and beefing up content. Concerns that each newsroom is being asked to do too much pervade a few of the operations, while others praise their ability to get more online scoops and draw more readers.

"It is a harder, more focused approach that inspires more people to produce more work," says Karen Magnuson, editor and vice president of news for the Democrat and Chronicle. "It is really maximizing the talents that are in the newsroom."

One of Magnuson's first tasks was to rearrange news-department divisions to meet the seven focus areas' coverage requirements. The paper now has a Public Service Center, with an editor and two staffers devoted to investigative reporting, while a Local News desk combines many other reporters' beats. The Data desk gathers public information on everything from locations of toxic sites to public employee salaries, while Custom Content delivers stories targeted at niche audiences via the Web site, in the print edition, and in other spinoff print products.

Then there is the Community Conversation Desk, which sets up space for reader comment on each story, allows for readers to submit and post stories and photos, and runs chat areas, such as the popular "Roc Moms," a space devoted to Rochester mothers sharing ideas, complaints, and information. This feature is duplicated at nearly every other Gannett paper's Web site, with a different area-inspired moniker.

This chat area, says Magnuson, is "a good example of how a lot of information is aggregated. This is the kind of thing we would not be doing without this kind of philosophy, giving people what they need."

She also learned that the online features can drive print circulation. Editors discovered this in September when they prepared a multimedia package on local sex offenders, which included a database of registered felons and various audio and video reports.

The Web package was prominently placed on the homepage Sept. 28 to promote much of the same material in a Sunday print presentation three days later. The effort resulted in the biggest Sunday single-copy sales of the year, with 4.9% more than any other Sunday. That record was broken two months later when the same approach was used for a report on police overtime.

In Phoenix, a similar change occurred when Arizona Republic Editor and Vice President/News Ward Bushee instituted earlier work hours for some staffers, with at least one person in each of the paper's six area newsrooms required to arrive at 5:30 a.m. to begin posting items. In addition, the paper partnered with Arizona State University to pay 15 students $10 an hour to cover local news online during early morning hours.

"There has been a dramatic change in the roles that many people play," Bushee observes. At least a dozen reporters have become "mobile journalists" ? an Information Center term referring to reporters armed with cell phones, laptops, and often video recorders ? who work from the field and file news remotely.

The Republic also combined its Web and print staffs, while simultaneously launching 15 "micro sites" that provide information about the suburbs the paper covers. "The overall change is the amount of local news we can provide across different platforms," Bushee says. His paper has also taken to asking for readers' help on stories, posting articles that include requests for tips and further information from subscribers.

For one story about patients allegedly receiving poor treatment at a local Veterans Administration hospital nursing home, readers with any related information were asked to contact the newsroom, and they did: "A lot of the reporting came over the transom by asking readers what they knew about it," the editor adds.

Sue Clark-Johnson, president of Gannett's Newspaper Division, says the company has spent some $3 million on new technology for the individual papers. She says the popularity of the databases has been "delightfully surprising," as has overall reader reaction: "Our folks are moving so fast, we need to make sure we can accommodate all of the various tactics."

A whole new mindset
Back at the Daily Record in Parsippany, Editor Dennis Lyons, who has run the newsroom for seven years and has 30 years of Gannett experience, says that when he arrives each day at 8 a.m. ? just as over-nighter Kathy Shwiff is nearing the end of her shift ? his first task is to meet with his Web editors.

"It is less of a print-driven approach," Lyons says while chatting in his office, "being absolutely as local as we can be and getting readers involved as often as possible." The early jump on the Web is key, he adds, noting that the paper's monthly page views jumped from 3.3 million in March 2006 to 4.9 million in March 2007.

"We started out with baby steps, doing about five updates each day," he says of his 58-person news staff, which includes 18 reporters. "Now we are up to 35 or 40." The site now covers such events as school closings, "which we had never done before."

Reporters say they are getting used to providing online updates throughout the day, rather than saving a story for the print edition. Vidya Padmanabhan recalls a February fire in nearby Washington Township, which she heard about at 6 a.m. through a tip. Once confirmed, she posted a story, then made more calls to get comment. She then learned a 5-year-old girl in the home had awoken her parents to the blaze and helped them escape, and that detail was added at 9 a.m.

Later in the day, a second reporter arranged for an interview with the family, which was shot by a staff videographer and posted online by the afternoon. The second reporter then wrote it up for the next day's paper.

