Friday, April 4, 2008

Might As Well Jump?

So my former colleague Ehren writes from Fort Worth to say, in essence: OK, smarty pants. Readers don't want jumps and you say you're on their side. But how does one really do that? Is all you can put on the front, then, short, substanceless stories, what with photos, graphics, indexes, and a shrinking page width?

Ehren's right; saying "no jumps" is disingenuous on my part. As long as you have a broadsheet you will have jumps. The question to me is: Do you use known reader dislike for jumps to say, "Let's hold them to a minimum or at least make them more user-friendly"? Or do you use the impossibility of having a totally jumpless paper to say, "Well, we can't do anything about that, sorry?"

We're not just talking about A1 here. I get four papers home delivered, and this morning they have:
Paper 1: Five A1 jumps, six B1 jumps, three D1 jumps, four E1 jumps, three F1 jumps. One story (C1) does not jump. Jumps are on three A section pages, five in the B, two in the D, two in the E, two in the F.
Paper 2: Three A1 jumps, three B1 jumps, four C1 jumps. Two stories (A1, B1) do not jump. Jumps are on three A section pages, two in the B, three in the C.
Paper 3: Four A1 jumps, three B1 jumps, five C1 jumps. Two stories (B1) do not jump. Jumps are on one A section page, one B section page, three C section pages.
Paper 4: Four A1 jumps, four B1 jumps, four C1 jumps, three W1 jumps. Three stories (B1 and C1) do not jump. Jumps are on three A section pages, two in the B, two in the C, three in the W.

So that's 59 jumpers and seven that don't (I hope, I'm a journalist, I can't do math). Of the seven, two were columns. And this was held down by its being a Friday, when two of the normal broadsheet features sections are replaced by Weekend tabloids. This is how we respond to readers' asking for fewer jumps.

How does one respond? Something's got to give. We could respond to younger readers' preference for tabloid- or Berliner-size newspapers, but that involve spending money we don't have, not to mention plunging into the unknown (upset older readers, advertisers who want a full broadsheet page, no comparability to the New York Times). Why, you can't completely change your product line and image! It won't work. Look at Cadillac. Oops, it worked for them, but you know...

But we don't have the money for new iron anyway. So what can we do?

1. Assume, like USA Today, that the reader has time for one substantive story per page, and try your best to always jump it to the second page of the section. This is a good method on inside tabloid or Berliner pages as well.
2. Do like Waco and hold down the story count. As noted earlier, readers seem to like this, although you have to devise a new internal reward system for good staff-written stories that aren't on A1, lest the reporters stop writing in despair. Or, you could just do like Singleton in California and lay off all the reporters.
3. Do like Rockford or Fort Worth and make the front page a poster for inside.
4. Do like the Guardian and have one or two substantive stories on A1, which may jump or which may refer to more inside, and have three to four synopses of stories.
5. I can't tell if the Globe and Mail does that or just jumps every story on a break, which is at least more reader friendly than jumping the story and having the first line on the jump page consist of:

Continued from A1

Various jump-friendly strategems have been tried, such as the Johnson City Press' jumping all stories to the back page of the section and printing it upside down, or the more popular trying to herd all the jumps onto one page. None of these have worked in the long run, for probable good reasons -- usually involving advertising's wanting to sell the back page because it has color, or not all of the jumps fitting. The "there will be no jumps" edict has also been tried, and it always fails as well. So as long as we use the broadsheet front page as our model, yes, there will be jumps. If Al Neuharth could have gotten rid of them all at USA Today, I suspect he would have. Even he could not crack that nut. And there is no absolute solution that will work every time. The point is that the way we do it now is for our convenience rather than the reader's, starting with the Times' jumping A1 stories into the C or D sections because "it's coming out of their space."

Ehren also notes that Fort Worth's no-jump poster front page draws criticism from people who don't like reading a paragraph of a story. Well, anything you do will draw criticism. I wonder if it's from the same people who don't like jumps? If so, maybe there is nothing we can do short of being a tab (which they wouldn't like either). There still are people who read the paper from front to back, and they may not like being told "Oh, why don't you look at B7 now" whether by jump or refer, because they will and then they go back to A1 and they get confused. But if we confine our audience to the people who find newspapers the way they are today user-friendly, we are really in trouble.

The other question is whether they're the "give me red meat" readers who are mad at the Times for starting the inside of the A section with three pages of refers. (They may be the same as the front-to-back readers for all I know.) We think of these as our core readers, but part of our problem in the Internet era is that our most involved readers -- the real "news junkies," particularly the political ones -- are going to get most of their news online whatever we do in print. Why read one story about Obama when you can read 15? Trying to put out a print newspaper simply to satisfy those readers is a dead end. More on this to come.

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