Gannett’s Jennifer Carroll says that newspapers are selling not just news, but information. And that changes everything.
For the newspaper business, the Web has been both an opportunity and a threat. The opportunities are vast: publishing online gives newspapers a chance to reach more readers with more information in more forms than any hardcopy publication. In the United States, the largest national newspapers have gained influence because their stories are now a few mouse clicks away?and do so not just with text, but color images, video, and interactive reader forums. In that sense, the Web is a creative license for newspapers to think outside the text box.
But the pitfalls are potentially lethal. American newspapers were losing readership?especially younger readers who represent the future of the business?to television news, even before the Internet came along. While the Web has transformed newspapers into a part-time electronic media, most publications give that part of the business away for free. (The most notable exception is the Wall Street Journal, which has charged for its online edition since the beginning.) Also threatening newspaper revenues is Craig’s List, a local online classified service that is mostly available free of charge.
One of the most creative responses to the Web’s double-edge sword has been mounted by Gannett, whose combined local newspapers have a total circulation of about 7.
Jennifer Carroll, Gannett’s vice president of new media content, is at the epicenter of all this. She helped conceive of the Information Center and is now working with Gannett’s local papers to turn the concept into a working reality. (She does not work with USAToday, which is separate from Gannett’s Newspaper Division.) Carroll began her career in 1981 as reporter, became editor at the Burlington, Vermont Free Press, then managing editor at the Detroit News, coming to the Newspaper Division in 2000. She was promoted to vice president last year.
- With the announcement of the Information Center concept, Gannett seems to be saying that a newspaper isn’
t just a newspaper any more?that its very identity has changed.
- That’s very true. We have gone way beyond how daily newspapers define themselves. People come to us for so many reasons, and by only trying to reach them with a once-a-day print product, we have missed much pent up demand. Consider, for example, young women: they have been going away from print newspapers in droves. The industry response has been, okay, let’s try to do a special section targeting young women. But that’s ridiculous because they are not reading the print newspaper in the first place.
- I would have thought that this demographic shift was more generational than by gender.
- Both genders are going online, and you are exactly right in that it is also very generational. But men are going away from newspapers for different reasons than women, and therefore, we have to find different reasons to bring them back.
s are those differences?
- This sounds very stereotypical, but a lot of research shows that women want to connect with each other. So they tend to go to social networking sites?sites with blogs and forums that allow them to meet others in their neighborhoods, as well as offer advice and suggestions. Those kinds of sites do extremely well with women, including younger women.
- From what I see, most “connecting” on news sites is done by guys who are commenting on stories. How to you bring in women?
- We are just launching a whole series of destination sites targeted at mothers. One just launched in Indianapolis, called IndyMoms [www.
indymoms. com]. It has extensive forums, photo sharing and galleries, and calendar events targeted at families. It’s a place where mothers can network with each other, identifying mutual concerns, organizing everything from carpools to daycare. This is a perfect example of what we as local newspapers can do?as an extension of what we are already doing. We are designing specific websites that better reflects the lifestyle and needs of our readers.
- What about younger men?
- Among other things, younger men are into video games. I mention that because we just contracted with a university to help us do more research into 18 to 24 year old’s media habits. One of the key headlines was that we in the news industry are overlooking the huge popularity of gaming and everything that goes along with that experience: competing, winning, and even getting prizes. That sort of thing may become important for us to replicate in some way.
- So in trying to reach different demographics, we have expanded into specialty magazines, websites, and mobile phones. The idea is to expand by being a lot smarter about the gender, age and the preferences of whom we are trying to reach. And while “once-a-day” for a publication is still very effective, and still represents a huge amount of our revenue, we are branching way beyond that. We are going beyond the general interest medium of newspapers to much more highly targeted audiences.
- I’ve talked about age and gender. Another big one is community. We are trying to be more intensely local than we ever have before.
- Is that because big national newspapers?USAToday, New York Times and the Wall Street Journal?are now all available online?
- Yes: national news has become a commodity because there are so many ways you can get it. Users are becoming increasingly savvy; they know they can Google any subject and go right to the source. So they are not going to go to our newspaper in Sioux Falls to hear about Iraq. But what Sioux Falls can do, that nobody else can do, is intensely local coverage. When we cover Little League scores, we are truly differentiating ourselves.
- If local news is key, how do you differentiate yourself from local TV stations?
- We are partnering with them more than ever. Typically, print TV newsrooms don’t have a lot of staff; our newsrooms are much larger. So a lot of the partnerships that are going on are mutually beneficial. TV has a different audience, so by interviewing a reporter on our staff about a breaking news story, we reach more people than ever, while still reinforcing the value of print.
- We are also teaching ourselves how to use video and are learning a lot from television stations in terms of immediacy, promotions, and covering weather and traffic conditions. These are things that TV has always done very well that we have shied away from. But because we are now also in the electronic media game, we are getting much better and smarter about it. You can see this in our websites, which are increasingly offering not just text, but video.
- So the core idea behind the Information Center is in getting print reporters to think more broadly about all kinds of media: print, online, and electronic.
