McGuire on Media

Transparency for newspapers is crucial in times of change

Front page letters to readers from editors are an age-old mechanism for sharing new features, innovations and improvements in your newspaper with readers. Randy Lovely, Editor, vice-president /news of the Arizona Republic, wrote one of those letters on Monday, Sept. 29, and then again the following Sunday, Oct. 6.

Lovely wrote: “For more than a year and with feedback from more than 10,000 of you, The Arizona Republic has worked to identify changes and additions to the newspaper that would make it easier to read and more helpful and informative. Through surveys, focus groups and reader advisory panels, we asked what you wanted. This week we begin to unveil the improvements.”

The letter then details several changes including, “new, larger typography on the weather page, on the market summary package in Business and for box scores, standings and other statistics on the Sports pages.” In an ad that explains the changes, the paper explains a new typeface is being used. They said it is called Retina and contend that it makes small type read much better. I have to say I think it is a huge improvement. For someone with fading eyes, box scores, sports agate and stock results struck me as far more readable. The agate type pops off the page. It is definitely worth bragging about. Readers need to appreciate that startling improvement.

One other thing  pops off the page of the “new” Republic. That would be the obvious move to a 44-inch web size.  The printing space has dwindled significantly, but you won’t read about that in the Republic. Avid newspapers readers and former newspaper editors who pass me at the Cronkite School here at Arizona State, and on the street, are going nuts over the Republic’s lack of transparency concerning the decreased web size.

Last week I talked to Randy Lovely, the incredibly polite and candid editor of the Republic. It seems odd to call him forthcoming when we were discussing the paper’s lack of transparency, but he was. Lovely said there was a lot of internal debate about discussing the reduced web size in the letters to the readers and he finally decided against it.

Lovely said that in the reader tests conducted to gauge reaction to increased type face size, that move to the Retina type face for agate and other issues, the paper showed the narrower format to readers.  “When we put the narrower reader format  in front of readers they didn’t react. ” Lovely added, “When we brought the narrower format to their attention, they said they loved it.”

The final decision was that because readers in the focus groups had not complained about the narrower web width and smaller page image, Lovely decided his letter should focus on the improvements to the newspaper.

As I said, Lovely was wonderfully forthcoming and delightful to talk to. I hung up the phone comforted that he had thought the issue through. Then I regained my bearings and realized my first instinct was absolutely correct.  He is really wrong. I don’t say that to beat up Randy Lovely or the Arizona Republic.  They are both doing the best they can in very difficult times. I really like Lovely after that conversation. Rather, I raise the issue because I think newspapers’ lack of transparency is leading to a hypocrisy charge by readers that is becoming mighty hard to rebut.

I am unsurprised that newspaper veterans react more to the reduced web size and the subsequent loss of space more than readers do.  I am just as unsurprised that readers like the narrower version of the paper. There have been indications for some time that more compact versions of the newspaper are more satisfying to the reader, especially younger readers.

Those facts are a little bit like asking “do you walk to school, or do you carry your lunch?” They are true, but they do not mean that newspapers should not be totally transparent with their audience about everything, no matter if it is positive or negative. Transparency is the currency of our business.

It is a currency that is gaining more and more value in an Internet age when everybody wonders about everybody else’s stake in important issues. Wednesday morning I heard Scott McNealy, Chairman of the Board  and co-founder of Sun Microsystems speak here at the Cronkite School and insist that he won’t listen to a valued commentator like David Gregory of NBC News anymore because Gregory won’t disclose his political voting record.  I don’t think I agree with McNealy, but it is a great indicator of where we are headed  on transparency. 

The irony about Lovely’s letter to readers is that the first Monday it was published, it appeared near an excellent story about ASU’s new downtown campus.  The story was headlined “Phoenix businesses feel misled by ASU’s enrollment numbers.” The story was an excellent effort and raised real issues about how ASU counts students at its various campuses.  This paragraph appeared toward the end of the story. “Members of the business community say they didn’t know that nearly half of the ASU’s downtown students don’t take classes in Phoenix. ASU should be more transparent about how many students are on campus, they said.”

ASU should be more transparent about its student numbers. The Republic should be more transparent about its web size too. I love the fact that the Republic held ASU’s feet to the fire. That’s what newspaper do. But let’s be consistent and demand the same transparency from newspaper companies that we demand of the institutions we cover.

Newspapers are going to be undergoing dramatic changes in the coming months and years.  Some of those changes will be hard for newspaper people and for readers to swallow. If we stand any chance at surviving we cannot be coy or sly with readers. We have tell them the good stuff and the bad stuff about how we plan to change this institution which is still incredibly important to a lot of lives.