Innovation in U.S. papers: Where is it? How to define it?

>> How do we define innovation in newspapers? It’s tricky. Let’s start by giving credit to those trying bold new ways to connect with audiences. Here’s a look inside some very different print publications: a Seattle alt-weekly, the San Francisco literary publisher McSweeney’s, and the Chicago Tribune.

One of the fun things about being a friend of, and sometimes collaborator with, Mario Garcia is that on occasion we get into an energetic email dialogue (he’s usually in Mumbai or Oman or somewhere exotic out in the world) on a hot news design topic of the day. This week we’ve been firing off emails like crazy on the topic of innovation in newspapers.

It began like this. Mario shepherded a dramatic reinvention last week of el Tiempo in Bogota, the fourth time he has redesigned that title. (You can read all about the project on his blog.) Bold, color-coded headers, for sure it’s been done before, but more notable is a major re-theming of sections (and reduction from six to three), along these unusual topic lines: what you must know, what you must read, and what you must do. (Forget city, state, nation, world, food, etc., walled off in ghettos. These traditional topics all go into new baskets.) Big changes in newsroom processes had to take place; major marketing efforts were implemented to bally-hoo the changes.

Response from his blog followers around the world was swift, commenting on the dramatic changes, but quickly turning into a debate over: Why don’t U.S. newspapers innovate like this? It’s a complicated question and our email exchanges quickly took us off on many tangents. Cultural, financial, historical, political. It’s easy to make excuses for the embattled U.S. newspaper market:

  • Major U.S. papers just don’t have the executive willingness to take risks.
  • They don’t have the staffs anymore to implement major change.
  • They don’t want to further upset or alienate an older readership (in just about every market) that’s been ticked off by reductions in a newspaper’s dimensions or number of pages, or the diminishing (in some cases dramatic) of reporting staffs and depth of content.
  • Advertising directors here would scream about giving up three section front (and back) premium ad positions, if they had them.
  • Hardly anyone does any marketing anymore, so forget the massive fireworks alerting readers to the revolutionary changes.

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But I cautioned we shouldn’t be so quick to conclude that no one is innovating in the States. The word means different things in different markets. Mario has previously questioned the reluctance of mainstream U.S. dailies to innovate in their own pages, opting instead for spinning off their crazier new ideas in free daily products like Red Eye (from Chicago Tribune) and tbt* (from St. Pete Times). Those two mainstream papers would surely count their startups as innovations, even if they aren’t ideas executed in the Mother Ship. These spin-off products make money, have shaken up their ad markets, and resonate with audiences (if not old-school journos who decry the new tabs’ visual flair and short, punchy, pop culture stories).

I suggested that Mario issue a call for smaller innovative ideas that are happening in the U.S. (He does so here.) While no one seems to be making a splash like el Tiempo, good things must be happening on a smaller scale that could add up to some big inspiration. If you have a case study to bring to his attention, go ahead and post a comment on his blog, or email me at ron (at) ronreason (dot) com. We want to use the el Tiempo moment to help us think of ways to generate excitement here in the States, however we can. Sharing good practices is something we’ve done for decades at Poynter (and which SND-Denver did last month with surprising aplomb), and if the industry ever needs it, now’s the time.

But the exchange got me thinking. Who are the innovators on my radar? People ask me all the time: Which papers sort of wake you up? Who should we be looking to in the States for inspiration on trying things differently, taking chances? Here are a few:

THE STRANGER (Seattle): I’ve written here previously about The Stranger, the alternative weekly in Seattle, which delivers a lot of journalistic bite and pop-culture attitude, yes, on a tight budget. Edgy writing and visuals on the editorial side, unconventional approaches to marketing and advertising. Theirs may be more a model for alt weeklies than dailies, but you read my 7 Things to Love About The Stranger and decide for yourself. Out of 50 or more alternative weeklies I reviewed during my July appearance at the AAN convention in Toronto, The Stranger by far was the most surprising and noteworthy in its approaches to editorial, marketing and advertising. It really seems to know its audience. Great online site too, that lots of my friends (NOT journos) visit frequently, whether in Seattle or not. (Stranger Editorial Director, sex columnist and former editor Dan Savage is making a big national splash this week in his activist-journalist role with his fantastic and incredibly moving It Gets Better campaign, countering the trend of gay youth suicides prompted by bullying.) Dan’s “let’s make waves” passion obviously trickles down to all aspects of The Stranger.

