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Gannett To Change Its Papers' Approach

Gannett, publisher of USA Today, wants to tap alternative news sources to bring readers back to newspapers.
Gannett, publisher of USA Today, wants to tap alternative news sources to bring readers back to newspapers. (By Ramin Talaie -- Bloomberg News)
By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Gannett Co., the nation's largest newspaper chain, is radically changing the way its papers gather and present news by incorporating elements of reader-created "citizen journalism," mining online community discussions for stories and creating Internet databases of calendar listings and other non-news utilities.

The McLean company has 90 newspapers, including USA Today, the nation's largest. Like all major newspaper firms, Gannett has watched circulation and advertising revenue slide over the past decade, as readers turn to television and the Internet for news and information.

Gannett is attempting to grab some of the Internet mojo of blogs, community e-mail groups and other ground-up news sources to bring back readers and fundamentally change the idea of what newspapers have been for more than a century. The attempt to involve readers in news-gathering is part of a larger plan that also calls for Gannett to merge its newspaper and online operations into single units to speed delivery of news and improve its offerings to advertisers.

At Gannett's Des Moines Register, for example, editor Carolyn Washburn has moved desks to re-organize her newsroom. She created a Data Desk to build reader-searchable databases on topics from restaurant listings to a recent mumps outbreak. Though USA Today will not undergo a similar overhaul, it has merged its newspaper and online staffs.

Gannett's ideas are shared by a growing number of people in the industry who believe that news organizations have driven away readers by becoming too imperial, too distant and not fast enough to respond to reader needs and desires.

While other newspapers, including The Washington Post, have aggressively expanded their online presence or merged it with their print newsrooms, Gannett's move is the industry's first wide-scale overhaul, in name and purpose.

"It's pretty big," said Michael Maness, Gannett's vice president of strategic planning. "It's a fairly fundamental restructuring of how we go about news and information on a daily basis."

The most intriguing aspect of Gannett's plan is the inclusion of non-journalists in the process, drawing on specific expertise that many journalists do not have. In a test at Gannett's newspaper in Fort Myers, Fla., the News-Press, from readers such as retired engineers, accountants and other experts was solicited to examine documents and determine why it cost so much to connect new homes to water and sewer lines. The newspaper compiled the data and wrote a number of reader-assisted articles. As a result, fees were cut and an official resigned. Maness called it a "pro-am," approach, referring to a golf tournament in which professionals play alongside amateurs.

"I am very impressed with the Fort Myers" experiment, said Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor. "If that becomes the direction at a lot of Gannett papers, we could learn a lot from that."

Elements of Gannett's plan are seen elsewhere.

Rosen recently founded the Web site NewAssignment.net, which bills itself as "an experiment in open-source reporting" and is being partly funded by the Reuters news agency. Another Web site, NowPublic.com, claims of 31,000 citizen reporters in 130 countries who post news, photos and video to the site. NowPublic reporters were active in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Gannett has been testing its new system at a few of its newspapers since July. Now, all of the company's newspapers are being urged to make the transition quickly.

Changes began with newsroom labels. Newsrooms divide coverage by traditional topics, such as national, foreign, local, features and sports.

Gannett's plan renames the newsroom an "Information Center" and divides it into seven areas: public service, digital, data, community conversation, local, custom content and multimedia. In a memo to employees Thursday, Gannett Chairman Craig Dubow said the company's news will be "platform agnostic," meaning it will be delivered however the reader desires -- on paper, on the Web, on a mobile device and so on.

Faced with declining average daily circulation since 1987, newspapers have been struggling to reinvent themselves and stay relevant. Before the Internet, many newspapers tried to look brighter and less staid, following the lead of USA Today, as a flurry of redesigns swept the industry. More newspapers began using color photographs, colored boxes and other design devices, and articles became shorter. Circulation did not improve. Now, newspapers look to the Internet.

Gannett's stock peaked in spring 2004 at more than $90 a share, but steadily declined to $52 a share during the summer. The stock has been rising since, closing yesterday at $58.77 a share, up 75 cents.

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