Re-establishing Relevance For Readers p.16

By: M.L. Stein Panelists examine concepts aimed at stopping erosion of readership sp.

IS READERSHIP ERODING because of TV competition and lack of spare time or are newspapers simply not giving readers what they want?
When that question was posed at a California convention, three editors and a publisher from different parts of the country came out squarely for the latter reason, saying what's missing in newspapers is "relevance." And all four said their dailies are tackling the problem in bold ways.
The scene was the 106th annual convention of the California Newspaper Publishers Association in Beverly Hills and the panel was "Re-establishing Relevance For Our Readers."
Dan Blom, assistant managing editor of the Times, Munster, Ind., said his paper has become more relevant by establishing the "maestro concept," a system in which story planning and execution "focuses on answering readers' questions."
At the heart of the system, he explained, is a planning meeting that brings together everyone involved in the story ? reporters, photographers, editors and designers. Working with a story-planning form, they begin brainstorming as a team on readers' questions, deciding how best they can be answered.
"If we agree that the aim of the system is to meet the needs of readers, then it provides a method for accomplishing that aim," Blom said. "It moves reporting from source-driven stories to reader-focused stories and helps the newspaper connect with readers in content and presentation."
The "maestro" idea, which was developed by Leland "Buck" Ryan, a Northwestern University journalism professor, also is used at the Pharos-Tribune, Logansport, Ind., which, like the Times, is part of the Howard Communications Group. The "maestro" is the editor, who acts as a "referee" in the strategy sessions, Blom said.
The editor said the "maestro concept" allows newsrooms to:
? Integrate words, photos and graphics to tell a story.
? Create newsroom teams that work toward common goals.
? Improve writing styles by freeing reporters to adopt narrative forms and "remove clutter" from copy.
? Plan for graphic reporting and design needs early in the process.
? Use display type to make the paper more valuable to readers who scan for information.
? Answer primary reader questions in the "highest visibility points" on the page: headlines, captions, art, pull quotes and graphics.
? Allow readers to make better decisions about whether the story is relevant to their lives.
Team members, Blom said, act as "surrogate readers, who plan for quality at the beginning of the process rather than trying to edit in or inspect it at the end of the process."
"Maestro" sessions, he noted, usually take only 15 minutes and "save time and frustration later."
A separate "idea group" meets weekly to discuss potential story ideas and put them into "reader-friendly perspective," Blom said.
Under the process, he continued, reporters write headlines for stories before starting their copy, putting the main reader questions there. Subheads and decks also are used to clarify the story's relevance.
Instructions to headline-writing reporters state, "Write tightly; eliminate articles, unnecessary auxiliary verbs; do not write in formal declarative sentence structure. If using a play on words or going for the clever, make sure basic information is in the subordinate devices."
Introspection ? along with heavy reliance on focus groups ? also is practiced at the Boca Raton, Fla., News, editor and vice president Wayne Ezell said.
"We ask questions," he reported. "Why are we putting this in the newspaper? Who is it for? What does it mean to you and me? What can I tell the reader that he or she won't get off TV news?"
Ezell said the Knight-Ridder Inc. paper borrows from the parent company's "25/43 Project" (to win more readers in that age group) and adapts it to the News."
"In striving for major change, we are relentlessly reader-driven," he said. "The change process includes other newspaper departments, involves customers in every aspect and changes the newsroom culture."
As part of the procedure, the newspaper talked to 30 focus groups, including readers, occasional readers, nonreaders, young people and older people, the editor said.
The survey helped the paper discover "what works" in Boca Raton, Ezell said. Among the changes that readers like are no jumps.
"Nothing seems to please readers as much as this and nothing seems so obscene to journalists," he observed. The News also reaffirmed that readers like to read long stories occasionally ? if they are worth their time ? and that consistent organization and anchoring pays off in reader acceptability.
"We invested in an extra newshole to achieve this and confirmed it's incredibly important," Ezell said.
And, like the Indiana project, the News stresses heavy use of heads, decks, labels, subheads, pull quotes and summary boxes "to help the time-starved reader sift and sort and increase scannability," he added.
The News further found that readers seem to have an "insatiable appetite" for calendars, lists, shortcuts and bargains, Ezell said. "We try to save them time in getting through the newspaper and in getting through their day and week. And every day we try to help readers save money."
Reporters, he said, are encouraged to generate stories on "the way we live," and content audits are conducted to check the visibility of women and minorities in the paper, the panelist said.
Speaking of the News' overall efforts to be reader-driven, Ezell commented, "We don't always succeed as we struggle with the constraints we all face, but this has helped us to broaden our focus, to be more proactive in executing our agenda for what we know interests our readers."
Patty Burnett, executive editor and assistant to the publisher of the Santa Monica, Calif., Outlook, which recently underwent a readership survey and analysis by Urban Associates, advised publishers to invest their time and most talented people in any major research project.
"This may sound basic, but over the years, I've seen a lot of smart people work hard not to get involved in research," she said.
Burnett said she could not reveal results of the Urban study but did emphasize that at the Outlook and two other Copley Los Angeles Newspapers surveyed, the publisher, every major department head and several people at the assistant level served on an overall strategic planning task force that spent a 10-hour day with Chris Urban "on the nitty-gritty duty of amending a basic survey questionnaire to fit our needs."
On the Torrance, Calif., Daily Breeze's editorial needs alone, 1,000 staff hours were invested before a final prototype was approved, she said.
"Our editorial strategic task force was charged with using the research data to recommend three or four major thrusts that would increase circulation by a specific amount, which made us sweat," Burnett recalled.
One result of the research Burnett could discuss was a new entertainment and leisure time magazine titled Rave, which she said will replace the papers' "nice and predictable" Friday entertainment magazine. The new magazine, which debuts in April, is more personal than the rest of the paper and "presumes some kind of relationship with the reader," she confided. "Rave is gossipy, nosey, a tad daredevilish, semi-hip and sometimes laid back."
The three presentations might have been d?ja vu for Chris Anderson, executive vice president and associate publisher of the Orange County Register. A key player in the formation of New Directions for News, an industry think tank, Anderson directed sweeping changes at the Register, which, among other things, substituted "topics" for beats.
The Register changes also included writing style and presentation.
"We felt we were not getting as many young readers as we should and there were readers at risk," Anderson said.
"We needed to examine how we were doing things," he explained. "Overall circulation was not in jeopardy but we knew our readers were getting older and older. We wanted to increase circulation by reducing the churn."
Anderson cautioned that the dramatic changes made at the Register may not fit other newspapers. He cited the paper's shopping mall beat as an example. It works well for the Register, he said, but the idea should be researched before it is adopted.


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

Scroll the Latest Job Opportunities From The Media Job Board