How to fix newspapers: Prelude

(Also see Parts I, II, III, and IV.)

In the discussions about what has happened to the newspaper business, several usual suspects always seem to pop up. (No, not Fenster.) Readers don’t have enough time. There’s too much competition from other media. Young people don’t care about the news or don’t read newspapers. People only care about Britney Spears nowadays.

All of those may be true to some degree. But something always seems to be missing from the discussion: the role of newspapers and the news within. In other words, maybe we need to stop blaming readers for ignoring newspapers and start thinking about our responsibility: what it is we put in papers that doesn’t attract or actually repels readers. Or, as Howard Owens puts it in the title of this conversation-starting blog post, “Maybe it’s journalism itself that is the problem.”

Owens writes:

The issue is, the current way important news is gathered, reported and written isn’t working. It hasn’t been working for several decades. It’s only now becoming a crisis, thanks to the likes of Craig Newmark, Realtor.com, AutoTrader.com and Monster.com. …

Discovering a journalism that does what journalism should do — match the needs of society rather than dictate to society what people should want from journalism — will be real hard work, and it will challenge assumptions and afflict comfortable mind sets.

Over the course of the next few posts, I’d like to offer up some of the ideas I’ve developed over the past couple of years while working for a forward-thinking publication. Because Owens is right on both counts: the news isn’t working, and it’s going to be hard figuring out first how to fix it and then how to change the mindset of an entire industry.

Some background: For the past two years I have been a news editor at tbt*-Tampa Bay Times, a free daily tabloid published by the St. Petersburg Times that’s aimed at “younger” readers. tbt* began in fall 2004 as a free weekly tabloid, mostly covering local entertainment, lifestyle stories, and other weekend guide-type material. Like other free tabs, the stories were shorter than a broadsheet’s, the headlines were edgier, and there was a heavy use of “alt-form” design.

A daily version launched in March 2006, applying much of the tone and look of the weekly section to the full range of news covered by a daily. (tbt* has no Web site to speak of, but you can view an “e-edition” of the paper here.) There’s one gossip page per day; some lifestyle columns about pets, relationships, and the like; a couple non-gossip entertainment pages (for stories like this one); four to six sports pages; and the rest is news: five to eight local pages, three to five national/world pages, a consumer page or two, and several pages for the “News Talk” pages, which essentially function as a combination opinion page and print aggregator of good stuff from the Web. There’s also a 1.5- to 2-page color photo spread with often-witty headlines and cutlines that covers news photos, wacky photos, and just plain beautiful photos that you don’t normally see in a newspaper; this is the paper’s most popular feature.

The paper doesn’t just take the same old stories and cut them down to 5 inches. tbt* has turned out to be a unique experiment in rethinking traditional approaches to news judgment, story selection, and the very notion of the newspaper reader, in an attempt to be smart and engaging as well as a quick read. The approach has worked: the five-day-a-week tbt* has gone from a total weekly circulation of 150,000 to north of 350,000 in less than two years — this in a two-city metro market with two longtime daily papers and no mass transit system. The price tag is undoubtedly a big factor, but I think there’s more to it than that.

The following posts reflect some of the lessons I’ve learned at tbt*, and may provide a partial answer to Howard Owens’ challenge. (Disclaimer: All these posts are my views alone and are in no way endorsed by, spit on by, or otherwise related to anyone else at tbt* or the St. Petersburg Times.)

(UPDATE: I changed the title of the post from “How to fix journalism,” both to be slightly less presumptuous and also because Owens’ focus really seems to be on newspapers. Or at least I want to focus on the newspaper aspect of his challenge.)

Advertisements