PANORAMA. Panorama is a fascinating project, from almost a year ago now, that has received surprisingly little intelligent debate in mainstream newspaper circles, or J-schools. (See my recent post about what the industry, and academia, might still learn from Panorama.) I ask college classrooms I visit: have you heard of this, do your professors discuss this? Silence. This one-off publication was released by McSweeney’s, and envisioned as a massive love letter to the Sunday newspapers of a bygone era. The content is fantastic – compelling writing, dramatic graphics, illustrations, photos and comics. Innovative, daring, to produce such a beast? Yes. The only problem: the business model. The experiment wasn’t set up to prove anything about the viability of excellent content as an advertising draw; the single copy sales price ($16 off the shelf, or $10 or so from Amazon) and the production price (roughly $6 per copy) isn’t exactly practical. But as something to inspire traditional newsrooms? And to discuss in college classrooms? Absolutely something to look at. Learn more about the project from the McSweeney’s folks here. Order from Amazon here.

CHICAGO TRIBUNE. A lot’s happening with the Chicago Tribune, which may be overshadowed these days by tales of wild parties in the Colonel’s old office. (I’ve not worked for or consulted with the paper; I’m writing here only as a reader, which I hope gives the following comments some weight). Aside from introducing the daily free Red Eye several years back (love it or hate it, it’s an innovation) and last year, converting its daily street edition to tabloid format, the Mother Ship is making waves. I only subscribe four days a week (and miss the odd week or two each month when I travel), yet I’ve been struck by these changes in the Tribune over the last year or so:

  1. Watchdog (investigative) Reporting. The Trib seems to publish a major exposé several times a week, not just on Sunday which was more or less the old industry tradition. To this reader, it’s really noticeable. (Do I always care about pension fund fraud in the suburbs? No, but someone does, and it tells me the paper’s keeping an eye on such things.) Impactful presentation on the front page, often going into 1-2 page spreads inside, on random days of the week. Every few months, they publish effective house ads (including on high-impact spadeas) that remind readers of the paper’s recommitment to its watchdog role and how important that is in society, and even update readers of where a particular watchdog story stands. (Updates! Great idea, often desired by U.S. papers, rarely executed.) Innovative? I’d say so. Is anyone else digging up dirt this often, and marketing it like this, in the States?
  2. Water-cooler Content. The paper’s Page 2-3 spread each day is a chatty, “water cooler” sort of destination.  Often a long serious column by John Kass anchored on Page 2 (old school), adjacent to lots of smaller stories and visuals that focus on “what are people talking about today” (new school) versus: “what are editors talking about today” (the Old Tribune Model – sorry, may it RIP). The staff takes chances on these pages, in content and visuals, trying to be fun and snarky, and yes, they sometimes fall flat. But at least they’re trying something new.  A recent addition to this spread: They have partnered with Second City to write a frequent comedy piece playing off the news; it’s often presented as a chart or some other special presentation (a la Entertainment Weekly). While the effort is something to take note of, I predict that citing this spread as innovation will elicit the most critical comments to this blog post.
  3. Community Outreach/ Presence in the Arts. I’ve noticed lots of announcements for “meet the editors” type events, panel discussions on the role of the media and critics in society, etc. (While I personally don’t feel the urge to barbecue with John Kass, someone must – the event quickly sold out.) The paper also just announced another partnership with Second City where they will create a weekly live comedy show on stage, based on the news of the day . Will it fall flat? Who knows? The angry old guard in town will cry: “there they go again, trivializing the news!” Gimme a break – having some fun is good enough for NPR (with its similar and wildly popular “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” radio program) but not for a daily newspaper? Again, at least they are trying something different, and the effort stands to amplify the Tribune brand. Second City is a huge Chicago presence, theater is and always has been super hot here, and the Trib is smart to try to hitch its wagon to these stars.
  4. Organizational Change. The company’s reallocation of editing and design resources, partly to allow content sharing with their sister papers, might be called innovation by some. (And certainly less kind names by others.) Design chief Jonathan Berlin spoke at SND-Denver two weeks ago about the ups and downs of design consolidation, both at Trib Tower and at the regional properties. Noteworthy was his claim that reallocation of production staff has allowed for greater resources to be put into the investigative reporting that I cite above. Have the changes been perfect? Surely not, Jonathan reported. Necessary? Most likely. Painful? Yes. (To those who’ve lost jobs, my sympathies. Downsizing has been a painful reality for many papers in dire financial straits, especially the bankrupt chains; best to accept it’s gotta happen, and reposition remaining resources to try to do better publishing, however you define that.) Experimental, daring? Most certainly. I’m keenly interested in this topic as I’ve been helping Media General shepherd similar changes at both its metro and community newspapers. (The first wave of change there comes next week, with some new design elements debuting Tuesday in The Tampa Tribune, and in December, similar designs, and more dramatic organizational change, rolling out in Richmond, VA and Winston-Salem, NC. Watch this space for details as they unfold.)

