An article Jan. 6 erroneously reported that the Orange County (Calif.) Register had abolished traditional reporting beats such as police and government. The paper has maintained these beats while adding several non-traditional assignments. (Published 1/15/91)
BOCA RATON, FLA. -- Wayne Ezell quickly thumbs through the morning's Boca Raton News, eager to show how his paper with the pink flamingo logo is courting younger readers with a lighter diet of media morsels.
" 'Champagne Prices Soon To Explode' -- we're the only paper in America to do an eight-inch story on that," the editor said. "For baby boomers who go to a lot of champagne parties, that's more interesting than whatever Jack Kemp had to say today."
What the pink newspaper boxes here in Palm Beach County are serving up is a sort of smorgasbord of snippets, a newspaper that slices and dices the news into even smaller portions than does USA Today, spicing it with color graphics and fun facts and cute features like "Today's Hero" and "Critter Watch."
While many critics find this approach frivolous and superficial, Ezell makes no apologies. "Newspapers have failed to treat readers as customers and tailor the product to the interests and expectations of those customers," he said. "We have to do what Chevrolet and Ivory soap do when their products no longer appeal."
The redesigned paper is the culmination of a $2 million research project by Knight-Ridder Newspapers targeted at a demographic trend that frightens even the fattest and most successful newspapers.
Only half of the nation's adults say they read a newspaper every day, down from nearly three-fourths in 1967. In study after study, readers proclaim newspapers boring, time-consuming and irrelevant to their lives. Many prefer to get their news on the run, from television or radio, if at all.
If this growing body of research is correct, a majority of readers will not have turned the page to finish this article because they have no patience with long newspaper stories, a finding that led Ezell to ban stories that "jump" from one page to another.
No group appears more turned off to newspapers than teenagers and young adults, many of whom have little interest in what the older generation defines as "news." If these people are not hooked by their 30s, researchers said, they are unlikely to acquire the newspaper habit later in life, a development with obvious potential for turning newspapers into 21st century dinosaurs.
This threat helps to explain why Knight-Ridder, whose 27 newspapers include the Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami Herald and Detroit Free Press, felt compelled to launch what it calls the 25/43 Project.
"We know how to win Pulitzers," said Lou Heldman, the Knight-Ridder official overseeing the project. "We know how to topple politicians. We know how to do gut-wrenching stories. What we don't always know is how you get people to read serious journalism."Entertaining but Irrelevant?
Sitting beside his color computer monitor, Heldman said: "A lot of what we do I would not be proud of if I was still at the Miami Herald. It's a different level of journalism. It does a good job of explaining the world for people who don't want the world in great depth."
Others say publications such as the Boca Raton News are anything but serious journalism.
"The more entertainment, the more celebrity, the more light news, the more graphics, the more color and pizazz that's stuffed into newspapers, the more irrelevant the newspaper becomes to the reader," said Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation and former editor of the Atlanta Constitution. "The minute the purpose of your newspaper is to entertain, then the values of entertainment take over. . . . You become a memo, a tip sheet."
After a decade in which newspapers ranging from the Washington Star to the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner were consigned to history's scrap heap, many publishers and editors concede that their industry has failed to adapt.
"If you pick up almost any newspaper, a lot of the stories in there are not of great consequence to most readers," said Michael J. Davies, publisher of the Baltimore Sun. "They're written from a bureaucrat's point of view. It's easy to go down to city hall and say to the mayor, 'The alderman down the hall thinks you're a buffoon,' and then you've got a story. It's harder to approach these stories from the neighborhood on which it has an effect."
Even the most serious-minded of the nation's 1,626 dailies have been influenced by USA Today and its relentless emphasis on graphics, maps, summaries and news-you-can-use. Peter Prichard, editor of the 8-year-old Gannett paper, said many newspapers have moved toward what he calls "bottom-line journalism -- trying to get to the point quickly. We really put a lot of work into presenting information and massaging it and making it easier to grasp and digest. I'm in the business, and I don't have time to read 100-inch stories."
Dozens of newspapers are reinventing themselves. The Miami Herald publishes 100,000 copies of a Spanish-language edition. The New York Times and others produce a version of their papers by fax. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram offers an electronic version of itself.Covering the Mall Beat
Few have gone as far as the Orange County, Calif., Register, which may be the only paper in America that covers shopping malls as a full-time beat.
"Some of these malls get 50,000 to 60,000 people a day," said reporter Jennifer Lowe. "One mall here gets more people a year than Disneyland. We're trying to reach people in their everyday lives."
The Register has abolished traditional beats in favor of such new assignments as relationships, making money, houses, learning, hobbies and pets, aging and getting around. Teenagers write weekly movie reviews that include the "coolest" and "dumbest" moments in each film.
"Some people on the staff felt perhaps we were going to become too frivolous," Managing Editor Tonnie Katz said. "But I think one of the most scary things about journalism is that we tend to write for ourselves." Now the Register's front page features articles on gift catalogues for pets, cheap flights to San Francisco and ways to cut one's own Christmas trees. The paper also publishes daily reader polls.
