Wednesday, September 10, 2008

PNJ Design Changes

Jim Hopkins' Gannett Blog, which follows the fortunes and travails of one of the smaller but equally oppressive media giants stalking the planet, has an article taking note of the new front page design the Pensacola News Journal is using for its "single copy" kiosk machines. As in days of old, the front page you see on the street is substantially different from the home subscriber edition.

Hopkins explains:
In today's design debut, the top half of the front page -- which is what would-be readers see in a newspaper vending-machine's "window" -- looks more like a features front. Three "stories" there are really summaries of articles on inside pages.
In other words, it looks a lot like the on-line mess the PNJ recently adopted -- busy, busy, busy, but clumsy to use. The thinking is that with this design, attention-deficient young people will be more likely to buy the paper on the street.

One hopes so. Something surely is needed if the traditional press is to survive.

However, we remain skeptical that mere design changes can do much to hike News Journal readership. Most of the young people we know not only do not read newspapers, they don't even think about reading newspapers. It just isn't on their mental radar. It's doubtful they even look at a newspaper kiosk after they stumble over one. The dead tree press is as alien to most young people as short wave radio, rabbit ears, and vinyl records. (We actually overheard a 20-something asking the other day, "What's an LP?")

We happened to be up early enough the other morning to see our newspaper delivery "boy" (he looks like he's about three hundred years old) driving down the street. Out of perhaps 20 front doors, he delivered a newspaper to exactly two homes. Even if he missed a couple of subscribers (a 50% success rate is good for this guy) that's fairly shocking.

Now, we don't pretend to any special knowledge about journalism or how to commercially promote it. But it seems to us that daily newspaper reading is a consuetude learned at an early age in the home, in school, and at work. Once learned, it becomes a habit for life.

Therefore, parents, teachers, coaches, and other mentors of the young are key. To be successful, apart from superficial design changes, newspapers need to embark on a more comprehensive, long-range strategy to inculcate daily newspaper reading in the young, once again, by working with (and through) their role models.

Partner with the schools (and pre-schools), teachers, and librarians, as Apple Computers did, even if it means distributing free papers in the classroom or on the library shelves. Integrate daily newspaper reading in the "reading is fundamental" program that has the attention of so many young parents these days. Newspapers are written at a fourth or fifth grade reading level, right? So, go get 'em!

The public perception that reading newspapers is a passive activity for the reader needs to be changed, too. In this, newspaper journalism has been its own worst enemy. Except for a few cranks and nursing home residents who regularly scratch out letters to the editor or post semi-insane comments on-line, the pages of newspapers today are written by self-proclaimed "professional journalists." Most of them, don'cha know, have an academic degree with a major in journalism to prove it.

What nonsense. The multi-decades long effort to 'professionalize' what used to be known as the journalism trade has a lot to do with the current crisis newspapers face. If the daily newspaper is to survive, it needs to abjure the conceit that only professional journalists can write it.

Enlist coaches and their young players in reporting sports news. Canvass schools for student clubs -- from Chess to Home Ec and Drama Club to the Zoology geeks -- to find ways of integrating their members in the production of news. Not just their own news, but the news the rest of the population wants to know, too.

If it were up to us, we'd encourage young people not only to write for the newspaper, but to talk about it, too, in Twitter and cell phone text messages, for example. Some newspapers these days produce on-site news and feature studio programming -- say, two- or five-minute spots tied to the daily newspaper's content-- and offer it for free to local electronic media like radio and television stations. Where they go wrong is they use it as a perq for only the "professional" editors and star reporters, if any are left. To be truly interactive, production of audio clips and tapes and round-robin text messages ought to include the very young people who are contributing to the daily paper's content.

Transforming the daily newspaper into something more meaningful for the young, as well as something that resembles an interactive experience, could cost more jobs among the "professional" journalism set. But it just might save the daily newspaper itself.


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Bryan said...

What they really need to do is to cover local news. That is their exclusive product and the main reason people buy their local newspaper. When they start running AP stories and the national news, they lose readers.

When they cut newsroom staff, they reduce the main reason for buying the newspaper.

That's why my Mother finally gave up our local paper, it didn't contain anything she wanted to read. She subscribed to the PNJ for years, and then they stopped delivering over here.

chai said...