One of the never-ending delights of the human condition is the flukiness of inspiration, how creativity sometimes springs from unlikely places. And so it is that the newspaper chain with the most interesting and coherent approach to rethinking journalism and news-gathering is not the New York Times Co. (NYT ) or the Washington Post Co. (WPO ).
It's Gannett (GCI ), publisher of USA Today and 89 other mostly midsize American dailies, a company, to put it gently, much better known for profits than Pulitzers. In this case, that probably helps. Rethinking a companywide approach is easier when there's a smaller institutional ego at play. By May 1 Gannett will have rolled out to all its papers initiatives enabling readers to interact with each other and assist its journalists. (These approaches also will be launched at Gannett's TV stations.) To describe these efforts, Michael Maness, vice-president of strategic planning and one of the strategy's architects, is eschewing such clumsy industry terms as "user-generated content," opting instead for the more euphonious "pro-am" (as in, professional-amateur) to underscore the blend of reader contributions and traditional reporting. If this succeeds—and early indicators are good—an unlikely company will lead the industry down an unfamiliar but promising path. "What I like about it is that it's not just about saving money, it's about saving journalism," says a reliably revved-up Jeff Jarvis, proprietor of media blog buzzmachine.com.
SOME OF WHAT Gannett stresses is the kind of Web 101 that local newspapers should have been doing all along. It will ramp up news-breaking efforts on the Web and rethink the product to deliver whatever to whomever on whichever platforms they desire—a phrase so hideously clichéd that most media observers can recite it robotically. Where things get really interesting, and where Gannett leapfrogs others' efforts, is in its pro-am blend. "The pros do the heavy lifting and build the framework and structure," says Maness. "And the audience can come in and fill in" around it. Perhaps the best early example of this fused approach took place at the Fort Myers News-Press. Home buyers were getting whacked with massive bills—as much as $30,000—for simple water- and sewer-line connections. The News-Press kicked off its probe with a short item, in the paper and on its Web site, announcing it was looking into these fees, and, by the way, did anyone have anything to share? After that: the deluge. Certain documents surfaced, suggesting potentially illegal activity involving bids; local engineers scrutinized blueprints posted online. These were posted and feverishly discussed in forums, which in turn generated leads and drove follow-up coverage in print and on the Web. It's "a whole different way of building a story," says Executive Editor Kate Marymont. The "microsite" that hosted that chatter became The News-Press' most-trafficked, a position it maintains today.
All this speaks to a refocusing of ambition at the local paper that might not occur to grizzled news vets. When a bunch of blogs were launched at Gannett's lohud.com, which encompasses its dailies in New York City's Westchester suburbs, the blog on high school sports substantially outpaced those about the Mets and the Yankees. It also speaks to the power of unfiltered data. (A favorite Maness saying: "Raw is good.") A big hit at Gannett's Asbury Park Press' app.com is its DataUniverse. There users can while away the hours dredging all manner of state and local databases: home sales, crime statistics, school district SAT scores, inmate records. If this sounds sleep-inducing, know that DataUniverse has notched over 4 million page views since its December launch.
What Gannett is doing isn't unique—many papers are toying with similar initiatives. What's new is the company's unified approach. And Wall Street analysts like what they see, which is no small feat for a newspaper company today. Merrill Lynch (MER )'s Lauren Rich Fine (no relation) praises the company's moves and thinks they could generate "incremental" revenue and profit. If that's the case, Gannett will have cracked the toughest nut of all: how to keep making a buck from newspaper journalism.
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By Jon Fine