"We'll have 700 to 1,500 people a day calling us, faxing us. It blows my mind," Katz said. But she added that the Register has not abandoned investigative reporting, citing stories on inhumane conditions at a local women's prison.
Lowe's mall beat has produced reports about mothers and daughters shopping together, offbeat mall employees, people who hate malls, teenage shopping power and the bathroom situation at Orange County's 12 regional malls. One yarn involved a bathing-suit chain where the young sales clerks all wear swimsuits.
"In a traditional newspaper, who would find that story?" Lowe asked. "Who's ever written about bathrooms? But if you've ever gone shopping, you need to find one."
The Hartford Courant has broken the traditional mold by subdividing itself into seven zoned editions that cover 82 communities across Connecticut.
Each edition contains different photos, letters and editorials, as well as local advertisements sold at discount rates. The zoned sections even publish senior-citizen lunch menus. An expanded sports staff follows the action at 118 high schools.
"It's extremely expensive, but we believe it's our franchise," Managing Editor David Barrett said. "We've become known as the bible for scholastic sports in Connecticut."
The Enfield bureau, for example, is divided into "A" towns, where reporters must file a story every day, and smaller "B" towns from which stories are required three times a week. The idea behind a daily story on Windsor Locks or Stafford is that "people who live in that town can look and see that we're not ignoring them," said bureau chief Bernard Davidow. "If we've got to make a news brief into a story to meet that goal, then we do it."
Here amid the palm trees of south Florida, the newspaper doctors have performed radical surgery on an aging black-and-white patient. The full-color Boca Raton News, which made its debut in October, is packed with helpful reader hints, from an alphabetical index to each day's ads to little boxes that explain how to read stock tables.
Locator maps adorn the national and world news pages, surrounded by two- and three-paragraph wire-service briefs keyed to the appropriate spot. Another map is stripped across the top of the local-news section with three or four crime and traffic shorts. It's called "News Near You."
The inevitable color weather map is accompanied by tides, lunar phases, rainfall statistics, beach humidity, fishing tips, nuggets of tourist advice and a daily data box about creatures from the Portuguese man-of-war to gopher tortoise.Rivals Sneer at Changes
Rivals scoff at the changes. "It's nice to have all the bells and whistles, but there's nothing that substitutes for content," said Eugene Cryer, editor of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, one of the News's two primary local competitors. "They've got a full page of weather and a Critter Watch and all kinds of little gimmicks . . . but they've cut back on their local-news coverage. A paper like that has got to have a local franchise."
The News's local stories often are upbeat. "Today's Hero" is a daily blurb that, according to the paper, is meant to "tell a good story about someone each day." "Success" involves "close-up looks at the careers of area professionals who are striving and succeeding . . . topics of style and manners that help you shine on the job."
Financial news was renamed "Your Money" to attract women to a section that Ezell said seemed dominated by "the world of men in business suits." One result has been a spate of fluffy profiles of women who manage local department stores and resort clubs.
Amplifying the paper's boosterish tone are regular sections produced by the advertising department. These include cover stories with headlines such as "Brown's Furniture and Design Has Never Looked Better" and "Al Hendrickson Toyota Wraps Up a Record-Setting Year."
The mix sometimes includes creative features, such as a moving interview with a woman who gave up her baby for adoption. A spread on society balls included advice on how to wangle invitations to black-tie affairs. The paper sometimes skirts the no-jump rule by running a "teaser" on page one and a longer story inside.
But the operative buzzphrase is "respect for the reader's time," which means short, shorter and extremely short stories. Major news stories are about one-third as long as before the makeover. A typical front page has just three stories, a boxed guide to inside features called "30 Seconds" and a local column about five paragraphs long.
On Dec. 13, the lead story, about President Bush's approval of food aid for the Soviet Union, rated seven paragraphs. The resignation of Education Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos got five paragraphs. The proposed curtailment of minority scholarships at Florida Atlantic University, which triggered a national furor, weighed in at eight paragraphs.
The front page also featured five paragraphs of a 35-paragraph New York Times story on "chronic anger." Rounding out the package was a large color picture of Mizner Park, a newly opened local mall, and a brief column about the "tempting little designer shops" that ended: "Let's wish Mizner Park well."
Ask the editors about their best stories, and they rattle off lifestyle features: how to handle childrens' temper tantrums, working women too busy to sleep. Ezell cited a front-page report that the town's new movie complex was charging $6.50 instead of the prevailing $6. It was four inches long.
Some reporters are uncomfortable with the format. If news breaks out at a night meeting, they say, the rigid layout prevents them from writing a longer story, sometimes forcing them to withhold developments until the following day.
"I get very, very frustrated having to cover a city council hearing in 18 lines," said Anne Marie Reidy, the city hall reporter. "You can't give much context or very many quotes. If I get in one quote from each side, that's really miraculous, even if 40 people are standing up and screaming."
