When talk of a redesign of the Star Tribune began two years ago, the plan was to launch a simple remake of the newspaper. It had been eight years since the last update, and the paper was due. But as work got under way, the ground seemed to shift under the nation’s newspapers. Struggles with circulation and readership came into sharp focus. The advertising base continued to erode. Young readers proved steadily more elusive.
Before long, the remake expanded from a routine redesign to a sweepingproject taking on some of the most difficult questions confronting newspapers: How does the newsroom compete in a competitive, around-the-clock media world? How do we hold onto our best traditions while keeping up with the times? How does the newspaper do a better job of hooking and keeping the impatient modern reader?
As the questions multiplied, so did the scope of the project. We scoured the corners of news, circulation and marketing for research on our readers. We talked to scores of readers in interviews, small groups, and surveys. We launched more than a dozen task forces — to study how the newsroom and online departments should interact, how to write and package information for the hurried reader, how to attract young readers, and more. We set goals, revised them, showed them around, and revised them again. We scrutinized our beats, workflows, deadlines, communications, evaluations, rewards, training and leadership practices.
Changes that went into effect October 12, 2005 included about 100 improvements that fell into three categories.
1. Producing a newspaper that satisfies whether readers have two hours or 20 minutes. We tried to create a paper that enables readers to get a good measure of information on the surface of almost every story — as well as to go as deep as they wish. We created a new repertoire of story forms that are easy to scan and digest — from various Q & A styles to vignettes to content-rich graphics that have come to be called “charticles.”
2. Creating new content to reflect what is most meaningful today. The new paper includes a twice-a-week world section, a weekly entertainment section targeted to young singles, and a Sunday section devoted to style, fashion and living well. A growing swath of readers use the Web to broaden their knowledge, so we are becoming much more systematic about online references and about filing early versions of stories to the Web site. We know readers like to talk about news with friends and family, so we put a premium on “talker” stories with the added emphasis that they be done exceptionally well, with depth and perspective that were not always a part of these kinds of pieces in the past.
3. Reorganizing the newsroom to capture new content. We created a new desk at the center of the newsroom as a kind of news triage operation for both online and print, and we established a host of new beats — from coverage of the Internet and fitness to nightlife, fashion and the seasons. After reorganizations of both local news and features, 80 reporters are in new assignments.
At the heart of this project are a couple of convictions. We know that many changes in the newspaper landscape are beyond our control. We should not expect to turn Sunday back into a leisurely day of endless reading, wrench back the clock on classified competition, or prevent news from flowing out in e-mail, cell phones, and BlackBerries. And yet newspapers have enormous strengths to rely on — and that is where we need to concentrate. Even with our circulation challenges, the paper reaches the largest market of any single competitor. Online sites give newspapers a huge advantage, when they use them well. The experience, knowledge and skills of our staffs give newspapers a vast advantage over the transience of many competitors.
Readers’ reactions since the launch in October have been encouraging. Home subscriptions are up substantially in the first three months, and the stop rate is down substantially as well. One of the most gratifying early indications is in single-copy sales, which are running well above last year since the remake.
The Star Tribune before (left) and after its redesign.
After two years of this project, a number of lessons stand out. Here, in no particular order, are 10 things we discovered.
The more involved every part of the newsroom is, the better the chances of success. By the time this project concluded, a little more than half of the newsroom had been directly involved in one of the task forces, brainstorming sessions, prototypes or section planning. It might go without saying, but those directly involved tended to be more enthusiastic about the changes.
Listen to ideas from everyone, from clerks to the publisher. One of the most striking changes in the paper — a daily list on the front page called “Have you Heard” — came out of a cross-company group of 20-somethings studying how to attract younger readers. A popular daily print feature called “Web Search,” which outlines what’s new online, grew out of a challenge the publisher laid down to cover the Internet as we do television. We offer a front-page forecast for seven different times of day in response to readers telling us they like to anticipate traffic delays during lunch and the drive home. We also borrowed ideas from other newspapers, magazines and the Internet, even though traditional brainstorming led to more good ideas than we could use.