I suspect people at the Chicago Tribune would call all of this stuff innovation, even if it wasn’t all unveiled in one big dramatic relaunch a la el Tiempo. Trib’s section flags (Sports, Business, etc) are rather routine, and the sectioning of the paper is sorta old school. Is any of these changes a guarantee of reversing readership declines? Obviously not. Does that negate the need to try new things? You decide. But to a reader, one measure of a paper’s health is its heft: while many broadsheets around the country are down to an anemic 2 sections daily, the Trib seems to be publishing 5-, 6- or 7-section papers on a weekday, it still has a features section, it still has a food section – a hefty presence that feels more or less like it did pre-recession. Display ads seem to be in generous supply, even if the classifieds franchise has bit the dust. So, something’s gotta be going right. Right?

These comments about the Trib are completely unsolicited. I’m not on their payroll, nor do I need to be. It just happens to be the daily paper that I read most. (For what it’s worth, this piece was written before, but edited and posted after, this week’s widely read New York Times article on Tribune management.) I haven’t interviewed friends, professional acquaintances, or anyone else there, but would love to hear comments from inside the Tower on how they view innovation in what they deliver to readers, perhaps for a later blog post. In particular, it might help to learn whether the items above – things that I’ve picked up on only as a reader – are resonating with other readers, or with advertisers. How about it, Trib folk? Anything I’ve missed? And anyone from other papers – who’s innovating in the States, where and how? As always, comments are welcome, online or offline, on the record or off, at ron (at) ronreason (dot) com.

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5 Comments

  1. Thank you for an enlightening article. I will definitely be looking for more of your writing. I am currently redesign a newspaper and want to take it as far as possible while keeping it within the realm of upstanding newspaper and not magazine wannabe.
    Thanks again,
    Jeannette

  2. Megan

     /  October 7, 2010

    I’m glad someone is finally taking notice of the Trib’s innovative spirit. While some newspapers (yes, NYT, I’m talking to you) choose to focus on rumors about the Trib’s internal struggles and financial tomfoolery, this piece focuses on what should be important to readers: That we’re taking something hum-drum and making it fit the needs of everyone, in whatever ways possible. Keep an eye open for more innovation – and might I suggest following ColonelTribune on Twitter? He’s witty and wise, wears a paper-hat disguise, and knows all that’s going on in the Tower and beyond.

  3. (Full disclosure: I am an editorial staff artist at the Chicago Tribune)

    After witnessing more than two decades of countless changes and redesigns, after the most painful two years in the Chicago Tribune newsroom, I have to say that this present iteration rocks! Nimble thinking, ernest attempts to seek out what works best and a passion for excellence rule each day. Do we succeed every day? Probably not. Do we lose sleep when we don’t? No … we simply wade back in to the challenge and try again. I have not felt this empowered to do the best work I can, as well as being allowed to, for quite some time.

    What’s great is that this feels like permanent cultural DNA change for the better. My only regret is that some of my former coworkers are no longer sitting nearby to enjoy this excitement.

  4. Darin

     /  October 9, 2010

    I have to agree on many fronts, the innovation is noticed in my daily read of the Tribune and I have enjoyed it. I do wish the tabloid version was available for home delivery, it certainly makes reading on METRA a bit easier. I do however, feel the Saturday edition of the Trib is ready for change. The content is so limited and scaled back that it’s truly about a 5-10 minute browse, very disappointing, especially if big stories occur on Friday. Thank God the WSJ just introduced an even more comprehensive Saturday edition.

  5. Renee

     /  October 11, 2010

    I agree with the last post, the Saturday changes are disappointing. I am glad to see a current Trib Editorial Staff Artist made a comment as an employee, because the NYT article deeply disturbed me. My husband and I commuted together on the train and shared the paper, I reading the main section first, him sports, business, then we’d swap. There was always enough content for us on the commute, until the changes in the paper. I no longer commute on the train, so I only get to read Sat and Sun. Most of my trib reading is on my phone now–even though I really enjoy having a paper in my hands to leaf through. Two things, I think you do have to try new things–even if you risk alienating your readers. But if it doesn’t work–change it. I totally agree with Ron on the investigative reporting–and I really like it, especially the follow ups. When I worked in the city, I loved the RedEye, even if I only had time to do Soduku ;). I can give the Trib some credit in making me more of a political activist than I ever have before. I am now canvassing for the Congressional race in my district, which will be a very tight race and I am asking more questions and doing more homework before I vote than I ever have. I hated the size changes, but I got used to it. I didn’t cancel my subscription over it. I do see the paper has much less content, which is disappointing. I think more innovation is necessary, because alot of people like me are reading it from their smart phones–what do they do for advertising? I think many people make the mistake in thinking that their subscription drives revenue. It’s advertising, how can you advertise on a smart phone, for web to mobile apps? Obviously there is advertising in the web version, is it as lucrative as the paper version? I am still a loyal Trib reader, as I do check it daily. My husband is considering just getting it on the weekends, because he can read it all on his phone now. I feel a lot of people that are subscribers are in the same boat. My $.02 anyway.

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