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Brass Tacks Design

Who would have thought that something as benign as a TV book would lead to the end of newspapers as we know them? After all, TV books have nothing to do with journalism. But they have everything to do with the biggest hurdle newsrooms face: resistance to change.

Connect these dots and you'll find my logic undeniable.
  • Every editor agrees that newspapers need to change. After losing 30,000 in circulation last year, The Washington Post's Len Downie admitted as much in a memo to his staff. It's Darwinian – adapt or die.

  • But every editor believes he can't make significant changes without offending loyal readers. Why? Because at least once in his career, this same editor has changed a TV book and felt the full fury of his readers' wrath.

  • So every editor has learned the lesson of the TV book: making change makes trouble. And who wants trouble? Not editors. So this is how they've become the biggest obstacles to change.

  • And yet logic dictates that newspapers can't survive without change.

This may seem like a Gordian Knot, but it's easy to untie. Allow me:

Readers object when we change the stuff they read habitually – the TV book, comics, crossword puzzle, obits, etc. Call this “static content”: the content that appears with regular frequency and is part of the readers' routine.

Why do they object? Because readers are creatures of habit. When you impose change upon their lives, you rock their world. Then they rock yours.

To prove my point, let's take this out of the newspaper context. When you go to the supermarket, you typically follow the same path through the store. It may not be the path everyone else follows, but typically you start in the same department and end in the same department.

Until they remodel your store.

Then you curse your local grocery because you can't find the peanut butter. Sure, they may have added fresh sushi and gourmet cheeses, but where's the peanut butter?

This is the same frustration your readers feel when you change static content.

But reader resistance to changes in static content should not deter us from making changes to “dynamic content” – the stuff that changes every day, a.k.a the news.

Now here's the irony: the very stuff that's safe to change (the news) is the very stuff we need to change in order to survive. Yet the very people who care most about the news (the editors) are most resistant to changing it.

It would be funny if it wasn't so sad. Editors need to appreciate the difference between static content and dynamic content and get on with the business of editing for tomorrow, not yesterday. We must overcome “TV book syndrome”.

That's what Executive Editor Mike Jenner did at The Bakersfield Californian. He radically changed his newspaper and barely lost a reader over it – just 16 stops out of 54,000 subscribers. Jenner conducted focus groups six months after launching his “really, really radical redesign” (as Editor & Publisher described it) and learned that “his longtime readers couldn't imagine going back to the old design – even the ones who were uncomfortable initially.”

Common sense dictates that newspapers must change to survive. Real-world experience proves that readers will tolerate radical change. All that stands in our way are some bad experiences with TV books.

So go ahead and change your paper to bring it into the 21st century. Just keep your mitts off the crossword puzzle.

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