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Oct. 28, 2011, noon

Moms, coupons and search: What happened in the Newspaper Next demonstration projects

As part of the 2006 report on transforming newspapers, seven media outlets took part in a program to test Newspaper Next’s methods. Only a few of the projects live on today.

Editor’s note: Yesterday, we took a look back at Newspaper Next, the American Press Institute project in 2006 to build a “blueprint for transformation” in the newspaper business. Key to that blueprint were the seven demonstration projects at American news companies to test out Newspaper Next’s ideas. Here’s a check on those seven today, five years later.

If Newspaper Next was a late-night infomercial it would have gone like this — Step 1: snappy pitch to the crowd (the report); Step 2: show ’em how it’s done. But instead of a member of the studio audience cutting a pipe with a kitchen knife, Newspaper Next had the “Disruptive Innovation Advisory Program,” which consisted of seven newspapers acting as test sites for how the report’s methods worked in reality.

They were stuck with a question that seemed like a sphinxian riddle: How does a newspaper become more than a newspaper? How do you get local papers of all sizes to start producing something (hopefully something profitable) other than what they’ve been doing for a century or more? The seven test sites were at The Boston Globe, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Dallas Morning News, The Oregonian, The Desert Sun, GateHouse Media, and The North Jersey Media Group. Each outlet put together a team of editors, reporters, and advertising staff to work in concert with the American Press Institute and the consulting firm Innosight on developing their own unique plan of attack.

(For a full detailing of the state of the seven projects at Newspaper Next’s launch, see pages 65 through 81 of the N2 report.)

The projects were a critical component to Newspaper Next, both to give the report the added weight of field testing and to show journalists it was possible to cut though old thinking and the relentless machinery of producing a daily newspaper. They called them “demonstration projects,” which seems prescient today: Only a few of the projects survived to the present day, and most were either trial balloons or lived only a short life after the release of Newspaper Next. These models may not serve as a legacy of Newspaper Next, but those involved at the individual newspapers say N2 lived on in the next generation of products that followed and the subtle changes to the inner workings of their papers.

In trying to find ways to expand their business, if not fend off competition, the demonstration projects tended to fall into three general areas: Advertising services that could produce leads for businesses; niche publications to reach new audiences; and, trickiest of all, restructuring departments and staff to kickstart innovation.

Finding a new audience

“What Newspaper Next did was it returned the intimacy of the customer conversation, but also widened that conversation”

Since Newspaper Next was based on the principles of disruptive innovation, a big component of the report was trying to find ways to reach audiences, either readers or advertisers, that competitors might want to steal away. The Globe, the Times-Dispatch, and The Desert Sun each wanted to increase their revenue from smaller local businesses — more specifically, businesses that weren’t advertising in their paper. The Desert Sun made plans for FoodPsycho.com, a restaurant coupon site that, for all appearances, did not seem to launch. (Or if it did, died quickly thereafter without leaving much of a trace; former Desert Sun officials who worked on the project did not respond to my efforts to contact them.) While the Times-Dispatch decided on conducting market research to find out what local businesses wanted, The Globe planned to offer services like search-engine marketing to small businesses.

“At the time, the two biggest opportunities for newspapers were to capture non-readers and non-advertisers,” said Tom Silvestri, publisher of the Times-Dispatch and head of the Richmond Media Group. “Because of the nature of our business, we’re the number one source of news and information advertising.” Today the Times-Dispatch has a three-person team that oversees innovation and the cultivation of new ideas from staff. They’ve been responsible for launching new products like Work It Richmond, a business guide, and a publisher’s lunch, a regular meeting of local business leaders held at the newspaper. Those all spawned from the original five-person team Silvestri created to carry out their plan for Newspaper Next. “What Newspaper Next did was it returned the intimacy of the customer conversation, but also widened that conversation,” he said.

