Recreating A Saturday Paper p. 9

By: Staaci Kramer ST. LOUIS Post-Dispatch executives say an accurate measure of the paper's decision to trade its thin Saturday broadsheet in for a beefy tabloid will have to wait until the first quarter of 1997.
But it's not too soon to say that the tabloid's Nov. 2 launch ? and the rapid response to reader complaints ? mark the beginning of a new way of doing business and journalism at the Pulitzer Publishing Co. flagship.
The first sign of change was a newspaperwide task force formed by publisher Nicholas G. Penniman IV in 1995 with the goal of improving Saturday circulation. The task force recommended striking change ? shifting from broadsheet to tabloid on Saturday.
The plan got a cold shoulder from some executives, including then-editor William F. Woo, on the first go around, but a shot of new with the arrival of a new general manager, Terrance C.Z. Egger, and a shuffle in newsroom management.
At about 300,000 circulation, the Saturday edition was the lowest seller, and usually the thinnest, paper of the week. It was often overshadowed at newsstands by delivery of early Sunday editions on Saturday morning. It also was hampered by subscription offerings limited to either seven days a week or Sunday only.
The Saturday edition had one other problem: an undeserved reputation as a weak leftover from the days when the Post-Dispatch was an afternoon paper, and the Saturday edition was an afterthought.
Improvements in news coverage had taken the Saturday paper as far as it could go. It was time to rethink the approach.
Another element emerged when research by consultant Chris Urban of Urban & Associates found that Saturday offered the greatest hope for attracting Sunday-only readers to expand their newspaper habits.
Lifestyle editor Ellen Gardner, who headed the Saturday task force, explained: "We studied the Sunday paper and why that circulation is twice any other day of the week. Eighty-nine percent of Sunday-only weren't seven-day because they simply didn't have time. We were never going to turn these people into seven-day readers."
Typical Sunday-only readers are middle-class working women, 25 to 54 years old, with a couple of kids, a job and some education.
Once the targets were identified, the task force examined ways to convert them into weekend subscribers without antagonizing loyal seven-day readers. About the same time, publisher Penniman told Gardner that the Post-Dispatch Magazine and Sunday style section, both doing fine editorially but not pulling their weight in advertising, were on the endangered species list. So the seven-person task force began looking for elements from those sections that might fit into what was being envisioned as a "lifestyle" tabloid insert aimed at working women.
Roughly 1% of regular readers polled in a phone survey said they would hate it if Style and the magazine were dropped from the Sunday paper.
"We thought the risk was pretty low there, and what we stood to gain in people who would buy two-day was far greater," said Gardner.
Gardner, news artist Tom Borgmann and reporter Cynthia Todd took up the project full time, with space in one of the bureaus. Other task force members usually devoted one day a week. Urban continued to consult during development.
Sports fans were the next largest group of potential readers on Saturday, so the task force doubled the size of the Saturday sports section and added more sports features to the weekday nuts and bolts. An unexpected bonus emerged: The women targeted by the "lifestyle" tabloid loved the new sports approach.
Then a new addition to the task force brought unexpected news. The short-lived St. Louis Sun might have led to the conclusion that St. Louis readers rejected the tabloid format. But Dan Cotter, who headed the Post-Dispatch's research then and joined the task force while between projects, knew better. His own research showed that 85% of prospective readers preferred the easier-to-handle tabloid over a broadsheet.
Soon the task force was testing the tabloid format for everything except classifieds, conceived as an advertising broadsheet to include enhanced auto coverage. Prototypes were accepted enthusiastically in mall intercepts and focus groups while the concept met with positive responses during phone surveys.
The tab didn't fare as well with the top brass, though.
A presentation last December "was not met with universal joy," task force chief Gardner said. "A couple of vice presidents didn't like it. Bill Woo didn't like it. [Then-managing editor] Foster Davis was cool. Penniman liked it but felt without the support of other people it became a less attractive proposition. It sort of went into a coma and we thought that was the end of that."
But some patients come out of comas. Within weeks of his arrival as general manager, Terry Egger asked the task force for another presentation.
"The research was so positive he said, 'Let's retest it' and we got the same positive results," said Gardner, who thinks the tabloid might be one of the most researched moves in Post-Dispatch history.
By the time of the launch, various versions of the tabloid had been shown to a dozen focus groups and some 1,100 people, referred to as "mall intercepts."
Egger "managed to get people on board who were reluctant to get on board," Gardner said.
The newsroom atmosphere had changed, too. Woo's departure seemed certain. Foster Davis was already gone and Post-Dispatch veteran Richard K. Weil Jr. was the new managing editor. Egger's enthusiasm and Weil's willingness to experiment pumped new life into the tabloid. By the time Cole Campbell arrived as editor, the project was well on its way to becoming reality.
At launch time, the Saturday paper had three sections: a main tabloid section with a news front, sports back and business and entertainment in between; a tabloid lifestyle section inside; and the broadsheet classified section.
The Post-Dispatch thought its mix of tabloid one day and broadsheet the rest of the week was unique until discovering that the Allentown, Pa., Morning Call has had the same arrangement for nearly 20 years.
Another change was the way the business and editorial sides of the paper worked together, more as a team than as opposing camps.
Egger remembers a crossroads where news might not have been emphasized as much.
