'E&P' Announces '10 That Do It Right' 2009 Honorees

By: Mark Fitzgerald Ten that do it right? Are there even five newspapers that can claim with a straight face that they do it "right" these days? In a time when nearly every paper has been clobbered by plunging ad revenue and declining circulation, when layoffs, pay cuts and furloughs are the order of the day, when six newspaper companies are in bankruptcy and others are reeling under massive debt ? is anybody in this industry doing it right?

The short and encouraging answer is, yes.

Shrunken newsroom staffs are producing some amazing work that shines a light on corruption or just makes a reader glad she picked up the paper. Harried salespeople are finding new revenue sources in unlikely corners of their markets. Even as R&D budgets disappear, newspapers create new and engaging products, both online and in print.

This is E&P's ninth annual "10 That Do It Right" feature, and the second time we've asked newspapers to nominate themselves if they think they're excelling in a particular area. We also considered others who did not throw their hat in the ring. As always, this is not a Top 10 or "best-of" list, but rather a collection of newspapers that are doing one particular thing very well (sometimes more than one thing), and merit recognition for that effort and achievement.

None of the papers that made the list or were seriously considered has escaped the turmoil of the industry. In fact, one of them, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, is among the papers in bankruptcy reorganization. Nearly all have endured deep cuts to their newsrooms.

From those many indisputably doing it right, the following made this year's list, which includes papers that nominated themselves and those that emerged from E&P staff suggestions.

E&P?s 2009 10 That Do It Right

Las Vegas Sun
When the Las Vegas Sun ceased publishing as a separate newspaper in 2005 and became a section tucked inside copies of its joint-operating-agreement partner, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, many industry commentators ? including a tut-tutting E&P editorial ? concluded the Sun was finished as a voice in Sin City.

Instead, it was truly at last finding its voice. The Sun's staff of 48 fills its eight-page, usually ad-free daily section with enterprise reporting and the sort of explanatory and investigative journalism imperiled at bigger papers trying with shrunken newsrooms to do everything they once did. Sun reporter Alexandra Berzon won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service following up on breaking stories of construction deaths the R-J dutifully filed, and forgot.

"I think the future of print journalism is very likely what we're doing now, or some form very near it," says Managing Editor Michael J. Kelley.

Sioux City (Iowa) Journal
Latin American and European newspapers have proven so much more interested in applying the findings of The Readership Institute than U.S. publishers that the research center suspended domestic operations. But in the American heartland, the 40,000-circulation Sioux City (Iowa) Journal proves every day that one "readership driver" identified by the Institute works.

When Editor Mitch Pugh arrived at the Lee Enterprises-owned Journal in 2007, he focused the 32-person newsroom on giving readers "something to talk about" in the paper and online. The Journal already had a couple of very popular local columnists with a knack for finding the engaging, sometimes irreverent, stories that get readers talking. "It just was not part of the everyday DNA of the newsroom," Pugh says. It is now.

In the past 12 months, according to researchers Tom Wilkerson & Associates, Journal readership is up about 5% on weekdays and 6% on Sundays. Total market reach increased 5.3%, and the number of readers accessing its Web site "yesterday" jumped 86%.

Briefing (Dallas, Texas)
There was much to like about The Dallas Morning News' first take on a free daily, the lively commuter paper Quick. But in Briefing, the Morning News seems to have found the product the market really wants and needs.

A single-section paper delivered Wednesdays through Saturdays to 200,000 non-subscriber households in targeted ZIP codes, Briefing is unabashedly "Morning News Lite" for busy families, especially the woman of the house who values the brand but thinks she's too busy to read it all. Says Briefing General Manager Grant Moise, "The busy mom has been our sweet spot."

Approaching its one-year anniversary, Briefing's 90%-plus acceptance rate has been so high it recently quietly shifted from an opt-out model for only affluent North Dallas to allowing anyone to opt in. With virtually no marketing scheduled until later in the year, 600 to 650 new households are signing up every week. The numbers of advertisers are growing, too ? up a net 15% a month, Moise says.

The Post-Star (Glens Falls, N.Y.)
After eight years of the most secretive presidential administration in the modern era, followed by a president who signed open government orders in his first hours on the job, there may be a certain amount of Freedom of Information (FOI) fatigue in the U.S. The Sunshine Week project of the American Society of News Editors has lost its funding and its full-time coordinator, and the cause of transparency seems to be losing its urgency.

But the Post-Star is a bracing reminder that FOI and open records aren't only, or even mostly, about Washington and investigative journalists. In its editorials, blogs and online help centers, the Glens Falls newspaper reminds us constantly that it is ordinary citizens who most need open government to ensure their rights, their property, their government benefits. By selecting Post-Star Editorial Page Editor Mark Mahoney as the winner for editorial, the Pulitzer Prize jurists showed they understood that fundamental truth.

Or as Mahoney puts it: "The government belongs to the people, and there's just no reason for them to keep any secrets ? who the hell are they?" His aim: to give citizens the information "to empower themselves."