"It is a pretty thorough change," says Robert Jennings, who has been at the Daily Record since 1999 and currently covers transportation as well as three municipalities. "There is no aspect of the job that is what it was eight years ago."

On the day E&P visited, the paper was dealing with the aftermath of New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine's auto accident, which sparked concern over his failure to wear a seatbelt. As transportation reporter, Jennings posted to his blog that morning comments on the accident, then sought out the state director of highway safety for a follow-up. Along the way, he spoke with police in his three beat towns.

Editor Lyons also points to a renewed focus on local news in print. On this day, he notes that the Daily Record led with Corzine on Page One, using a story from the paper's Trenton bureau ? which is shared with five other Gannett papers. The other big story of the day, the firing of radio host Don Imus over racial comments about a Jersey basketball team, was handled with an AP piece, while six inside pages were devoted to the paper's annual guide to school board elections.

The editor is not blind to the workload impact and, in some ways, the overwhelming aspects of the information center. "We give up a little bit, you have to decide what your priorities are," he says. "You wind up doing more with less, that is the world these days. Time is a big challenge, and a big issue. He adds, "Where this is all going to land, we don't know for sure."

Navigating the learning curve
Other Gannett papers are also busy making adjustments.

Florida Today and The Greenville (S.C.) News strongly solicit readers' help on stories. The former paper's "Brevard Watchlist" blog keeps readers up to date on stories still being reported, with requests for leads and sourcing. Greenville has a standing print and Web note asking for tips and story ideas. "We have an item on the front page every day asking to tell us what to investigate," says Greenville News Executive Editor John Pittman.

Pittman's newspaper utilizes more reader-generated photos and news than ever. He cited a tornado that hit earlier this year about 30 miles away in Liberty, S.C. Readers on the scene, submitted photos that were posted on its site. His guideline in such circumstances: "If their stuff is better than ours, we run their stuff."

In Cincinnati, editor Towns' 200 news staffers are all on Web duty each morning. "They are expected to update them if they are breaking stories," he says, noting that all reporters have laptop computers and most have video cameras. "We've gotten lots of equipment from Gannett," he adds. "The company's commitment to this is more than lip service."

At The Indianapolis Star, the multimedia desk centralized many newsroom staffers into a group that includes a 20-person "digital center." The paper incorporated its business and metro desks into the "public service" desk, a move that worried some staffers who feared a cutback in business coverage ? but Editor and Vice President Dennis Ryerson says the move enabled him to create a broader group of reporting teams.

Ryerson's paper is among those tying investigative stories to databases posted on the site. One recent example was a front-page story about where most speeding tickets are written. Says the editor, "Our goal is to do stories about every database we post."

But like most of the Gannett papers, the push to break more news online has been the first and most dramatic change. Ryerson says the Star has at least one online staffer working as early as 4:30 a.m., and two Web producers do the overnight. At least 40 new Web items are posted daily, along with two daily business Web newsletters and one for sports. He admits that such a volume can mean overload. "That is something we need to work on," he says. "It doesn't take a reporter a long time to type up a couple of quick grafs and get it online. We are using this as a learning experience."

At The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., Executive Editor VP/News Bennie Ivory admits the shift to emphasizing online reporting has taken some getting used to. "There has been a little bit of a learning curve, the mindset to think digital over print. It is a juggling act, but we are not trying to put unreasonable demands on people." The paper's Web traffic is trending 40% higher, year-over-year, he adds.

Like other Information Center papers, the Courier-Journal did some news desk reorganizing by combining the business and metro desks, along with three bureaus, into the new "First Amendment Desk," which also oversees news for 10 weekly neighborhood sections. Ivory says the move "eliminates the turf wars, and the manager of that operation knows what is going on in each department."

The Information Center even influenced the paper's coverage of Louisville's biggest annual event, the Kentucky Derby, with a special database offering specialized info on each horse that even the most seasoned trainer would envy.

Increased content, at a cost

Still, the increased workload and broader news scope are stressing some staffers, who also worry about accuracy and the need for down time. "They are stressed out," says Lou Mleczko, president of the Detroit Newspaper Guild, which represents newsroom staffers at Gannett's Detroit Free Press. "It reduces the amount of time available to do reporting and other things they have to do. Errors are appearing online, and that is because there is not enough time to look things up. Editors are in such a panic to get things up on the Web."

Mleczko also points to the extra responsibility many Information Center elements create, such as reporters shooting video and taking photos, or photojournalists writing for the Web and print. That prompted the guild in June 2006 to file a grievance, which is pending, with the Free Press over such extra work requirements.