"Dick Weil felt very strongly that news was important, and I couldn't agree with him more," Egger said. "Great journalism can be done in a tabloid. There are Newsday, the Rocky Mountain News, the Chicago Sun-Times."
A commitment to emphasizing news and to providing a news hole at least as big as before became part of the tabloid mix.
"The truth of the matter is the story count's higher than it was. There's more national and international news," said Gardner. "There's a perception that there may not be as much because of the lack of jumps."
Egger also committed to a $1 million marketing effort, including billboards, TV and radio, and the hiring of additional pressmen and other production staffers to meet the increased needs of a paper with 40 percent more pages in a different format.
Egger declined to buy news racks designed for tabloids, leaving the Saturday paper displayed in news racks sideways, because it expects most single-copy sales through retail stores.
Launching a new product meant meetings with every carrier and retail sales agent. It meant presentations to advertisers, especially those most likely to benefit by reaching a target group that viewed Saturday as the best day to buy big-ticket items like furniture, major appliances and electronics. A direct hit would mean an increase in readers with Saturday leisure time and more income to spend.
"This was not a small, inexpensive process," said Egger. "That it's well worth it, well, there's every sign."
Executives said advertising and circulation were up on Saturday, although the numbers are murky, thanks to the complexity of distributing five weeks of free Saturday papers to approximately 85,000 Sunday-only subscribers.
Nothing emphasizes the changes at the newspaper more than how it responded to readers after the launch. When more than 2,500 readers called on Saturday, there to answer phones were Egger, Campbell, Weil, Gardner and others involved with developing the Saturday edition. Callers from households with two or more readers were particularly miffed by the fusing of news, sports, business and entertainment into one section. About 200 callers were upset by the absence of mutual fund tables.
Complaints, far outweighing compliments, focused on missing or moved features, the lack of the paper's trademark daily color comics page and qualms about the tabloid format itself. Some viewed the tabloid as a mark of sensationalization or dumbing down.
"We invited reaction on that first paper and we got it right between the eyes," Weil recalled. "As the day went on, it became a tremendously uplifting experience because of the deep affection people feel for the paper."
Gardner added, "The good news is that love us or hate us, people have a very strong relationship with the Post-Dispatch. They're passionate about it."
Gardner and company were somewhat prepared for the complaints. Research led them to expect that about 3% of readers would not like the new Saturday paper. The biggest shock was a flood of complaints about missing sports scores. Concerned about possible production problems from a press run 100,000 copies higher, production and circulation executives decided to produce more copies of the early three-star edition, and fewer of the late five-star edition. The result: massive availability of an edition printed before Friday night sports events ended. No score from the St. Louis Blues. No high school football scores.
The confluence with the tabloid's launch gave some readers the impression that the change in format meant less timely news and sports.
Gardner, who did not know of the production decision until she got to work Saturday morning, spent the first two hours reading sports scores and agate to readers.
"We were horrified," said Weil. "I thought it was a tremendous blunder at the time, but you can understand where they were coming from."
Egger, admitting it could have been handled better, said, "We were adding in excess of 100,000 papers. We erred to the conservative side."
Each person answering the phones wrote details of each call on a separate sheet of paper. The results were tallied to provide hard facts for the post-launch review. Reader reaction also was covered in a news story for the Sunday paper.
By the time senior management and launch participants met Monday morning, three concerns were obvious: the ability of readers to share the paper turned out to be more of an issue in homes than in a focus group or mall setting; the early press run; and the very vocal mutual fund readers.
"The real story internally is how quickly we moved after we got the criticism," insists Weil. "We all came in Monday morning just resolved to make the changes needed. Essentially we did it in two hours." After the review, the group split into smaller groups to deal with each problem. The "sharability" group solved its problem in just one hour by combining business and sports into a separate section, also to include mutual fund prices.
"In the past, it would have taken six months to do something like that," Weil said. "One person said we ought to study a little more before we do anything precipitously and wasn't shouted down but was told, 'We've got to do it now.' In our culture, this was unheard of. We've never been known for moving fast."
"By noon, we had solved the problem," said Gardner. "I had never been in a meeting like that in the 19 years I've been there. The following weekend, the phone calls dropped to 350, many of which were, 'Thank you very much.'"
The new section with mutual funds debuted the second week. Production and delivery problems smoothed out by the third week.
Fine-tuning continues as readers and staff get used to the new way of producing the news. Weil would like to add an Illinois edition. The last bonus papers were delivered in early December. Calls from carriers since then show a conversion of about 55,000 Sunday-only subscriptions to weekend packages, but that number could decrease after the first billing cycle.
Gardner, who experienced firsthand the results of resistance to change, is now enjoying the possibilities.
"I'm real excited about what's going on at the paper right now. I haven't been this excited in a long time. The big change was enough to let everybody stand back and say let's look at the rest of the paper, let's be creative with the broadsheet as well."
According to Weil, the lesson learned is "that you can change. Our paper had been tradition bound. So far, it looks like this tab is successful. But even if it wasn't successful, the fact that we could do it is very important for the Post-Dispatch and for our readers. It shows we can do things, shows we can move, we can be nimble."
?( Kramer is a freelance writer based in St. Louis) [Caption]
?(The new St. Louis Post-Dispatch Saturday tabloid) [Photo & Caption]


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