East Bay Express (Emeryville, Calif.)
While mainstream newspapers nervously experiment with Twitter, Facebook and anything labeled "social media" in desperate bids to reconnect with their communities, the East Bay Express is literally offering seminars on its success in "localization."

"I think we have cracked the code on community-building," says Publisher Jody Colley ? and she's not bragging. The Express led a national movement among alt-papers last Christmas to encourage readers to stimulate their local economies by pledging to spend at least $100 on locally owned retailers, noting they keep dollars in the community longer than chains. It offered free weddings when same-sex marriage was briefly legal in California, and gathered dozens of bands to perform at a huge listening party. On the paper's busy agenda are organizing urban farms in its Oakland/Berkeley market, ramping up the modest Oakland Film Festival and serving as consultants for local start-up businesses.

Colley contends newspaper community building can work beyond quirky Berkeley: "It's a highly transportable idea."

Star Tribune, Minneapolis
Crowd-sourcing is a digital journalism skill that still eludes most newspapers. But the Star Tribune pulled off something even more ambitious with its "Ballot Challenge" project, centered on the recount of the Minnesota U.S. Senate vote between Republican Norm Coleman and the eventual winner, Democrat Al Franken. Call it crowd-deputizing.

At StarTribune.com, users could inspect all 6,600 ballots disputed by one side or the other. One immediate effect was to highlight the many illegally frivolous challenges ? embarrassing the campaigns into dropping thousands of disputes.

Digital Community Manager Leah Betancourt notes that this wisdom of the online masses, aided by a panel of experts recruited by the paper, led users to come almost eerily close to the margin of victory given Franken by the state Canvassing Board. Strib readers figured a 78-vote lead. The board awarded a 49-vote lead.

St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times
While fellow "10" honoree Star Tribune used the Web to open the ballot-counting process for all to see, the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times showed how technology can super-size the traditional ? and still fundamental ? job of journalists: holding politicians' feet to the fire. PolitiFact was an innovative use of the Web that used both watchdog reporters and digital technology to analyze more than 750 political promises and assertions made by presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain during the elections. It won a Pulitzer for the paper, which also nabbed a second for feature writing.

But the St. Pete Times didn't stop with the election. Its "Obameter" and "Truth-O-Meter" are a continuous reality check on the administration. Now the paper has extended its online lie detector to the punditocracy, examining the claims of the right and left members of the chattering class.

The Daily Independent (Ridgecrest, Calif.)
At too many newspapers, the first casualty of the industry crisis was outreach to a new generation of newspaper readers and journalists. But to see how much newspapers can gain from even a very modest youth effort, just look at The Daily Independent, a 4,400- circulation GateHouse Media paper in the Mojave Desert town of Ridgecrest, Calif.

Staffers such as Sports Editor Cheeto Barrera helps kids at Burroughs High with their school paper, which the daily prints at cost. More important, it offers internships for the high schoolers. Jessica Shillings interned there for a couple of summers ? and now she's the city editor.

"It's nothing formal," says Publisher John Watkins. "Our managing editor, Nathan Ahle, takes the interns under his wing. They cover things, we correct them and help them. It's baptism by fire on a small paper."

New Times (Phoenix)
In some quarters, Village Voice Media (VVM) is the very antithesis of what the alternative press is supposed to be. It's too big, they say, and its cookie-cutter formatted papers are not just insufficiently politically radical; their libertarian bent can seem an awful lot like -- gasp! -- conservatism.

Yet, again and again the old New Times papers get into righteous scrapes with the powers-that-be over First Amendment and other fundamental issues the local dailies overlook. The Phoenix New Times is selected here for its long campaign to shine a light on Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a classic desert despot. A special prosecutor had VVM CEO Jim Larkin and Executive Editor Mike Lacey arrested when New Times reported on a suspicious Arpaio real estate deal. Their ongoing lawsuit will no doubt dredge up more interesting information about the sheriff. Area dailies might want to take note.

CORRECTION: We regret that an earlier version of this referred to Jim Larkin as Jim Larsen.

The Cincinnati Enquirer
On New Year's Eve 2007, the Cincinnati joint operating agreement died a rare natural death as it reached the end of its term. But then the surviving paper, Gannett Co.'s Cincinnati Enquirer, accomplished something even rarer: It not only grew its circulation to match the JOA's combined total ? it kept the subscribers.

With four years to plan for its post-JOA era, the Enquirer targeted key geographic areas, especially across the Ohio River in northern Kentucky where the former Cincinnati Post still had a stronghold. In 2008, overall Enquirer circ was up 2% in a year when other metros were recording double-digit declines. More important, northern Kentucky circ jumped 9.3%. A year later, the newspaper is retaining more than 80% of subscribers, and total circ is back to year 2000 levels.

Editor and Vice President/News Tom Callinan credits the watchdog and public service journalism and the "audience-first mission" of the re-christened Enquirer Media. "We are a connector," he says. "We connect buyers to sellers, we connect people to each other and communities, both demographic and geographic, and we connect them to local information they need to live and thrive."


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