“In the bigger scheme it took the industry as a whole a long time to come to the realization that people who watch the daily movements of the stocks don’t need a daily newspaper to do it”

The Globe’s approach was more focused on scale, namely the perception the Globe offered no reasonable outlets for small businesses to advertise. The search strategy was designed to go after those dollars by providing advertising, but also entry into a burgeoning online medium for marketing. “We wanted to see if we could sell or resell products, leveraging our sales staff, that weren’t part of our media portfolio,” said Lisa DeSisto, the chief advertising officer for the Globe. In 2006, DeSisto, then vice president of advertising sales, was part of the team at the Globe developing a new digital advertising service called “Guaranteed Clicks.” Under the plan, Globe staff would work with a third party to place the advertisements on Yahoo or Google and broker search marketing deals to generate a set number of clickthroughs for a business. The idea didn’t take off. “We learned a lot through that experience,” she said. “But it’s not a product that we continue to sell.”

A second shot at moms, coupons, and the web

While most of the demonstration projects were conceived within the Newspaper Next project, GateHouse and the North Jersey Media Group were the exceptions. NorthJersey.com already existed as a site; its N2 project was a relaunch “to engage a broader audience, including nonconsumers of news.” In 2006, GateHouse had already acquired Enterprise NewsMedia, owner of Wicked Local, which had one site in Plymouth, Mass. The goal of their Newspaper Next project was the expansion of the Wicked Local model.

“What was new in the Wicked Local model, and what we’re doing in a lot of hyperlocal web things, is taking something that was traditionally local news that was packaged on dead trees once a week and working much more in real-time,” said Anne Eisenmenger, then VP for business development at GateHouse and now publisher of Wareham Week, a local news site part of the Village Soup network.

As part of Newspaper Next, GateHouse wanted to explore what worked best about the Plymouth site and what opportunities the web afforded the community news model. What they found was readers wanted a site that was almost a hybrid of the paper, municipal notices and the town square, Eisenmenger said. It was more than news about local businesses and the board of selectmen, but features like maps of parks, bulletin boards and photo galleries than anyone could contribute to, she said.

The model, and likely the investment from GateHouse, worked. Though GateHouse, like most newspaper companies, is still experiencing revenue declines, Wicked Local continued to grow outside of Plymouth and now has more than 100 sites across Massachusetts that incorporates news from weekly papers. . Wicked Local sites follow a hyperlocal template by now familiar: turn-of-the-screw developments on building and planning issues, updates on police reports, and a healthy dose of kids and schools. That sounds like common sense, but the reality, at least in 2006, was that newspapers had trouble reconciling an abundance of information both with what readers want and what news outlets should reasonably deliver. “In the bigger scheme, it took the industry as a whole a long time to come to the realization that people who watch the daily movements of the stocks don’t need a daily newspaper to do it,” Eisenmenger said.

Similar to Wicked Local, the North Jersey Media Group wanted to get a better grasp on what type of information readers want and the best way to present it. As part of their demonstration project, they planned to redesign and relaunch NorthJersey.com, their flagship general news and entertainment site.

Stephen Borg, president of the North Jersey Media Group, said the new site launch went off as scheduled and they’ve tried to keep it fresh with new iterations ever since. NorthJersey.com became what many newspaper sites at the time were striving for, a kind of general-purpose super portal for news and entertainment, situating important headlines alongside listings and local information. “When we redesigned, we optimized the design for what people use on the site and minimized the design for what people don’t use on the site,” he said. To follow the parlance of Newspaper Next, North Jersey was charging at the “jobs to be done” concept. That certainly applies to the idea of launching new websites or niche products, but also, as Borg sees it, an ethos for making decisions. If your data shows that people are interested in finding obituary information online, make that easier to get, he said. That principle should also apply to coverage, Borg said: Newspapers need to know what they are best at and what their audience expects.

“At a time when the notion that the newspaper could be everything to all people has understandably faded away, the ability to say ‘This is what we should be doing’ is a valuable process.”

Chasing niche audiences was one of the biggest ideas to come out of Newspaper Next as many newspapers began experimenting in areas like cars, pets, and parents. Both The Dallas Morning News and The Oregonian developed plans for parents products. At the Morning News the idea was named “MasterMom,” which would become a hub of news, blogs, and discussions for moms. In an email, Dallas Morning News Publisher James Moroney declined to discuss specifics but said they never launched that particular project.

