The East Valley Tribune’s debut of its new format on Wednesday October 17 was better than I had hoped or imagined. I am still not optimistic that this bold approach is THE answer for a second newspaper struggling in a depressed industry, but the effort was professional, imaginative and carried a lot of impact.
The central innovation is a tabloid local news A-section wrapped around broadsheet sports, nation and food sections for home delivery in Scottsdale where I live. That tabloid wrap will eventually be distributed as a stand-alone free section in designated areas.
In a candid letter to readers, Executive Editor Jim Ripley admitted that changes in August, which included eliminating the business section, “weren’t well received.” He wrote that the intent of this latest reorganization was to “strengthen our local focus.” For my money it does. The local A section displays local political news, localization of national news, local business news, and local “Arts and Life” information. The net effect of packaging all the local news in one place is quite powerful and creates the emotion that “hey there’s a lot of local stuff here.”
The content choice the newspaper has made compartmentalizes local news in ways most papers have avoided. All local news, no matter its department or subject, is in the A section.
I found myself comforted and impressed by the amount of local news when it is not distributed throughout a newspaper. As I looked at the paper this morning I realized how much newspapers have diluted the impact of local news by surrounding it with wire stories. Diffusion and dilution has probably hurt us.
That means national news is secondary, but the six-page nation on that first Wednesday was compact, easy-to-read and gave a reader a nice scan of the nation and the world. I counted twenty-six stories ranging from four column inches to about 15 inches. So, the stories were concise, but to quote my ASU colleague, Dr. Leslie-Jean Thornton; “the convenient grouping of stories allows me to make mental and intellectual connections. Somehow you get a bigger picture.”
The sports section seems unchanged, but as a comics reader I found the fact the comics were stuffed behind the classifieds a little disturbing. I have a vague recollection some folks tried that years ago and got hammered for it, but in this environment I say give it a shot.
As I implied the day these changes were announced, that spirit of adventure and innovation needs to be okay. An entire industry is searching for answers, and we need canaries like the EV Tribune to scout out the mine for us. And in that regard, as I went through the paper today, I was once again impressed by the teamwork from all departments of the newspaper that was required to make this plan work.
If we’re all honest with ourselves we know that operational issues, traditions and silos have too often been a big factor in making true innovation difficult for newspapers. It’s not that newspaper departments haven’t wanted to innovate, but overcoming internal roadblocks has been really tough. The Tribune deserves real credit for refusing to allow operational challenges to mess with their strategic and tactical plans.
The quality of the debut edition of the EV Tribune indicated to me that this is not a slap-dash desperate effort, but rather it is a valid, laudable attempt to figure out the puzzle. The industry should celebrate that effort.
MUTTER TEACHES ETHICS
I have been terribly behind in my blog reading so I missed Alan Mutter’s Sept. 28 entry. It described a story the New York Times did on a woman named Tania Head who has apparently invented a story about her connection to the 9/11 attacks. Mutter points out the woman obviously has mental health issues, but there is no sign she has profited from her lies and he questions why the Times has to slam her so hard.
Mutter’s analysis and the story itself are going to become a part of my media ethics class. Mutter asks, “If Tania is a private individual who has done nothing dangerous, self-enriching or illegal, was it appropriate for the New York Times to go off on her the way it did?”
This pithy observation from Mutter belongs in every ethics class and newsroom discussion: “Journalists have an abundance of opportunities to write about nutty people all the time, even during non-election years. But they owe it to their readers, if not to themselves as ethical individuals, to choose wisely about whom to pursue and how hard to hit them.” Thanks Alan.
SAY IT AIN’T SO CHRIS
One of the standard rules for a top editor is that you let your critics take their shots and you shut your mouth. As a former editor, writing a blog, I usually take a wait-and-see attitude when staff complains about an editor. But the stories out of Memphis carry such a stigma I sincerely hope Memphis Commercial Appeal editor Chris Peck abandons the long-held maxim and straightens out the record in response to a blog on Smart City Memphis. Chris has always been respected, and he’s an important voice in innovation for newspapers. The charges on this blog are that in the name of “monetizing content” he sold articles to advertisers. Chris absolutely knows better than to sacrifice the independence of a newsroom by selling stories so there’s got to be a reasonable explanation here. I am not buying the blog attacks, but I hope we hear Chris’s side soon.
No matter how desperate the business gets, if we sacrifice our job as an “independent monitor of power” as Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel put it in Elements of Journalism, the newspaper goose is officially cooked.