Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The new Tampa Trib - a front page and 'charticles'?

UPDATE: This has been slightly edited to clarify a few points.

The Tampa Tribune made some history back in the "early days" of the digital upheaval, when "convergence" was the buzzword and everyone was talking about how to bring together print and TV operations.

It never really quite came off as envisioned -- the cultural gulf between broadcast and print seemed too wide. But that was then, and this is now, and as reported this summer, the economics have revived the continuous central news desk and given it new legs. (Just last week, the paper named the six people who will be its "audience editors," given the task of figuring out what the audience wants and needs and how to get it and deliver it.)

Now, the Tampa Trib apparently is poised to do something else that we are likely to reference in future years as possibly another milestone along the path of the redefinition (if not necessarily the reinvention) of "the newspaper" -- a one-section broadsheet with a few front page articles and almost nothing but briefs after that.

St. Pete Times media critic Eric Deggans says that on Friday his e-mail began to fill with rumors the Trib was looking at "a one-section broadsheet newspaper weekdays, with very few stories "jumping" or continued off the front page."

It's more than rumor. From contacts inside the Newscenter: They've been prototyping a one section paper with a few longer stories on front (even fewer of which jump) and nothing much longer than a few inches inside.

As described by eyes that have seen it: One section for everything, though business and sports have separate covers inside the main section. An all-local front, with only two stories jumping. Inside, are what are described as "charticles" and briefs, with few stand-alones more than a few inches. Reporters will write longer versions for TBO.com.

Saturdays and Sundays will have stand-alone sections, with feature sections only on weekends as the Home and Flavor sections are combined into a Sunday tab. Oh, and the width gets trimmed again, too.

There's also an expectation of more layoffs, though not among the reporter ranks this time. Three photographers were recently laid off, including one of the paper's better sports photographers, and the WFLA and Tribune photo departments are being merged.

Janet Coats, the paper's exec ed, pretty much dodged Deggans' questions, as he tells it, with one of these "everybody's looking at paging" responses and a rather curt "when we come to a final decision, I'll be talking my readers and not yours first." (Ouch. OK, so St. Pete and the Trib are mortal enemies.)

But I didn't spend all those years in the business not to know that when they start hauling out the prototypes for the hoi polloi of the newsroom, it's a lot more than just "we're thinking about it." Coats is right -- the folks at Media General HQ in Virginia have to have their say, but I'm willing to bet it, or something close to it, happens.

So why is it significant beyond what will be bemoaned in more than a few places as more evidence of the crumbling of the American newspaper? I think we are beginning the path down to what was predicted a couple of years ago -- the paper version really becomes a reverse-publish index of the Web.

There are really two dynamics at work here: the absolutely crappy economics of the traditional ink-on-paper business (Crappy as measured by traditional industry and investor metrics, OK? Let's save the debate on whether those are good, bad or indifferent for another day.) and the expansion, after much hype and promise, of mobile as a viable information appliance.

I expect we will see a lot more initiatives similar to what seems to be brewing in Tampa. But we are far from knowing what the final equilibrium will be. Yes, the iPhone has made a solid beachhead in establishing the idea of mobile appliance. But it has far more to go -- I expect a sort of Moore's Law in mobile, that the capacity of mobile devices will double about every two years.

Right now, much of our digital strategy -- and this includes companies far beyond media -- is of necessity tied to a multi-pound chunk of silicon and plastic. It's still basically a 9-5, desktop world online (even if the "desktop" is a laptop). As small, powerful information appliances and readers emerge, that single-hump graph of usage will smooth out or maybe become multi-humped. In any case, it will be another pressure point on the traditional newspaper.

The bottom line is that five years, and definitely a decade, from now we don't know what we'll be using to get our news and information. With usage patterns as they are now, a niche can be argued for the paper as we know it, delivered in the morning and serving as a quick scan that the world hasn't collapsed before the world gets to work and goes online. But as the digital audience flows outward past those current daypart constrictions, then the idea of a paper reverse-published as a sort of top index to the Internet becomes more intriguing.

Hearing that the longer versions will go to TBO.com is interesting, since in some respects that is old school - again, tied to the model of computing and information gathering as a chunk of silicon and plastic with a big monitor. But is the idea of putting longer stuff online counterintuitive if mobile devices become a primary way to access the Internet?

Eventually, I suspect these things will not only upend newspapers but all this stuff we've come to "know" about our Web sites, which might not really be sites at all but various digital streams.

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At 9/2/08, 9:10 PM, Blogger Gail Gedan Spencer said...

Publishing longer on the Web is idiotic. If anyone has ever looked at Web use patterns, it's 9-5 Monday-Friday, meaning people are reading it at work. They want quick hits, usually when they first get in and then around lunchtime.

At 9/3/08, 12:55 PM, Anonymous Wendy Withers said...

I think one thing papers in Florida will have to take into account is that there is a large base of older readers who want to read a traditional paper. My mother reads The Tampa Tribune in its entirety every morning. Before I made the move to reading the Times, I did the same thing. Now I read the Times on the web every day, and I read each article all the way through, often reading the special reports that are five times the length of an average news article.

While briefs will please most skimmers, I think it's important to note that engaging content will keep a reader on the site. One of the most read and commented articles on the Times site has been "The Girl in the Window," a special report on a feral child which probably spread over about three pages in the broadsheet.


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