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  • Q&A: Peoria editor on how his newsroom rolled out First in Print

  • The Peoria Journal Star has rolled out First in Print, and in this Q&A, editor John Plevka explains in detail the process and planning that goes into the daily promotion of the GateHouse content differentiation program.

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  • The Peoria Journal Star has rolled out First in Print, and in this Q&A, editor John Plevka explains in detail the process and planning that goes into the daily promotion of the GateHouse content differentiation program.


    To hear an interview with John, see Audio at left, below photos.
    Coming tomorrow: First in Print across GateHouse
    When did you roll out First in Print?
    We launched First in Print on June 28. Brad and David gave everyone through the month of June to roll it out, so, in classic newspaper style, we thoroughly milked the deadline.
    I wrote a column previewing our plan. The column appeared in the Sunday, June 27 newspaper. I also blogged on the topic the same day.
    I wanted full transparency with print and web readers.
    What were some of your top considerations before launching First In Print? What systems had to be in place?
    We actually had a tricky balancing act in Peoria. Three days before we received the GateHouse memo introducing the First in Print concept, we had reached a difficult decision to make several pieces of local content print exclusive. This decision was consistent with the GateHouse Newsroom Handbook and included DUIs, marriage licenses, divorces and real estate transactions. We had been publishing that material on our website pretty much since the site’s inception and it had traditionally drawn great traffic. We agreed that the time had come to require web readers to purchase a print or e-edition of the newspaper to access the information.
    We knew this would not be a popular move, but we believed then – and now – that it was the right move. We also believe that there is great potential to backfill those page views with other innovative web content.
    The timing of the First in Print memo, however, represented a bit of a curve ball. Suddenly we were looking at embargoing editorial content and creating a pay wall for other content. Nonetheless, we opted to delicately move forward and introduce it all in one act.
    In terms of First in Print, I tried to involve the entire newsroom in an awareness campaign through a series of e-mails and discussions on the subject. Buy-in is always key. As we all know, corporate initiatives, regardless of their meritorious intent, usually receive askance glances in most newsrooms. For that reason, I believed that it was important for the staff to understand that this was a strategy to be embraced, not feared.
    Key editors and I determined the mechanics and the general workflow of this program. We conducted a dry run for a week prior to launch to determine daily First in Print stories and to develop the necessary story synopses that would be posted on the website.
    Page 2 of 4 - How does the newsroom decide which stories go First In Print, and which do not?
    We try to identify enterprise stories that are unique to the Journal Star. If there’s a chance that a comparable version of any story is available through any of our local television or radio competitors, it is eliminated from consideration.
    Our enterprise stories candidates do not necessarily need to be Woodward and Bernstein barn-burners, but they may occasionally contain some “red meat” news. On the other hand, they may also contain some sugar in the form of the fun stuff – human interest features, or feel-good brights or even off-beat sports stories. Anything that we believe is unique to the Journal Star on a given day will at least be considered for First in Print.
    Common sense will be our guide. Breaking news, of course, will continue to unfold on our website.
    Tell us about the promotions you run in print and online:
    We run our own First in Print logo with each First in Print story when it appears in the newspaper. For the first month of the program, we will run a box on the front page of the newspaper that contains the same logo and a short explanation that tells readers the following:
    When this logo accompanies a story it means we have published it first in your daily newspaper. The story won’t appear until later on our website pjstar.com.
    We actually took First in Print a half step further and decided to also promote truly print exclusive-content. We created a shallow box (we lovingingly call it the “FiP strip”) that runs every day across the top of A2, our lede wire page. This box denotes our three daily First in Print stories and also showcases a rotation of some of our print-exclusive content. Some of the local content mentioned above (marriage licenses, DUIs, etc.) as well as the syndicated opinion page columnists who happen to be running that particular day, or Roger Ebert’s movie reviews, or Annie’s Mailbox, or our weekly TV tabloid, or the Sunday comics, or the reams or Major League Baseball boxes scores and standings are examples of some of the print-exclusive content to be featured in this box. All of that content is only available in print and in the e-edition and we want the newspaper readers to fully understand that they, indeed, are receiving something appreciably different than the website readers.
