Griscom: Magical formula elusive

Griscom: Magical formula elusive

May 2nd, 2010 by Tom Griscom in Opinion Columns

Several weeks ago the editor of a midsize metropolitan newspaper in the Southeast called. He was searching for advice and a few ideas.

It is ironic that several years earlier a handful of executives from the Chattanooga newspaper had ventured to his city looking for answers.

The movement to the Internet was in full swing, and a few of us were afraid we were about to be left on the sidelines among the barrels of printer ink. Blogs, podcasts and other online communication devices were springing up, and there were teams being created within newsrooms to be Blog Central. Everyone in the newsroom including the page designers and possibly the custodial workers posted his or her every thought, move or anticipated action on the Internet.

We asked at the time how they knew these approaches were effective, and the answer was somewhat elusive.

As memory serves, part of the motivation was a sense of following others' lead and part was that a friend had commented on the post. But there was little documentation -- and there was no advertising drawn to these musings.

The newsroom we visited had adjusted to reflect the blog strategy.

We never duplicated the approach, because it was difficult to figure out the audience.

Flash ahead and here came the call.

"What are you doing in Chattanooga to grow print readership?" he asked. The question was directed more toward Sunday, which represents over 50 percent of the revenue for the average newspaper.

"Was it more investigative work? More series?" he inquired.

The response came in the form of a question: "Where does the newspaper fall in the order of priority for providing news?"

Many newspapers moved to an approach in which the printed product, which still produces most of the revenue, was last in the editorial food chain. The new world order for newspapers is online with breaking and any other news and then print as the catch-all.

The point was simple.

If that is the approach, then you have taught your readers to expect day-old information in print, and what does appear has been online for 24 hours and on television in the late afternoon and evening.

Second, the newsroom staff, the journalists, are rewarded for writing for online, realizing that those who count page views and unique visitors (whatever value they may have) think that is all that matters. The printed newspaper is an afterthought, and when the journalists see editors and others pushing online first, they follow that lead.

For my friend, online had replaced print in the number slot years earlier.

For those who venture into the pages of the Times Free Press, that trend has been resisted. Sure, we will battle with the best of them to break news online -- being accurate sometimes means we are not first. But there are a number of stories that appear on the printed page long before the electronic version appears.

We believe that sets a tone for our readers to expect and a message for our journalists to follow.

To date the numbers support our approach: We have had print readership increases daily and on Sunday, and we are among the top 10 gainers in the country.

There is no real secret. We are merely trying to better understand the market that we serve every day.

To reach Tom Griscom, call 423-757-6472 or e-mail tgriscom@timesfreepress.com.