Other newsroom staffers offered similar opinions about increased stress and workload. Bennett Louden at the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester offered concern about some of the database subjects. "I have questions about putting up a bunch of information just because you have it," he says. He also questioned some of the reader comments, calling them an opportunity for people to post inappropriate messages.

"Sometimes the comments are horrendous," agrees Terri Sanginiti, a police reporter at the News Journal in Wilmington, Del. "They tend to be very racial, very sexual, and can have cursing ? and they don't really monitor them."

A recent Sanginiti story about several children who were missing after being placed in their aunt's care drew numerous reader comments, including one that read, "She was out trolling for another baby daddy." Sanginiti also says some copy desk editors are concerned when libelous or false reader items are posted: "There is really no oversight."

Gannett's Carroll says the workload complaints aren't valid, calling them "the emperor's new clothes." The tools for posting Web stories, she adds, "are enhanced and it is very easy to update a story." In turn, reporters can use those updates as the starting points for follow-up pieces. The Associated Press, she points out, "has been doing this for years."

David Ledford, the News Journal's executive editor, says, "It has been a hell of a lot of fun, but the most difficult thing, as always, is cultural. It was tough to get people to accept that we had to make this transition."

Worth all the effort?
Based on the very early returns, is the Information Center approach paying off for Gannett with revenue and readers? "Our retail advertising has grown, specifically because of the Web traffic," testifies Mark Mikolajczyk, publisher of Florida Today, one of the original test sites. He claims Web traffic is up 72% during April 2007, compared to a year earlier. Print circulation "has stabilized," he adds.

The most recent Audit Bureau of Circulations FAS-FAX for the six-month period ending March 31, 2007, however, indicates Florida Today's Sunday circulation is down about 2,300, but weekdays are up about 300 copies, compared to a year earlier. At another test site, the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D., weekday circ fell from 53,929 to 51,211, with a larger drop on Sunday.

Argus Leader Executive Editor Randell Beck says his paper's Web traffic is up, but cautions that editors must be mindful not to alienate older readers who still prefer the print edition. He fears his paper's reduction in national and international news in print has the potential to turn off longtime readers.

One might assume such an overall newsgathering mandate would be promoted to readers in much the same way by all of the Gannett papers, but each publication is handling publicity of the information center concept differently.

Florida Today's Mikolajczyk says, "Have we gone out and splashed it on billboards? No." In Sioux Falls, marketing has spanned television spots and in-house print ads, but without the "information center" tag. "We felt the idea for the public was to brand the mix of products," Beck says.

The Argus Leader Web site, which was redesigned in September, includes the slogan, "Information ? Anytime, Anywhere." Page One of the print edition has no fewer than five items urging readers to check out the online version, including placement of the paper's URL just above the flag. The week the information center was initiated, in print the paper ran several Page One stories about the changes and provided a two-page information sheet showing how to navigate the redesigned Web site in addition to the print edition.

'Something rich'
Newspaper analysts give the Information Center approach a mostly positive reaction, and believe it's a worthwhile idea. But the initiative still raises some concerns.

Former Merrill Lynch newspaper analyst Lauren Rich Fine calls it "a different touch point with consumers," saying it brings in readers and online users who would not have looked at the paper or Web site. "They are giving the reader something rich. People who might not go to the site for news will go to find out home prices. It is an opportunity to serve advertisers better by connecting with the local audience and a number of local advertisers."

Veteran newspaper analyst John Morton says he doesn't know if it's smart business to make every paper implement such sweeping changes, but "clearly, companies are trying to change the culture of the newspaper business, which has always been the print business."

Morton adds that it's a smart move for each paper to emphasize local news: "From a financial point of view, that is where their strength is ? nobody does what they do locally." But he says putting so much emphasis on the Web will only remain a benefit if revenue from online continues to grow.

Keith Woods, dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute, wonders about the workload impact on staffs that are being cut. "It is very clear that you can't have your staffing line on a down slope" while you are kicking out more news, he says.

But Woods' Poynter colleague, media business analyst Rick Edmonds, believes it's a smart idea. "The traditional newspaper is not a strategy that is going to sustain a company over the next few years," he says. "Given Gannett's position, it is not a sure-thing strategy, but it is a strategy. There is some danger of lessening the print product when the print product is still bringing in the revenue, but it's a gamble worth taking."


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