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A Newspaper Chain Sees Its Future, And It's Online and Hyper-Local

Chuck Myron is one of more than a dozen
Chuck Myron is one of more than a dozen "mobile journalists" -- mojos -- for the Fort Myers News-Press. He doesn't have an office or even a cubicle, so his car is his newsroom. The paper's parent company, Gannett, hopes the mojos' local focus will drive readers to its community-specific Web sites. (By Frank Ahrens -- The Washington Post)

"There it is," he said. "That's what I do."

Fort Myers is a growing city constantly replenished by hard-core newspaper readers -- retirees. As such, the News-Press, circulation 89,283, has been spared some of the tumult in the rest of the newspaper industry, where circulation and advertising revenue have been in steady slide for a decade. Gannett's stock price is down 25 percent over the past two years. Hence the overhaul.

"We're trying a lot of things. Some will work; others won't," said Kate Marymont, 53, the energetic News-Press executive editor for the past six years and a Gannett lifer. "It's like play."

Among her innovations are some ideas that challenge journalistic orthodoxy. For instance:

· The creation of 14 full- and part-time mojos. By the end of next year, the paper's 30 other news reporters also will be mojos to one extent or another. The News-Press is nonunion.

· Enlisting the help of dozens of reader experts -- retired engineers, accountants, government insiders -- to review documents and data to determine why it costs so much to hook up water and sewer service to new homes in the area. The result: an investigative report that resulted in fees lowered by 30 percent and an official ousted. Gannett calls the practice "crowdsourcing." The News-Press and other Gannett papers also are building searchable online databases on as many topics as they can think of, in part to "enable people to do digging themselves and maybe find conclusions we won't," said Michael Maness, Gannett's vice president of strategic planning. "It's having thousands of investigative reporters instead of three."

· The appointment of a managing editor in charge of "audience building" who reports only to Marymont. The editor monitors Web traffic to make sure popular stories stay high on the page. The editor meets weekly and shares data with the paper's marketing and sales staffers.

· Online message boards that allow readers to post anything from lost-pet notices to profanity. "Bring it on," Warren said.

· Next spring, the paper plans to run a large story on a topic it would not identify. It did, however, say that the reporter on the article will accompany News-Press ad salespeople on trips to advertisers as the paper seeks a sponsor for the article. The logic: The reporter understands the project and can explain it best to potential advertisers. Though the reporter will be in sales meetings, he or she will not be part of the sales pitch. Nevertheless, the practice violates one of journalism's fundamentals -- maintaining a leakproof wall between the news and business sides of a newspaper.

As part of their training, mojos get a three-hour session with the paper's vice president of marketing. If someone out in the community complains that ad rates are too high in the daily News-Press, mojos can and should tell them that rates are lower in the paper's community weeklies.

It would be "morally wrong" for a reporter not to pass along such information, said Warren, the managing editor for information distribution, a new position. The paper also has a managing editor for information collection.

"It's like rolling down your window and giving someone directions," Warren said. Keeping reporters away from the business side is "old-school snobbery," he said.

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