Faces of the Free Press

Would this make you want to read the paper more often?''Definitely, yes,' said the woman, a 35-year-old public relations director and working mom.'Absolutely not,' said the man, a 47-year-old commercial artist and stay-at-home father.We are in a conference room at The...

Would this make you want to read the paper more often?’

‘Definitely, yes,’ said the woman, a 35-year-old public relations director and working mom.

‘Absolutely not,’ said the man, a 47-year-old commercial artist and stay-at-home father.

We are in a conference room at The London Free Press, hometown daily to a city of 325,000 in the centre of the southwestern Ontario flatlands.

Pinned to a cork board at the front of the room are half a dozen samples of new-look editorial pages.

Opinions

In a semi-circle facing the pages are 10 readers whose opinions about the changes are being recorded by a dozen editors and writers sitting at the back of the room.

Welcome to newspapering in the ’90s.

There’s a lot going on in this room that illustrates the difficulties facing Canadian daily newspapers and what some of them are trying to do about it.

Start with the readers’ answers.

Some loved the new design. For them, the pages were friendly, informal, inviting.

Some did not. They said the pages were parochial, unstructured, unsubstantial. At least one reader declared he would quit buying it if the newspaper changed.

Although never homogeneous, readers in the past had few options if the local newspaper was not up to their standards.

Not so in the ’90s. The overlapping demands of today’s readers frequently conflict, forcing editors to make uncomfortable choices about which group to satisfy.

Which brings us to why these readers are in this room tonight.

For four years now The London Free Press has been fitfully, painfully, often publicly remaking itself into what senior editors describe as a newspaper reflective, responsive and vital to its community.

Forums like these are one component of a developing interactive relationship with readers as the Free Press struggles to understand what it takes to keep them.

Quite a bit, it turns out.

Established 144 years ago, the Free Press is a family-owned morning daily with a circulation of 115,000 weekdays and 140,000 on Saturday.

In the 1960s, it sold more copies than there were households in London. Since then, as with most newspapers in Canada, readership averages have been in slow, steady decline.

Research showed we were failing to win or hold customers because our newspaper was hard to read, it too often simply repeated what people already knew or ‘it wasn’t written for people like me.’

In response, we’ve begun to challenge long-held beliefs about news judgment and information presentation and, just recently, to reshape radically the way the newsroom functions.

Panacea

‘We don’t fool ourselves by imagining this redesign of ourselves is a panacea,’ says Associate Editor Mary Nesbitt, who quarterbacked the newsroom changes.

‘What we have tried to do is create an environment that’s more flexible, collaborative and conducive to creativity and in which real change in content and direction can take place,’ Nesbitt says.

o become a newspaper more customers could respect and support, we concluded we had to be anticipatory, explanatory, inclusive and creative.

We needed to do at least five things well.

1. We needed to get smarter.

Readers frequently complain our explanations are lazy; we interpret events from a narrow, often ignorant point of view; we really do not understand what is going on.

Advisory panels

Now we are beginning to select advisory panels of community experts to help us discover and gain access to what is happening. The purpose is to broaden the scope of our reportage and to deepen its relevance.

During a recent municipal election, for example, the coverage team gathered community activists to talk about the issues and suggest stories. We even used them as guides at all-candidates meetings.

We do not expect advisory panel members to edit our newspaper. We do want them to have influence on those who do.

2. We needed to listen more.

Journalists tend to look inward. We argue too much about whether this is an editor’s newspaper or a reporter’s newspaper and too little about whether this is a reader’s newspaper. The result is, it is not.

Reader forums are one way of ending the argument. So are market surveys, rolling polls and tracking studies – all we have tried in some form. Coupled with more scientific research, reader forums personalize the data.

Improve our ideas

Now we use them extensively to improve our ideas about content and design. The editorial pages were one example.

In the end, we modified the design slightly before its early March introduction. Reaction was mostly positive.

3. We needed to take more risks.

Two key reasons hinder change in the newspaper business: we have always done it that way; we have never done it that way. Hence the uproar the 1989 Free Press redesign sparked.

We aimed the new package directly at the ‘hard-to-read’ problem. We added more color, more graphics.

We broke long stories into packages with sidebars and lists of supporting facts. We provided a summary of most stories in secondary headlines.

We turned half the front page into a ‘road map’ index of the rest of the paper. We anchored every section and every feature within a section.

It was a stunning change that 60% of our readers loved and 20% hated. More interestingly, 20% said they had not really noticed anything different.

Sacred trust

Newspaper folks from coast to coast vilified us for having disrupted some sacred trust of established order. Worse, they said we copied USA Today.

At least we got noticed.

Now we are at it again, this time trying to engage our readers with flair, passion, enthusiasm, excitement.

We are trying to have more fun in print, to celebrate with our readers, to see good as well as bad, to find solutions as well as problems.

Of course, we have never done it that way before.

4. We needed to become a bridge to television.

In 1991, a study by Environics Research revealed tv was the primary national and international news source for more than 70% of Canadian adults.

This was never more evident than during the Gulf War when the main event played during primetime, packaged between hours of analysis and interpretation.

While it is true most newspapers enjoyed a brief circulation jump, this war was ‘made for tv.’

What could we do? One inspired idea was to ask readers what tv was missing. We got hundreds of responses. Ultimately, that led to a front page focus not on the war itself but on what readers said they needed to know to understand the coverage on tv.

Every story, one wise editor once said, is a local story. This is particularly true in an age when tv can bring even the remotest war, natural disaster or political upheaval right into our living rooms.

Now we are building our side of the information bridge on what an event means. tv reports what happened; we explain why our readers should care.

5. We needed to become more local.

The closer events get to home, the more you turn to your local newspaper. This was another Environics finding, holding true for both news and advertising. For us, though, local news means more than simply getting city council news straight.

Instead, we wish to be a catalyst to action, not just a carrier of information. We not only provide information and knowledge that enables our readers to cope, change and effect change, we also urge their involvement in the community and in the democratic process.

Now we are taking a new interest in what is going on in London, in the process opening our pages to scores of previously undiscovered issues and neglected groups.

It is not rocket science. But for the mid-sized daily newspaper of the 1990s, we believe it is the way to a lift-off. Mind you, we have not done that before either.

Philip McLeod is editor of The London Free Press, based in London, Ont.