Startlegram to Redesign. Staff to Revolt, Or at Least Send Unhappy E-mails.
In about four months, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram will go through yet another redesign. Already there's a prototype floating around. Startlegram Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Jim Witt says readers love the redesign -- and by readers, of course, he means the 34 people who made up the focus groups that validate editors' decisions to do things writers can't stand. Yup, word is the paper's reporters (and many of the editors) can't stand the new look, which turns stories into deconstructed who-what-why's-it-important-to-you chunks of info in which graphics are more important than, ya know, words.
Last week, Witt tested the proto-paper with readers, who, he wrote in a missive to the paper's entire staff, "LOVED it." Startlegram staff writer Anthony Spangler isn't too sure: A couple of hours after Witt send his staffwide e-mail last Friday, Spangler responded by telling the boss that while he isn't afraid of change, he's not so sure this is the one the paper ought to be making. Sure, younger Web-savvy readers may love it, Spangler wrote, but older ones may not dig it, and "what looks like less space for copy is having a chilling effect on reporters in the newsroom."
Witt, to his credit, asked Spangler if he could share his e-mail with the entire staff -- if only so he could address reporters' concerns en masse, but still, at least he acknowledges the dissension in the ranks. He also responded to it and asked for more feedback. Not that he's going to do much with it; the "learn to love it" part suggests as much. After the jump, then, are all three e-mails in their entirety, providing a sneak peek at the new and improved (or not) Fort Worth Star-Telegram heading your way come spring. --Robert Wilonsky
From: Witt, Jim
Sent: Friday, December 08, 2006 9:28 AM
Subject: Reader reaction
I think most of you have had an opportunity to see the prototype version of what the Star-Telegram will be like beginning in late April. We showed it to reader focus groups the past two nights to get their reaction ...
And it was an unqualified no-doubt-about-it solid gold hit.
Our regular readers really liked it, and our occasional readers LOVED it. It scored extremely high with younger readers and women - the two main groups we want to focus on attracting to the paper and getting them to read it more often. Of the 34 people who participated in the focus groups, all but ONE thought it was an improvement over what they are getting now. And most thought it was a BIG improvement.
We began by asking if they were satisfied with their current Star-Telegram, and the very first person who answered said "I thought I was - until I saw this prototype!'' That theme continued throughout the four focus groups we heard from.
* They like the new front-page format, which is intended more as a magazine-style guide to all the good stories and pictures inside the paper in every section. The reworked A section was popular for the way it grouped stories and quickly informed them about what was going on in the world.
* They LOVED the alternative story forms throughout all the sections, which let them quickly and easily get the information they wanted.
* The new WORK & MONEY section was a big hit with all the groups, especially readers who feel intimidated by the standard BUSINESS section. Many said they would read this new section more often.
* All the readers (even the one person who said she prefers the current Star-Telegram) were in favor of splitting the LIFE & ARTS section into two sections called THAT'S LIFE (a useful section helping you live your life) and AE live for arts and entertainment news. We had two groups made up of all women readers (one group was regular readers and one group was occasional readers) and they were pretty much unanimous in their praise for the two sections.
* The new LOCAL section and TOWN SQUARE page were a hit too. It's already a hugely popular section with many of our readers, and the new section took that to another level for a great many of the focus group participants.
In short, there was nothing that indicated we weren't on the right track with the changes we intend to make. There were dozens of little tweaks that the readers suggested we should consider to make the prototype even better, and we'll be looking at how we can accomplish some of those.
Monday there will be a half-page ad in the paper showing some of the proposed changes and inviting readers to call or write if they would like us to send them a copy they can look at and give us their views. So we hope to gather another 700 or opinions to give us even more feedback.
I realize that some of you (and maybe it's even many of you) really don't like the new prototype and don't understand why we should change the way we're doing things. But declining circulation and readership (and the resulting loss of revenue that goes along with that) is a certain indicator that we MUST do radical things in hopes of reversing the trend. We've made great progress online in the past year, and from the reaction that the focus groups gave us I think the audience perception about the printed Star-Telegram is going to be positively affected by the new version of the Star-Telegram.
And change is going to start happening at an even faster pace than it has been over the past 12 months. My advice is to buckle on your helmet and learn to love it.
From: Witt, Jim Sent: Friday, December 08, 2006 11:33 AM To: edit-all Subject: FW: Reader reaction
Folks: Tony Spangler sent me this email (my reply is at the bottom). I thought many people might be thinking the same thing, so I asked Tony if
I could send it out to all of you. Love to hear from more of you!
From: Spangler, Anthony
Sent: Friday, December 08, 2006 10:09 AM
To: Witt, Jim
Subject: RE: Reader reaction
Let me start by saying I am not opposed to change. As a person who, as a child, never attended a school for more than three years,
I am quite adept at accommodating change.
My personal feelings are that the redesign will likely attract and interest many younger readers, even those who share my mid-
life demographic. The paper will look more like a magazine/Web page and will likely be easier to navigate for many Internet users.
However, I am somewhat anxious about the reaction our older, long-time readers who may be less comfortable with this type of design. I've heard the statement that those readers are loyal and will accept any changes we make and adapt. But this is such a radical departure from the traditional look and presentation of our content that I fear we will lose some of those older readers. I do realize the demographics that we are not reaching have much more potential for growth, so I can appreciate the strategy. But I sure hope we get some of those new readers on board quickly to offset any losses of our older readers.
Finally, I think the astute person can see that the space for copy is significantly reduced given the amount of white space, graphic elements and directional pages. Clearly that is going to create unease among reporters. Of course, there are many people who are always going to cringe at any change. But the combination of more emphasis on graphics, alternative story-telling techniques, and what looks like less space for copy is having a chilling effect on reporters in the newsroom.
It is a bold move, one that I hope secures all of our futures.
I appreciate your comments, and share your concern. Hollywood does focus groups for every movie they ever make - and sometimes the ones that do best in the test do the WORST when they are released to the general public. So focus groups don't guarantee anything, but they do give you a certain comfort level.
There were plenty of "older readers'' (late 40s and early 50s) in our focus groups and they were absolutely fine with the changes. (we did not have anyone in their 60s or older in the groups however).
Yes, reporters are going to have to sometimes do their job differently. But I would say the two best stories in the paper yesterday were the story about the Marines saving the baby in Iraq and the Jim Reeves column about the coach with cancer. Both those stories were long (40 inches or more) and told in the traditional narrative style. Those stories are STILL going to be in the new Star-Telegram in that very form - and featured in very prominent ways on Page One.
But EVERY story won't be like that. Readers don't want to have to read a 25-inch city council story about everything the council did when all they want to know is whether their garbage fees are going to be increased. If we have a way they can quickly get that information, they like it better.
So yes, the space for stories will be somewhat reduced as we use better design techniques and story formats to make it easier and quicker for readers to find what they're looking for. But I promise our intent is to only take the boring, inconsequential stuff out - leaving MORE room for all the good, interesting/important stuff our staff generates.
When we break news we want to play it up big. And when we have a great watchdog story, we want to make it prominent on Page One. Those core missions are NOT changing.