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

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 4, 2006

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Could this be the future of newspapering?

Darkness falls on a chilly Winn-Dixie parking lot in a dodgy part of North Fort Myers just before Thanksgiving. Chuck Myron sits in his little gray Nissan and types on an IBM ThinkPad laptop plugged into the car's cigarette lighter. The glow of the screen illuminates his face.

Myron, 27, is a reporter for the Fort Myers News-Press and one of its fleet of mobile journalists, or "mojos." The mojos have high-tech tools -- ThinkPads, digital audio recorders, digital still and video cameras -- but no desk, no chair, no nameplate, no land line, no office. They spend their time on the road looking for stories, filing several a day for the newspaper's Web site, and often for the print edition, too. Their guiding principle: A constantly updated stream of intensely local, fresh Web content -- regardless of its traditional news value -- is key to building online and newspaper readership.

Myron and his colleagues are part of a great experiment being conducted by their corporate parent, McLean-based newspaper giant Gannett, which is trying to remake the very definition of a newspaper. Losing readers and revenue to the Internet and other media, newspapers are struggling to stay relevant and even afloat. Gannett's answer is radical.

The chain's papers are redirecting their newsrooms to focus on the Web first, paper second. Papers are slashing national and foreign coverage and beefing up "hyper-local," street-by-street news. They are creating reader-searchable databases on traffic flows and school class sizes. Web sites are fed with reader-generated content, such as pictures of their kids with Santa. In short, Gannett -- at its 90 papers, including USA Today -- is trying everything it can think of to create Web sites that will attract more readers.

"Whatever you spend your time and money doing," said News-Press managing editor Mackenzie Warren, "is news."

So Myron sits in the parking lot, hunched over, keeping one eye out for threatening vagrants, and peers through his steering wheel to file a story on his laptop, perched on his knees. The workplace is, at best, ergonomically challenging.

The event he just covered? The signing of a fundraising calendar for the local chamber of commerce featuring the Hunks of North Fort Myers. The event was held inside a gym beside a Winn-Dixie in a strip shopping center.

It had been looking dim -- just three hunks and half a dozen seemingly uninterested middle-aged ladies working out nearby -- when Myron arrived at the gym with his ThinkPad under one arm and a digital camera peeking out of a pocket of his khakis.

Twenty minutes passed before one senior citizen and her husband walked in with two calendars to be signed by the hunks. She agreed to be interviewed and have her picture taken by Myron. He took notes on the screen of his ThinkPad, using an electronic stylus.

Thirty minutes later, sitting in his car with a sense of relief, he has written a short story, cropped one digital picture, written a caption, uploaded it all to the Web and linked to a previous story he'd written on the calendar fundraiser. Traditionally, such a story would barely rise to the level of a newspaper's weekly community insert. Yet this is the third story Myron has written on the calendar.

In the dark, Myron refreshed his browser and pulled up his fresh dispatch on the News-Press's Cape Coral "micro-site," one of several sites-within-a-site focusing on individual communities.

"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.

The newsroom has mixed opinions of the new ways. Many are enthusiastic. "There is so much more creative energy than we can harness into actual journalism so far," said managing editor Cindy McCurry-Ross. Others are irked by such practices as mojos posting stories directly to the Web without editing -- a breach of newspaper editing protocol.

"It makes me crazy," said Gale Baldwin, a News-Press assistant managing editor and newspaper veteran. "But I grit my teeth because I know that things are changing."

Some staffers, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, worry that the zeal to feed the Web with fresh material has led to publishing "fluff" in addition to news. They recalled one recent incident in which Marymont walked through the newsroom and strongly noted that the Web site had not posted any fresh material in three hours, and urged them to publish something quickly.

Though the News-Press has largely been insulated from the industry's travails, it has not been immune. The paper showed a circulation decline this year, and Marymont must eliminate three staff positions by the end of the year to meet the budget set by Gannett headquarters in McLean. The paper has offered buyouts to older staffers.

Are readers buying the changes?

On the one hand, the News-Press Web site had grown from an average of 58,000 unique visitors per week in 2002 to 140,000 per week so far this year. Traffic to the paper's community micro-sites in August-October of this year is up 106 percent over the corresponding period last year. Carol Hudler, the paper's publisher, said it's too early to tell if the changes have made a material impact on the paper's revenue.

On the other hand, none of the sources Myron dealt with in two assignments on consecutive days seemed to grasp that what he was reporting and writing about them would go to the News-Press Web site.

"They ask me, 'When's what you wrote about me going to be in the paper?' " Myron said. "I have no good answer."

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