Readership is increasingly fragmented and reading habits are changing — dynamics that the newspaper and Web site must respond to aggressively. In some respects, we’d been putting out a newspaper that primarily served one segment of our readership: heavy readers, who happen to resemble journalists more than other readers do. The more we studied our readers and their needs and interests, the more ways we found of serving a broader array of readers. Ultimately a picture emerged of five discrete reader groups, and we committed ourselves to serving each with specific content and design elements. Research on readership, the market, the current paper, and reader segments should all be part of a project like this. It’s hazardous to rely exclusively on research, of course, because it rarely leads to breakthrough ideas. But it’s foolish to ignore the kind of deep and compelling studies available from such sources as Northwestern University’s Readership Institute, the Poynter Institute, The American Press Institute, Pew Research Center, American Society of Newspaper Editors, and the Newspaper Association of America.
Newspaper remakes should not be carried out by the newsroom alone. The newsroom should lead the redesign, but if it doesn’t work closely with the advertising, circulation, production and marketing departments from the beginning, the project will not be successful. Some of the freshest thinking on this project came from smart staff members not immersed in the way we’ve always done things. Many pieces of the launch were successful because they were managed by staff from other departments.
Work hard to keep the newsroom and overall company up to date on the progress. Early on, it’s good to develop a communications game plan, and the bigger your organization, the more challenging it will be to engage the staff. We showed prototypes at monthly brown-bag sessions, sent out regular redesign bulletins, involved 75 staff members in prototyping, and conducted nine months of training prior to the launch. Still, in the final training sessions, we had people who asked, “We’re starting a world section?” Many folks will wait to tune in until they are directly affected.
Keep explaining to readers what changes are being made and why. Any change is upsetting to many readers; dramatic change will get plenty of reaction. We introduced the redesigned Star Tribune with an eight-page guide, a Web site tour of the changes, and a succession of Weblogs, editors’ columns, and front-page notes to readers. Still, the launch prompted questions and complaints from readers — about 5,000 e-mails, calls and letters the first month. Now that we’re several months into it, the balance of reaction has been good: A deeper readership study will come in April, when we’ll get a methodical look at reader reaction.
Recognize that the arms-length tone we valued in the 1970′s feels aloof today to many readers. In the midcentury move to professionalism, journalists embraced the inverted pyramid and objectivity. During the Watergate years, a detached recounting of the facts seemed important to credibility. Now newspapers compete with a host of other media that feel less cold and conventional. And those Web sites, magazines and cable news outlets are winning people over in a climate of great skepticism toward the media establishment. We’re trying to engage Star Tribune readers in a warmer, more personable way. We have a daily greeting built into our new nameplate. Our obit pages are labeled “Remembering.” We use second-person pronouns in headlines and box text. We try to respond to the readers’ interest as quickly and practically as possible. Old headline: “Identity theft costs consumers billions.” New: “How to protect yourself from identity theft.”
Training is vital, particularly when preparing for a dramatic remake. After months of brainstorming, prototype presentations and other discussions, we began redesign training in earnest nine months before launch. It took 33 three-hour sessions to train the whole staff in reader-focused story planning. We followed up with sessions on alternative story forms, budgeting and summary writing. Two months before launch, many staff said they were just plain tired of talking about the redesign and simply wanted to do it. Still, in the final round of nuts-and-bolts training, there was plenty of anxiety, especially among copyeditors and designers. Expect a certain percentage of folks to be alarmed about learning new ways. Offer extra hands-on help, checklists and, always, reassurances.
There are great advantages to questioning everything and reinventing it. One of the blessings of an ambitious redesign is the chance to stop, look at every element of the paper, and ask if it is still valuable. Assembling a newspaper every day is complex, and in the drive to simplify we may develop habits that serve ourselves above our readers. One of our new goals is to make every journalistic decision with our readers foremost in mind. It will take time before we have fully absorbed this shift in thinking.
Improving the paper and Web site should be a constant obsession, not something we do once each decade. While dramatic changes in typography, new sections, and reorganizations have to be well planned, many other changes that were part of this project should not have waited until a formal redesign. Tastes and habits are changing faster than ever, and new beats, fresh features, good ideas for columns, puzzles and other upgrades need to be constantly under consideration.
The Star Tribune redesign was easier and harder than we might have anticipated. Once we felt as if we had a real grasp of our various readers’ needs, the ideas for how to fulfill those flowed freely. Conceiving a paper that consistently engages and serves is not terribly difficult. The hard part comes in the maintenance. We’ve challenged our routines and our conventions. Now we have to continually remind ourselves why we are working in new ways and refocus our attention on the people we’re working for. For that transformation to be complete, we need a few more years.
Anders Gyllenhaal is editor of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Monica Moses is deputy managing editor and the chief architect of the paper’s redesign.