Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Orlando's New Dawn

I've been going off on too many jeremiads lately. Was down in D.C. this weekend and drove by the former Julius Garfinkel & Co. store at 14th and F -- it now is a coffee shop on the ground floor -- and realized I've gotten too far away from how department stores and newspapers are joined at the hip.

And, thankfully, the revolving door is opened by the redesign of the Orlando Sentinel -- the most-talked about redesign in a couple of years, because of the fact that it is done under the control of the Zellots (great word, Alan Mutter!), even though it appears not to have been originated by them, just speeded up. (Orlando, Fla.: Dickson-Ives Co. and Yowell-Drew-Ivey Co.)

Alan Jacobsen, in his critique of the design (with a number of examples so this is a good link to check out Orlando's thinking), pays a bit too much attention to redesign X and Y worked without saying that his designs were X and Y ("Recent redesigns in Cheyenne, Wyoming and Waterbury, Connecticut, and Pocatello, Idaho have boosted readership and revenue ..." Fair enough, Alan, but just say "My recent redesigns...") And his critique is of the prototype. So it would be easy to dismiss his points. But Jacobsen is also keenly aware that if you just make it look prettier but keep selling the same merchandise, it won't matter in the end that you produce the spiffiest store directory in the world.

(Remember store directories? Most big department stores had them. They were printed and folded on about 5x7 paper and were kept near the elevators, so that if you wanted "furniture" you knew to go to the seventh floor. They were quite useful as long as you knew what "domestics" and "notions" and the like were. If you walked into the store and said, "I want to buy some candles, let me look in the store directory," you were on your own. And, of course, maybe that department store didn't stock candles.)

Jacobsen's fear -- again, based on the prototypes, so let's give the highly respected and inventive Bonita Burton and her staff time to show what they can do -- is that it's old wine in new labels, that, as he put it, "no substantive changes have been made to story selection." And by that he's not saying, don't do watchdog journalism or substantive reporting. He is saying, pay attention to what you do on A1 and aim it at the reader as much as, or more than, it aims at journalistic significance or respectability or your internal system for rewarding reporters through story play.

When you walked into a department store -- heck, when you do so now -- what do you find at the entrance? Perfume and cosmetics, usually -- high profit items that are often bought on a whim. (Used to be hosiery, when it always got runs.) The idea traditionally was that women would be drawn into the store by those sorts of items and then see what else was on sale inside the store, but people who were just looking for quick-hit purchases could run in and out. Newspapers face a huge front-page quandary. For years it was easy -- this happened most recently and is most important! But except for things that happen late at night, newspapers can barely sell "recently." And what defines important? Contrast two newspapers I get at home daily on their A1s today (no, neither of these is the one I work for):

Headlines in Paper A: Above fold, (Area) Man charged with attempted murder; 160 jobs eliminated at loan firm; Below fold, (State) Benefits reform bill gets approval; Crackdown on aggressive drivers begins.

In paper B: Above fold, Restitution OK'd in $20 million scheme; Phila., Army OK deal on dredging; Pension bill wins approval in Assembly; Below fold, Fire department's overtime pay burns up savings.

Many big controversies in New Jersey; the pension changes had nearly held up the budget and state workers and teachers will lose benefits, and the dredging battle has been going on for years over where to dump what's dredged up. Now let's look at today's A1 from Jacobsen's most recent redesign in Cheyenne, where the front page (I'd link to it, but they don't archive these) has

Above the fold: "McCain: $300 million for the person who develops vehicle that plugs into long-lasting battery." "Woman's cause of death still unknown." Below the fold: "Little bullies" teaser to story on grade-school bullying; "Rocket to moon could fly by 2013"; "Americans split by race over presidential candidates."

Now as a journalist I can shoot holes through this page without even saying, "Maybe nothing happens in Cheyenne, Wyo." McCain's electric-car plan got one paragraph in one of our two local papers and didn't even get a mention in the other. It looks like a campaign stunt, a blue-sky idea to tap into our frustration with $4 gas and, as analysts noted on "All Things Considered" last night, one that would have no effect for years even if it were workable. And giving a quarter of the front page to it seems like stacking the campaign deck (although it was accompanied by an A1 box summing up Obama's and McCain's views on fuel economy).

So yes, in the short term it's a magic bullet, which is probably why lots of people would want to read about it -- they heard a sentence or two about it on TV or saw a headline on a Web page. Everyone buys gasoline. Not everyone lives near a dump for dredging spoils. Heck, after hearing about it on NPR, I might buy the paper just to read that story, even if only to say, it's a blue-sky idea that won't do anything.

Race, rockets to the moon, school bullying --topics that people will read about no matter what the story says, and stories that are probably being overplayed by our usual standards in Cheyenne. They're speculative stories, or trial balloons, or whatever. Nothing actually happens in them. Saying they're important could provoke responses that otherwise might not happen. Saying they're more important than whatever else Cheyenne put on A2 or B1 could be seen as hyping the news or pandering. Here in South Jersey, we've kept our definition of "most important," but largely restricted it to local news (i.e. whatever is most important that our staff has written about).

But if the newspaper is a department store and your problem is to get people to come in...


rknil said...

Bonita Burton is a sophomoric twit whose only goal is to avoid dealing with content. If she's "well respected," then that's more a sign of the industry's inability to think than anything else.

Selena said...

"sophomoric twit"

That's pretty funny! And with a hint of truth.

Author at Cellulean