- It’s about expanding the way they think of themselves as journalists in every respect?including both where their stories appear and what tools are available to do their work. A lot of people, myself included, got into journalism because we are very passionate about different aspects of the business. Some care deeply about public service, about being a government watchdog, and ensuring a continuing freedom of the press. Others thrive on immediacy and breaking news and being part of the buzz, while still others love being part of the community conversation.
- While all those reasons to be passionate about the business are still there, we have an obligation to use a broader palette of tools to expand our reach, to engage our communities more deeply and with more relevance than ever before. The best example is in the realm of public service and being a government watchdog. I have been in so many industry conferences where veteran journalists worry that these functions are getting lost online. My answer is that they are indeed getting lost because we are increasingly losing readership of everyone under the age of 40.
- The best investigative journalist in the world doesn’
t have any impact if he or she is not read.
- Thank you. That’s exactly what I’m saying.
- Walk me through how a story is actually reported in this new world. Say a fire breaks. Before, a reporter would go out with a notepad and the story would appear in the next day’
s issue. What happens now?
- Take the Fort Myers News-Press in Florida, for example. The paper has created several new kinds of reporting positions they call “mojos,” which is short for “mobile journalists.” As always, they have community beats: they cover city hall or the university. But besides notepads, they now have mobile devices?laptops, cell phones and Treos, and digital cameras?so they are fully equipped to transmit stories and photos both to the website and to the newspaper. They have also been trained extensively on what we call continuous news postings, which are rapid fire updates posted throughout the day. That approach is especially well suited to covering a breaking news story, like a fire.
- So several things have changed here. We now have a cadre of reporters who are very skilled at transmitting stories and photos from anywhere in a community, because they have the equipment and know how to use it. And we have adapted to a culture in which news is breaking all the time. Instead of covering a fire just in tomorrow’s paper with a big spread, it is covered and updated, say, every 15 minutes?with updated photos, extensive photo galleries, and video of people on the scene.
- So now reporters are not thinking just in terms of tomorrow’
s paper, but how do I get the information online, fast?
- They are thinking Web first. But by doing continuous news updates as the event happens, they have very fresh photos and good interviews. So by the time they have their print deadline, they have a more robust and impactful story to tell.
- With this kind of quick-turnover coverage, what about making sure the information is accurate?
- In the past, we felt that a story wouldn’t be credible unless it is vetted by five copy editors?and that mindset has been part of what has held us back. Keep in mind we’re not necessarily talking about long stories here?an update may just be two or three sentences. But a big change also eliminated the role of the traditional copy editor, who traditionally came in after the reporters went home and reviewed all the stories for a late night deadline. Now, we bring in our copy editors all day long?they read the copy as it comes in.
s also been much buzz about “citizen journalists” : readers who help report stories. Will people actually do that, as opposed to just writing their opinions?
- In a sense. Let’s say we do an investigative story. In the past, we would invite people to comment on it. But we also want to give them tools that let them search out more information, such as databases and links to public documents that are relevant to the story. As a reader, I can read those documents, then go back to the forums and discuss what I’m finding. So we’re not necessarily using those comments as part of print story, but we are, I think, engaging people ways that we’ve never done before. And we are seeing a very high level of communication on forums that are related to specific investigative projects.
- As more content gravitates online, are you thinking about design changes to accommodate it?
- Yes, absolutely. In fact, we just contracted with a Web design firm to talk about that. There are so many aspects of website design and navigation that are important to what we do. The traditional approach is called “cramming”
?you take one medium and just put on another. When you look at the home page of the website, it looks a lot like the front page of the newspaper. But cramming doesn’t necessarily work because you’re not thinking about how people use the second medium differently.
- So Web design gets at the heart of many good questions: how people navigate a site, how they personalize it, how they use it. We need to better understand all of this and to keep experimenting with better designs. Overall, we must promote content and information beyond breaking news, such as entertainment, weather, forums. We must consider ways of enhancing reader-generated content and do a much, much better job enhancing search tools and navigation.
- Revenues are key to newspaper survival. Does your work help open up the revenue gates?
- We think that if we expand our reach, revenues will follow. The IndyMoms website is a good example. The site is getting extensive press attention, a lot of women are now participating on the forums, and many more are posting help wanted ads, for example. So for advertisers interested in reaching mothers, we can say: here they are. This is a different kind of venue from a daily press newspaper, which has a broader reach. The site is essentially a niche publication that can help advertisers reach a specific audience.
- When you look at IndyMoms.
com, it isn’ t obviously connected to the Indianapolis Star newspaper.
- That’s true: they are almost two kinds of brands. But not quite. A newspaper does have credibility as a community newspaper?so the brand supports the sub-brand.
- Are there any lessons for Japanese newspaper websites? My editor tells me they are still very much news-focused.
- Absolutely. The lesson is that a newspaper website is about news and much more: it’s about discussion, and entertainment, and having the best online calendar to tell people what they can do in their free times. Newspapers are already the best sources of regional information. Now, they need to put that information online in a form that people find useful.