In one case, Reidy said, editors cut from her story key details about zoning changes that would allow parking lots to be built in residential neighborhoods. Thus, she said, "people felt they were safe" until a developer tried to push through such a lot on a block of $175,000 homes. The ensuing uproar became a big story.
"While our expressed view is to make people understand what government means to them, sometimes there's not room," Reidy said. "People say to me, 'Where's the news?' They're looking for the depth and analysis that television doesn't give. We're a little too close to television-writing for my taste right now."Driven by the Market
But Ezell said that most people have limited interest in politics and that a newspaper should not shove it down their throats. "If readers said they wanted more comics and less foreign news, in a market-driven economy, I'm going to give them more comics and less foreign news," he said.
Reporters also say the tighter-and-brighter approach leaves little room for creativity. "You don't go to school and bust your butt to write a five-inch story," said sportwriter Cedric Harmon, who is leaving the paper. "It makes you feel like an idiot. When I want to read sports, I read the other papers."
Philip Meyer, a Knight-Ridder consultant who teaches journalism at the University of North Carolina, said bruised reportorial egos are an inevitable byproduct of this editor-intensive format.
"It changes the whole corporate culture of the newsroom because the reporter is no longer the star, it's the editor," he said. "Your words have to be pushed and pummeled and pounded to fit the format, which is not that much fun for writers."
Boca Raton editors said they never considered spending some of the $2 million budget on strengthening the reporting staff, which by all accounts is stretched thin. The revamped News hired just three new reporters and an equal number of graphics specialists, plus several clerks to compile lists of agate type and features. No reporter is paid more than $25,000.
The result favors packaging over product, with reporters asked to churn out various blurbs and items while still covering their beats. Sports editor Don Kent noted an innovative feature in which the performance of Miami Heat basketball players is rated after each game. But in the next breath, he acknowledged that his small staff can cover only one-third of the team's home games.
Paid circulation jumped from 21,600 in September to 25,000 in November (another 15,000 copies are given away). But editors said they are not sure whether the increase is a temporary blip tied to heavy television advertising.
Reader reaction has been mixed. "There's a lot of advertising and not enough substance," said Mary Jane Burgin, 35, president of a homeowners association. "It doesn't take me very long to read it, and I'm not a very fast reader. . . . If I want to read gossipy stuff, I can read People magazine."
"They've changed some of the emphasis to yuppie issues as opposed to bread-and-butter government issues," said Steven Abrams, 32, a Boca Raton council member. "I'd like to see more coverage of government."
But Abrams's wife, Debbie, 31, said she loves the new format because she is busy with their 17-month-old daughter. "I can find exactly what I'm interested in," she said. "It's a quick read, yet you feel you have some information."
While the News's approach may not be right for all papers, Heldman said, at least it offers a distinctive personality.
"A lot of people say as you travel from city to city, you can't tell where you are by reading the newspapers," Heldman said. "They tend to pull the same stories off the wire and run the same national columns. We need more outrage about bad things and a celebration of good things.
"Maybe we have the New Coke here, but I don't think so."
In an era of Nintendo and Nickelodeon, of computers and CNN Headline News, many people say they simply do not have the time or inclination to read newspapers.
In a series of focus-group interviews conducted for The Washington Post by consultant Nicholas Androulidakis, some participants said they read only headlines. Others said they buy a newspaper for the ads or for listings of weekend entertainment.
Some young men said they obtain all of the information they need from three-minute "newsbreaks" on rock stations while driving to work. Some young women said they read only the sports section, although they do not care about sports, so they can keep up with the male football chatter at the office.
Participants' names and exact ages were not provided because of a confidentiality agreement.
"I can't take a newspaper every day. It's just too much of an information blitz coming at me." -- Male, 18-22
"I read the photos and what's underneath. That's the story." -- Female, 18-22
"When you see a plane crash, you are glued to that screen. With a newspaper, you can just throw it down." -- Male, 18-34
"When you tell me about the Trident X-sub missile, forget it. . . . I don't know who the heck they're aiming at. I don't know people that talk like that." -- Female, 18-22
"The rapes and murders and stuff is what you're going to read. . . . I don't relate to world news." -- Female, 18-22
"It's something to do with my eyes while I'm eating lunch." -- Male, 35-55
"I look at the sports section so I know what the guys are talking about. At work, they're always talking about sports." -- Female, 18-22
"I think headlines can keep you well informed. I don't like to start off the day on a negative note, and I think if you know too many of the details, it's negative." -- Male, 18-34
"I look at the ads. You don't want to miss a sale." -- Female, 35-55
"The newspaper reminds me of reading my chemistry books or biology books. You have to go back three or four times and look up in the glossary what the hell that word meant." -- Female, 18-22
"I hate getting ink on my hands." -- Male, 35-55
"I'll just look at the headlines for something exciting that happened. Something shocking. Like when a plane explodes, it's exciting." -- Male, 14-17
"On TV news . . . you can hear the crowd yelling. In the paper, you can't hear that." -- Male, 18-22