    Will this little campaign sell more newspapers? Hard to say. But perhaps it will plant a subtle seed that will ultimately give readers clearer resolve to re-up their subscription when renewal time rolls around. Helping readers visualize tangible differences in the print and the web products is certainly a worthy goal.
    Page 3 of 4 - While we have dedicated much focus to the First in Print program, we also wanted to throw some love to the website. So we have created a new, high-profile position to promote web-exclusive content on a daily basis.
    We launched a new rail on our Page B1 Local front that replaced the “shelf” at the bottom of the page. The old shelf featured daily staples (a calendar breakout, lottery numbers and a teaser to the next day’s newspaper). Those features have been folded into the new rail, but it is topped with blurbs touting unique web content. The web-only content mix will include rotations of fresh blog entries, a poll question, poll results, the most commented stories, stand-alone videos or photo galleries and callouts for UGC.
    Our web team and universal desk work together each night to try to exploit the two or three best items for inclusion in the in B1 rail.
    With regard to the web, we place our FiP package in the carousel and usually leave it ranked highly from overnight into the through mid-morning hours, but allow it to slide down the ladder as the day grows older. The package includes a single piece of artwork taken from one of the stories, the FiP logo, a brief introduction to each FiP story and instructions and links for readers to access the stories via eJournal Star or, of course, the printed JS.
    What has been the reader reaction?
    So far, reader reaction has generally been mixed. Newspaper readers have been supportive and appreciative. In some cases, they have asked why we haven’t done this sooner.
    Meanwhile, there has been negative sniping in the blogosphere and in the Comments sections to my column and to the first couple of First in Print publications on the web. Most of the criticisms were anticipated and most have been in the general spirit fair comment. Some of the comments have poked fun at our story selections.
    Some readers who support the First in Print program believe we should be selecting more consistently hard news stories and not “watering down” our selections with the mix of features and sports stories.
    Surprisingly, we have not taken quite as much flak as I anticipated for the removal of the public record content was the website – although, it’s still early.
    There has been an elevated level of curiosity about our e-edition. We have sold several single-copy editions, but, so far, no long-term subscriptions. We did take some criticism regarding an outdated policy line that was still posted on a Technavia FAQ page regarding registration to our e-edition. That policy language was addressed immediately.
    For expediency, I addressed these concerns directly in Zope Comments to readers.
    I have since addressed other reader questions in a follow-up blog entry on the First in Print program. I have likewise answered numerous e-mail and telephone comments and inquiries on the program. For the most part, even the negative feedback has been reasonably constructive.
    Page 4 of 4 - Any tweaks you have made or plan to make since rolling out the program?
    The whole issue of determining the right mix of stories is still a debated piece of the equation. While mixing news with features might feel safe, the question is, “Is it effective?” As mentioned above, at least one print reader who supports the First in Print concept is disappointed that we have not featured a steadier diet of hard-hitting news in the mix of FiP selections each day.
    We’ve even discussed withholding a local popular columnist from the web. But then the question becomes: Should this be First in Print or print exclusive? If it’s merely FiP, won’t web readers figure that out and simply wait a day or so to find the column on the website? And if so, does that not defeat some of the purpose?
    However, if it’s withheld completely from the web, do we have the content firepower to totally replace those lost page views?
    We will continue to think through the best options. For now, we will likely try to keep the mix of news and features. As I told print and web readers in my column announcing this First in Print program, this whole thing is about finding balance.
    I believe a newspaper and its website can coexist — and even thrive — if the right balance can be reached. We know that one platform merely replicating the other is redundant, but one complimenting the other is strong and viable — particularly if that proper balance is in place. That’s the challenge. That’s the goal.

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