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In recent weeks, Star Tribune staffers have attended mandatory meetings in anticipation of the newspaper's redesign, slated for unveiling on October 12. At these meetings, they've been informed by news presentation director Cory Powell that readers currently think of the state's largest daily as an Oldsmobile. With the overhaul of the paper, however, the Star Tribune will become, according to Powell...a Passat.
The Volkswagen metaphor, not surprisingly, has not been greeted enthusiastically by the paper's reporters. "Sassy, fun to drive, and, well, overpriced?" was the e-mailed response of one scribe. Others signal their opinion of Powell's concept by pointing out that he wears sunglasses around his neck--all day, every day--an affectation not likely to be embraced by veteran newshounds.
Reporters can be a notoriously pessimistic bunch, but the lack of enthusiasm for the pending redesign is understandable. The process--replete with focus groups, consultants, and endless meetings--has dragged on for well over a year. "This is the biggest and the greatest redesign ever, in my 30 years in the business," says veteran metro columnist Doug Grow, with more than a little sarcasm. "This is the most foreplay that we've had. This has taken the longest, and this may be the most complex." Another staff writer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, complains that many staffers feel like their jobs have been "taken over by the design Nazis."
The Strib brass wasn't talking last week about the much-anticipated overhaul. Monica Moses, deputy managing editor for visuals, who is overseeing the effort, declined to answer questions until after the rollout.
But the main elements of the redesign aren't difficult to unearth. The Passat comment is not the only aspect of the redesign to elicit groans from reporters. There's also the color scheme for the new and improved Strib: Swedish blue, northern sun, clay, and bark. (The paper's trademark green will no longer be as prominent in the color mix.) As editor Anders Gyllenhaal noted in Sunday's paper, the process took 18 months and resulted in some 100 "enhancements."
But the more substantive changes are being greeted with cautious optimism. Most notable is that the Variety section will no longer exist. In its place will be "Source," a daily culture and lifestyle section. "Source" will have a different theme for each day of the week. Personal health will be the focus on one day, for instance, while fashion will take over on another. On Sundays it will morph into "Signature," with longer, more ambitious stories.
Another major change is that the Strib will now have a stand-alone world section that will run in the paper twice a week. To this end, Dave Peters, a highly respected veteran of the Pioneer Press and the St. Cloud Times, has been hired to oversee the newly bulked-up section.
The chief goal of the overhaul is to attract younger readers--a demographic that newspapers have found notoriously elusive and have often gone to ridiculous, pandering lengths to reach. Over the last year, the Star Tribune has worked with the Readership Institute, based at Northwestern University, to research how twentysomethings might be persuaded to become regular readers. As part of the project, a panel of 11 Star Tribune staff members scrutinized a single issue of the paper and brainstormed on how to make it more attractive to young folks.
As detailed in several reports posted on the Readership Institute's website (www.readership.org), the issue chosen for analysis was Tuesday, February 22 of this year. The "Experience Newspaper" team, as the panel was dubbed, ultimately opted to replace three of the front-page stories that ran that day, including a piece about a woman who had walked every block of Minneapolis. Among the stories that researchers determined would be more attractive to young readers was a piece examining whether poker should be legalized in Minnesota and a story about identity theft (accompanied by a picture of Paris Hilton). Also added to the front page was a man-on-the-street section in which a "panel of ethnically and age-diverse residents of the Twin Cities" offered their thoughts on this question: "Should America be exporting democracy?" A plug for the Star Tribune website was also tucked into the packaging of almost every story.
Three different versions of the newspaper were then shown to a focus group of 140 potential young-adult readers. Roughly two-thirds of the participants preferred the Experience Newspaper edition of the Star Tribune. The only area in which this version of the paper failed to out-perform its counterparts: "Is more credible and trustworthy."
A similar study aimed at overhauling the inside pages of the paper produced more troubling results for serious news consumers. A story looking at efforts by Minnesotans to help with tsunami relief in Asia was cut in half by the Experience Newspaper team, reducing it to just seven paragraphs. The original story was chopped up into six different components, including a sidebar detailing "how you can help." The headline was changed from "Minnesotans are going the distance" to "Who's helping? People like you."
Another inside story, about new prohibitions on doctors' accepting money and stock options from pharmaceutical companies, was changed to a frequently-asked-questions format. The headline was again altered to directly address readers: "Until today, scientists advising on the safety of drugs you take could accept money from the drug makers."
The transformed inside news page again received an enthusiastic endorsement from focus-group participants. Some 71 percent of respondents preferred it to the original version.
These findings have helped shape the impending overhaul of the Strib. Some of the newspaper's recent personnel moves already reflect greater attention to the youth demographic. There is no longer an agriculture beat reporter, nor will there be a staff member devoted to covering the media full-time. The Strib has recently hired new reporters to tackle the internet, nightlife, and fashion--all areas deemed of high interest to younger readers.
The fact that the Strib is hiring anyone at all is noteworthy. The newspaper industry as a whole is in dire straits, and many companies are cutting editorial staff. Just last month the Philadelphia Inquirer announced plans to purge 15 percent of its news staff, while the New York Times revealed that it would pare its ranks by 500 employees.
The McClatchy Company, which owns the Strib, has largely bucked this trend, producing profits without gutting news budgets. This year the Sacramento-based company recorded second-quarter earnings of $44.2 million, up 10 percent from 2004.
Even so, the impending changes have reporters nervous about the future of the newspaper. "My main concern about it is they seem to be placing all the emphasis on how it looks and the design," says one metro reporter. "I happen to think the best way to lure readers is to do kick-ass journalism."
Doug Grow just wants the seemingly endless redesign process to finally conclude. "One of the things that we're hopeful of, in the newsroom, is getting this done so we can have full attention and focus onto the newspaper we're putting out on a day-to-day basis," he says. "What a thrill that is, to be part of putting out a daily newspaper. And I think for months now a lot of our top editors have been focused on this project and not daily journalism."
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