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Sean Daly, Michelle Stark and Sharon Kennedy Wynne

Amid a deluge of criticism, Tampa Tribune increases to two sections of news content weekdays

9

October

It's not exactly like the end of New Coke.Slimtribunemonday

But officials at the Tampa Tribune say they are revamping the newspaper again, less than a week after combining most of the news content into one section on weekdays. Starting Monday, the weekday newspaper will offer two sections of news and a classified section, after receiving thousands of complaints from readers who once enjoyed sharing separate sections with friends and family.

"It was a noble experiment, but we're going to back up a step," said Tribune executive editor Janet Coats. "People want sports in a separate section . . . they want to be able to hand sections around. Turns out, we had really disrupted the way people communicate with each other in the morning." See her note to readers today here.

On Monday, the paper will offer a front section with local news, national news and obituaries, a second section with sports and business news and a third section with classified ads, comics, puzzles and movie listings.

Other sections, such as the Monday Bucs Bonus section with football coverage, a Friday sports section and neighborhood news sections on Wednesdays will also continue. 

In addition to sharing sections, readers complained about the obituaries' location in the classified section of the original redesign. Other complaints, some featured on the paper's letters to the editor pages this week, criticized the shorter stories and briefs -- an approach Coats said would remain in the tweaked redesign.

Slimtampatribunesunday "Apparently the folks who came up with the idea for New Coke have finally found employment designing newspapers," read one letter printed Wednesday, referring to the mid-'80s revamp of Coca-Cola, which the company abandoned in the wake of mass complaints. Coats estimated the newsroom received close to 3,000 calls criticizing the changes and 300 subscription cancellations.

The changes also highlight a central problem for most newspapers, caught amid the traditional demands of their core audience, the need to cut costs in a worsening economy and the habits of younger consumers. In Staten Island, the Advance newspaper got 1,500 complaints after discontinuing its Sunday TV book, despite the fact that many viewers now get scheduling information from on-screen TV guides or the Internet.

Indeed, as times get tougher for newspapers, it's easy to forget what the audience likes about them in the first place.

Coats had hoped to create a single news section that could allocate space according to news events of the day -- giving more space to sports when the Rays are in the news, but shrinking that space when other news stories emerge. Changing to a tabloid was not possible because of the difference in revenue between tabloid-size ads and traditional newspaper broadsheet, and competing with the St. Petersburg Times, a newspaper that still offered a more traditional structure was also difficult, Coats said. 

"What was different (about these complaints) was the level of passion -- this wasn't something people were going to adapt to," Coats said. "It's going to eat into my savings. But I knew when we did this, it could be something we'd have to modify."

Click below to see excerpts from Coats' memo to the Tribune staff (h/t to Nick Bergus' blog):   

*

* Our core audience loves the Tampa Tribune. It’s not just that they love newspapers; they love this one. St. Pete [Times] is not a true substitute for them – they want this paper. Any sense that the newspaper has become a commodity for those readers isn’t the case – they recognize and appreciate the distinctions between us and our print competition.

* The multiple section habit is deeply engrained. It’s clear that trying to change that habit through a single news section is not something readers are going to accept. As [Trib Managing Editor] Duke [Maas] said, we’ve interrupted the way our most loyal readers communicate with each other in the morning – through handing the paper back and forth and sharing items with each other.

* The Tribune has always been a strong sports paper, and that is a distinction for us. But the changes we’ve been making for the last year have tipped sports out of balance with the rest of the newspaper. While sports remains important, in a world where the economy is imploding and a presidential election is upon us, we’ve overemphasized that part of our content.

* The problems readers had with the changes had to do with sectioning and placement of some types of content. The alternative story presentation, shorter stories, and fewer jumps have not generated a strongly negative response.

So, am I sorry we tried this? Hell no. We live in a time that calls for making some bold moves. This one was a move perhaps ahead of its time; it certainly was ahead of what our readers are ready to accept. We’ve learned from it, the story format is working (we’re actually hearing some positives about that) and we’re going to respond quickly. This is the first test for our audience-focused newsroom; we’re going to listen to what our audience is telling us instead of trying to just outlast the complaints.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:52pm]

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