The Oregonian planned specialty publications for busy moms and the city’s emerging young creative class. “We started several new projects but not those specifically,” Oregonian editor Peter Bhatia said.

Which is not to say The Oregonian neglected the niche strategy: They’ve been busy targeting both online and print. There’s Mix, a specialty magazine designed for the dining and cocktail scene, Explore the Pearl, a bimonthly lifestyle guide to the city’s Pearl District, and Omamas (“O mamas”), a parenting blog written by moms on the paper’s staff (giving life to a mom’s project after all). Bhatia said identifying, launching, and evaluating new products is just a way of life now for the newspaper. “You know how hard it is to kill a story once it’s under way? The reporter is invested, the photographer is invested, the editor is invested, and so on. It’s hard to say, ‘It’s not there,'” Bhatia said. “It’s the same, to a degree, for products. You have to give it a chance to succeed — but if it’s failing, it’s failing.”

The most difficult transformation

It’s hard not to look at the demonstration projects in total and ask, were these just meant as proposals, or something more? Were they supposed to take on life and begin drawing dollars? Newspaper Next undoubtedly needed the demonstrations as a proof of concept, but were they just paper cranes? Of the seven projects, the ones that saw the light of day, Wicked Local, NorthJersey.com and The Times-Dispatch’s research team, all essentially had their parts in place or were already in motion when Newspaper Next came along. For the others the obstacles were typical on the resources end.

For The Globe, the problem was having a print ad sales staff not ready to sell for online, DeSisto said. “If we had done it again, we would have started with the basics of selling digital advertising instead of making the leap to SEM [search engine marketing],” she said. “I think we underestimated the complexity of the sale.” Though Guaranteed Clicks died, it has a descendent of sorts in Boston Deals, the daily deals service Boston.com launched in May. In order to avoid the knowledge gap problem from Guaranteed Clicks, daily deal packages are sold through a team approach, an existing sales rep to secure the business and a specialist in search metrics to close the sale, DeSisto said.

At The Oregonian, it was a shift in priorities that led the N2 projects to falter. “There were other things we saw that had greater potential in the marketplace that were more pressing ‘jobs to be done’ in that sense,” he said. But even in times of diminished staff, the paper has to try to find new audiences — readers, advertisers, or otherwise. Getting your paper to conceptualize, launch, and drop new products is a transformation, but it’s only possible if your staff is on board, Bhatia said. “I think what the ‘jobs to be done’ concept did for us, and in particular for me, is it helped us focus on what our priorities needed to be,” Bhatia said. “At a time when the notion that the newspaper could be everything to all people has understandably faded away, the ability to say ‘This is what we should be doing’ is a valuable process.”

Perhaps culture change was the biggest, and most difficult, trick for Newspaper Next to pull off, because it ultimately had the power to sink or propel new products. “I felt that traditional newspapers were in the best position to capitalize in the online world,” said Eisenmenger. “The trouble is most couldn’t get out of their own way. That’s why I think there was a Newspaper Next.”

The inside of newspapers look dramatically different today than five years ago, due as much to exterior forces (the economy, technology, media consumption habits, take your pick) as interior ones. Many executives and editors would at least partially credit Newspaper Next for changing the way people inside newspapers think about the business of news, as well as the role of the local paper in its local business ecosystem. But many of the people who worked on the demonstration projects are no longer in the same spots as 2006 — some elevated to new roles, some moved on to new companies, others out of a job. While the message and the lingo of Newspaper Next spread throughout the industry, its impact is still a mixed picture. Silvestri said that’s because it’s hard to see — and more difficult to measure — incremental, internal, change. “What happens is there’s no parade or Outlook invitation,” he said. “You don’t even get a cake with candles. But something happens.”

Photos from perpetualplum, a bill and Zach Hoeken used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 28, 2011, noon
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